Neil Johnson on the Bulawayo Test
Neil Johnson chats to John Ward about his personal form and the First Test match against Sri Lanka in Bulawayo, on the day before the Second Test.
JW: Neil, at present you have a niggling injury that is preventing you from bowling. What is the story about that?
NJ: I have a bad groin at the moment, which has been hampering me for about a year. It comes right, but then it goes again, and it has come to the stage now where I just have to have a total break. It's a bit of tendonitis at the top of the groin which just won't go away, so I have to give it a good break, and hopefully I can start bowling again in January.
JW: Between your 75 in the Test against Australia and your fifty against Sri Lanka you haven't made too many runs. Can you pin down any reasons for that?
NJ: Since that 75 against Australia we've been put in to bat on a few green tops and I've had two disappointing decisions. I've nicked a few and it hasn't been easy batting. I threw it away for 17 in the first innings against Sri Lanka but got a fifty in the second innings, which wasn't too bad. I think all we need is a good track and some good practice facilities, and we'll be back in there.
JW: Have you had a look at the pitch out there for tomorrow's Test?
NJ: I haven't had chance yet, but I presume it will have a lot of grass on and be a bit damp.
JW: Thinking back to the Bulawayo Test, what were your personal feelings going into that match?
NJ: Down in Bulawayo the facilities are very good, so was the pitch, and we all seemed to get things a bit more right. It showed in the second innings when we showed a bit of guts. Andy [Flower] and I started hitting the ball quite nicely and Grant Flower got into a bit of form, and Murray [Goodwin] batted nicely in the first innings, so I think we just started putting it together again now we've had some good practices. We haven't done very well in Harare where our practice hasn't been so good.
JW: What has been the problem at Harare?
NJ: There has been too much grass in the nets, too much rain or too much watering; the nets have been terrible and we just haven't been able to practise properly. It's shown in our performances lately. But now we're going in against Sri Lanka who don't have such a strong seam attack as the boys we've been facing: McGrath, Fleming, Pollock, Donald, Kallis and the like. Those guys are awesome, and we didn't handle them very well. They used the pitch and the conditions to their best, and we didn't have our best side anyway.
JW: What was the team's approach generally to the Bulawayo match?
NJ: Just that we had to start expressing ourselves and getting some runs, hitting the ball cleanly and make sure we play down the line. We did that a bit, but we threw it away in our first innings by getting only 280-odd when we should have got 400. One of us, myself or Murray or Andy should have got us a hundred and we would have been up there. One of us should have chipped in a bit more.
Our bowling was good; Atapattu got 200, but he was the only one to reach fifty. We might have got him early - and we thought we did have him lbw when he was around 50; we thought he nicked one or two as well, so there were a few decisions that didn't go our way, and we got hurt a bit. He got a good 200, otherwise I thought we did quite well.
JW: Having seen the Sri Lankans play, what's your general assessment of their team?
NJ: They're very good; they've got some lovely batsmen, but I think when the ball bounces a bit or does a bit off the track they're not quite used to it yet, and perhaps that's how we can get them. A bouncy wicket here would help us, and when we bat I think our batsmen are good enough to keep them out.
JW: Can you talk us now through the Zimbabwe first innings in Bulawayo?
NJ: We didn't do as well as we should have. A lot of us made a start: Grant got a start; I think Gavin was perhaps unlucky with his lbw decision; I got a start; Murray made a good 60 but threw it away; Andy got a good 90 but ran out of partners. I think we may have had a few disappointing decisions but our total of 280 just wasn't enough. We should have easily got a 400.
Vaas is a lovely bowler and so's Wickramasinghe; this young guy Gallage hits the seam nicely, but it's their spinners that are strongest; Muralitharan is superb. He can turn it on anything and he's a dangerous customer.
JW: And when the Sri Lankans went in to bat?
NJ: I think we bowled well; if a few decisions had gone our way we would have been right in there. The rub of the green wasn't on our side. We got them with a few edges and they walk across the stumps quite a bit, so if the ball moves around we have a chance of getting a few lb's.
Atapattu's was a superb innings. He didn't take any risks; he batted brilliantly and I don't think he ever sweated in his 200-odd. He batted so easily and was a pleasure to watch, even though we wanted him out! He punished the bad ball and just kept the good ball out, ran the ball around for singles.
JW: Did any of the other batsmen give much cause for concern?
NJ: Jayawardene looks a lovely player, and obviously the skipper is very good. That young guy Arnold looks a very good player even though he didn't get many runs. De Saram hung around nicely; he's still a young guy and this was his Test debut, so I'm sure we'll see some good shots from him in the future. They're a very classy outfit.
JW: In the second innings things looked to be coming a bit better for us.
NJ: Yes; Grant batted very nicely and he got a good one from Murali that got him out, bat-pad. Gavin Rennie got a good one from Vaas that nipped away from him and he got a nick, and Murray tried to hook again without quite getting himself in before he did it. But then Andy and I were putting together a nice partnership and things were going well.
JW: You had a good battle with Muralitharan.
NJ: I had a long spell of about 30 balls or so without getting a run, but then I started hitting him more. I've faced him a bit over the last couple of years, so I've had chance to get used to him. I played and missed quite a bit, but then I think I started to get on top of him.
JW: What methods did you use to play him?
NJ: If I couldn't hit it I just tried to kick it! He was turning it so much the umpire wouldn't think of giving an lbw. I just waited for a half-volley or a long hop.
JW: Had you much idea of what he was doing with each ball?
NJ: Not at all; I hadn't a clue! I just knew he was an off-spinner with a top-spinner as well, and I don't really read it very well.
JW: Then you suddenly clouted him for three fours in an over. Was this a sudden deliberate change of policy?
NJ: No, I think he changed it quite a bit. He pitched one right up and I managed to get it on the half-volley through the covers for four, then he tried to bowl a quicker one which ended up as a long hop and I pulled that for four, and then he bowled a full toss. He changed his line and length, not me!
JW: Did he settle back again after that?
NJ: Not really; he seemed to be pitching it up a lot more to me, hoping to catch me on the drive. He put some men in the catching positions, hoping I'd drive into them. But I didn't seem to find them, so I was quite lucky then!
JW: So you must have been hoping for a century before rain washed out the final day.
NJ: I was needing a century; yes, I desperately wanted a century. It was a beautiful pitch, a beautiful ground and it was a good time to get a century. I'd be very happy to get one here!