Johnson lifts outsiders to new heights (6 June 1999)

6 June 1999

Johnson lifts outsiders to new heights

The Electronic Telegraph

Steve James on the all-rounder who has helped put Zimbabwe within sight of the semi-finals

Zimbabwe's remarkable progress to the Super Sixes cannot be considered anything other than a team effort, but if you had to name one individual as the cornerstone, you would surely come up with the name of Neil Johnson. It was the former Natal all-rounder who last weekend produced a match-winning performance against South Africa to topple the very team he had until recently aspired to represent.

It is all a far cry from 1997, when Johnson arrived at Leicestershire as a relatively unknown overseas player. His meteoric rise has seen him been included in many people's form XI from the tournament. I selected him in my team when asked by BBC Wales, as well as his team-mate, Andy Flower - any man who hits Allan Donald back over his head for six gets my vote.

Johnson is now hot property after a string of showings which have anchored a Zimbabwe team who had a slow start in this country, losing warm-up games to Derbyshire and Warwickshire before exploding into a superb all-round effort at Chelmsford.

Johnson is remembered fondly at Grace Road as a relaxed team man and a fine cricketer, and his former colleagues have watched admiringly his forthright batting and deceptively lively swing bowling.

Duncan Fletcher, who coached the 29-year-old while looking after the South Africa A side and captained Zimbabwe in the 1983 World Cup, is in no doubt that he is a wonderful acquisition. "Zimbabwe have always had a problem with their fifth bowler and he has obviously solved that as well as being a left-hander batting well up front. He can hit the ball over the top and is also a magnificent catcher."

Johnson, in fact, toured Zimbabwe in 1994-95 with the South Africa A team but finally tired of waiting for the call to join Hansie Cronje's men and so decided to throw his lot in with the country of his birth last year. He made his mark with a 103-ball century in his second Test as Zimbabwe beat Pakistan in Karachi.

Alastair Campbell, his captain, joins the chorus of approval: "He is such a positive guy. His physical strength means he can just lean on the ball through the off-side and I know that he has got out a few times playing it, but he pulls the short ball well too. He is confident, as you have to be at this level."

Zimbabwe's bowlers have at times in this tournament been unusually profligate and Campbell puts this down to his side being too tense, something he tried to alleviate by telling his team to "go out and enjoy it" against South Africa.

Enjoy it they most certainly did, even if the surprise result depressed the whole of Britain, sending the host nation crashing out. "I read somewhere before the tournament that we were England's banana skin side. So what a quirk of fate it was that they hammered us, yet we beat South Africa and went through," said Campbell. He is mildly amused that there is much criticism of the format of the competition now that the Zimbabweans have come out of the preliminary stages with four points, making them tantalisingly close to a semi-final place. One win would ensure that, but they may even be able to get through without a victory in the Super Sixes.

Campbell says the success of his team has sent his nation delirious. From now on all the matches will be screened live on television. Meanwhile, many are making the journey over to swell the good number of fans already here. Campbell's parents have delayed their departure and although his wife has returned home, a businessman has said he will pay for her to come back over to see her husband's bid for glory.

President Robert Mugabe was moved to write a personal fax last weekend and Ali Bacher, too, sent his congratulations - and all this after the team thought their tournament was over when England humbled them.

New Zealand beckon today and surely this represents Zimbabwe's best chance of further progress. From the outside it looks like a high-pressure game but maybe it is just another opportunity for Johnson and co to have some fun.

Source :: The Electronic Telegraph