January 4, 2002

Neil Johnson: updated biography

FULL NAME: Neil Clarkson Johnson
BORN: 24 January 1970, Harare
MAJOR TEAMS: Zimbabwe; Eastern Province B (1989/90-1991/92), Natal (1992/93 1997/98), Leicestershire (1997), Matabeleland (1998/99), Western Province 2000/01 to date).
KNOWN AS: Neil Johnson. Nickname: Johnno.
BATTING STYLE: Right Hand Bat
BOWLING STYLE: Right Arm Medium-Fast
OCCUPATION: Professional Cricketer

FIRST-CLASS DEBUT: Eastern Province B v Natal B, at Kemsley Park (Port Elizabeth), 11 December 1989
TEST DEBUT: 7 October 1998, Zimbabwe v India, at Harare Sports Club
ODI DEBUT: 24 October 1998, Zimbabwe v New Zealand, at Dhaka

BIOGRAPHY (updated December 2001)

After a year or two of rumour, Neil Johnson became another of Zimbabwe's returning exiles, following in the footsteps of Murray Goodwin and Adam Huckle. He arrived back in Harare early in September 1998 from Natal, in preparation for representing the country of his birth.

Neil's father was a farmer in the Umvukwes (now Mvurwi) district in the north of Mashonaland, and Neil's first memories of cricket were at Umvukwes Primary School, where he won selection for the school's Colts team (for players under 11) at the age of 6 or 7. He has no memory of any performances of note, though. But, when Zimbabwe won its independence in 1980, Mr Johnson was offered and accepted a job as a farming consultant at Howick in Natal, and Neil emigrated with his family at the age of 10.

He soon made a name for himself as a promising young cricketer as he continued his schooling into Howick High, first representing the Natal Under-12 team for junior school players, and eventually gaining selection for the Natal B Schools team for Under-18 players. From Howick he moved to Kingswood College in Grahamstown, in the eastern Cape, when he opened the bowling with Brett Schultz for Eastern Province Schools and was selected for the full South African schools team in 1988.

He made good progress as an all-rounder, batting in the middle order, although for a time he was considered to be a bowler who could bat. He did score a few centuries at high school, his first being 127 for Howick against Estcourt at the age of 15, but can remember few details of his school cricketing career.

Throughout this time of his life, his father was by far the biggest influence on his cricketing progress. Mr Johnson while in Rhodesia, as it was then, had played Districts cricket for Umvukwes and also represented Mashonaland Country Districts. He was always there to advise Neil and take him to net practice, although he did little actual coaching, preferring to let him develop his own natural game. Neil's technique was fine-tuned as a teenager by Chris Stone, an English professional coaching in South Africa.

Kepler Wessels soon recognized Neil's talent, and it was through him that Neil won a bursary to the University of Port Elizabeth (UPE), where he studied a BA in Industrial Psychology. He played for the University first team and Eastern Province B, and also a few Benson and Hedges limited-over matches for the full provincial side, but without any success.

After four years at university, he was offered an attractive professional cricket contract with Natal, and so decided to return to his adopted home; despite the patronage of Wessels, Eastern Province failed to make a comparable offer, partly because he was also suffering from a troublesome ankle injury at the time. Neil pays tribute to Wessels for much of his success in adult cricket; he found him a hard man who demanded much hard work, but whose attitude helped him to develop the mental toughness required in top cricket.

A useful all-round season for Natal in 1993/94, including a century and five wickets in an innings against Border, won him a place in the South Africa A team to tour Zimbabwe in 1994/95. It was then that Denis Streak of the Zimbabwe Cricket Union first approached him to ask if he might consider returning to the country with a view to playing full international cricket. Neil was interested but felt unable to commit himself immediately, mainly because of his impending marriage. Obviously also, had he been selected for the full South African team he would have stayed down there.

By 1997 he felt ready to return to Zimbabwe, after a few more useful seasons for Natal but without any further international recognition. He applied to have his Zimbabwean passport returned and was allowed temporary residence in the country. He informed Natal of his decision and made arrangements to move to Zimbabwe in September 1998. He kept in contact in particular with Andy Pycroft of the Zimbabwe Cricket Union, who did much to prepare the way for him on the Zimbabwean side. One important aspect of his return was that he was needed as a coach in Matabeleland, although he would have preferred to be based in Harare.

The Zimbabwe government moved slowly, although others have had to wait much longer than Neil did. Neil missed the one-day series against the Indian tourists in October 1998, but finally had his passport and Zimbabwean citizenship restored just 48 hours before the Test match. The Zimbabwean selectors had deliberately kept their options open, and so Neil was included in the team. It was anticipated that he would greatly add to the all-round strength of the side, with his pace bowling and superb close fielding to add to his batting.

In the event Neil failed with the bat on his Test debut, but played a crucial part with the ball and in the field in Zimbabwe's second Test victory. He denies being nervous when he went in to bat, but was twice out cheaply, caught at short leg off Anil Kumble. With the ball he achieved the rare feat of dismissing Sachin Tendulkar twice in the same match. He did not have a specific plan, but concentrated on bowling just short of a length on a pitch with good bounce, and swinging the ball away towards the slips. Frustrated at being tied town, Tendulkar twice played false shots and was caught, once by slip running back off a top-edged pull and once by the keeper. He also took three fine and crucial catches in the slips, dismissing Azharuddin, Dravid and Sidhu.

His one-day debut came at Dhaka, against New Zealand in the Mini World Cup. Batting at number three, he had to go in early on the cheap dismissal of Grant Flower, but scored a brisk 27 off 27 balls before dragging a ball on to his stumps. He had the mortifying experience, though, of bowling the last over of the match and conceding 14 runs to allow New Zealand a thrilling victory off the final ball. He had bowled well enough earlier to be entrusted with the final over, but concedes that he was bowling too good a length and did not attempt enough yorkers.

He went to Sharjah feeling desperate to score runs and prove his worth. After two failures, he came good with 62 against Sri Lanka, but took only two rather expensive wickets in his five matches. His situation changed in Pakistan, though, as he was promoted to open with Grant Flower, as Alistair Campbell, after several failures opening the innings, moved down into the middle order. He was now opening both batting and bowling. He began with 74 in his first match, and then went better with 103 in the second, leading the way for Zimbabwe's first-ever victory over Pakistan in Pakistan. Again his bowling was proving expensive, but with the bat he has never looked back. The pitches for the one-day matches were good, and with mild weather at that time of year he really enjoyed himself.

His finest hour came in the First Test at Peshawar, on a pitch that was so fast and green that it reminded him of Kingsmead in Durban. He admits to feeling almost petrified, going in on a hat-trick to face Waqar Younis, who had just dismissed Murray Goodwin and Andy Flower, and wondering what he was doing on the same field. But his response was to take the attack to the bowlers and he played his shots well, just like a one-day innings he thought. It was no easy task, with Wasim in particular bowling brilliantly, and he was dropped on 99 before running through to the fastest Test century recorded for Zimbabwe. He was not out with 107 overnight, batting with Andrew Whittall. Next morning the field was set back to give him a single to keep him away from the bowling, and he pushed at the fifth ball, only to snick a catch to the keeper. With no other batsman reaching 30, his was virtually a lone stand. Zimbabwe were only 58 behind Pakistan, and his innings made a victory possible when Heath Streak and Henry Olonga destroyed the Pakistani second innings.

There was a three-month gap before Zimbabwe were able to play international cricket again, and this was only a triangular tournament in Bangladesh also involving Kenya. The weaker opposition did not inspire Neil with bat or ball except for the third match, when he hit 101 against Kenya.

Then came the World Cup in England, when Neil was destined to bring his name to the attention of the whole cricket world. He began with a Man of the Match award against Kenya, scoring 59 and taking four wickets, but with the lowly opposition this was largely ignored. He also had little part to play in the thrilling victory over India, and failed against Sri Lanka and England.

It was the historic victory over South Africa that amazed the cricketing world and brought Neil real publicity for the first time. Opening the batting against South Africans he had played with and against for several seasons, he was soon picking the half-volleys and driving classically on the off side, his favourite strokes. He gave Zimbabwe a flying start and, although he slowed down after reaching his fifty, his fine 76 paved the way for a total of 233 for six. Then, opening the bowling, he got his first ball to lift sharply off a pitch freshened by a shower, and had Gary Kirsten caught in the gully. Before long he had Jacques Kallis caught at the wicket and, when he yorked Hansie Cronje, South Africa were in dire trouble at 34 for five. They were never to recover, and Neil was again Man of the Match.

He came to prominence again at Lord's, Zimbabwe's first official appearance there. With Zimbabwe chasing a target of 304, he again began in a blaze of glory, and dominated a superb stand of 114 for the second wicket with Murray Goodwin. He was particularly severe on Shane Warne; with the advantage of batting left-handed, he struck the leg-spinner time and again through the off-side field and had him temporarily removed from the attack after only three overs. Goodwin's dismissal began a collapse, though, and Neil himself lost momentum in the nineties before reaching his century, and never regained it. With the tumble of wickets, though, it seemed that the policy was to abandon the victory charge and just play out time, keeping the deficit as small as possible. Neil batted through to the end, finishing on 132.

In the final match against Pakistan he was unable to bowl, having aggravated a knee injury during his innings against Australia. With the bat, though, he was the only batsman to emerge with any credit, scoring a gallant 54 out of a total of 123 while his colleagues performed dismally. In fact, during the entire World Cup, although Zimbabwe did well enough to come within a whisker of the semi-finals, Neil was the only player to play up to his normal form.

Then came rather a lean season in international cricket. Neil began well with the top score of 75 out of 194 against Australia at home and a one-day century against them in Bulawayo, but a knee injury prevented him from bowling much. At the same time relationships between Neil and the senior members of the Zimbabwe team became strained over matters of policy. He also had disagreements with the ZCU over salary, while they in turn felt that Neil was not fulfilling his coaching duties properly. However, they appointed him to the position of vice-captain under Alistair Campbell in the hope that the responsibility would help him to fit better into the team.

Amongst some low scores Neil made two fifties in Tests against Sri Lanka, but he was suddenly withdrawn from the one-day series in order to have an operation on his troublesome knee; this had been planned for later, but there was also the feeling that he and the team needed a break from each other. He returned for the triangular tournament in South Africa, scoring 97 to play a major part in the victory over England in Cape Town, and did his share of bowling, although he did not strike his best form with the ball.

Tours followed to West Indies and England, which were to prove Neil's last for the country of his birth. In West Indies it was decided to promote Neil to open the innings in Test matches, as he did in one-day internationals, but this was a predictable failure, and he did little of note there. In England he scored a fifty in the Nottingham Test and began the one-day series with a match-winning 95 not out against West Indies, which won him the Man of the Match award. He scored two more fifties, but at the end of the tour announced he was leaving Zimbabwe cricket and taking up a much more lucrative contract with Western Province in South Africa.

During the off-seasons Neil has done much to broaden his cricketing experience, playing in the Lancashire League for two seasons, a further two seasons in the North Yorkshire and South Durham League, a year with the county team Leicestershire as their overseas professional, and most recently a year in Ireland. His first season on the county circuit, in 1997, was statistically the most successful of his career as far as his batting was concerned: in 12 matches he scored 819 runs at an average of 63, with two centuries, including a career highest of 150 against Lancashire, and also took 12 catches. In a way, though, he was rather a disappointment to the county, who had expected to use his bowling extensively, only for an Achilles tendon injury to allow him very few overs with the ball. This rather upset the balance of the team, then the reigning champions, which also had to bear the worst of an English season of very poor weather.

In 2001 he returned to county cricket in England to play for Hampshire, where he had a useful rather than outstanding season; again his nagging injury prevented him from bowling as often or as effectively as he might. He has currently signed a further one-year contract with the county.

The most dangerous bowler Neil has faced in his career, he feels, was Allan Donald -- expect for a stint against Shaun Pollock in the nets! Interestingly the batsman he least likes to bowl against is his former Natal team-mate Dale Benkenstein, another to be born in Harare. Neil, along with many others, cannot understand why Benkenstein has so far failed to gain a place in the South African team.