Zimbabwean cricket has hit a low in recent times, but they had made a steady rise on the international scene right since their sensational debut in the 1983 World Cup. In that tournament, they had upset Australia, and caused a stunning Indian top-order collapse.
They remained a force to reckon with after that, and produced some dazzling performances.
There was something uncanny about the 1999 World Cup. Many who dazzled either batted right-handed and bowled left-handed, or vice versa. Think of man-of-the tournament Lance Klusener, joint highest wicket-taker Geoff Allott, man with the highest score Sourav Ganguly, and Zimbabwe’s giant killer Neil Johnson.
Three man-of-the-match awards in one World Cup is no mean achievement. This left-handed opening batsman and right-arm fast-medium bowler nearly carried Zimbabwe into the semi-finals for the first time.
But it was in the upset 48-run win over South Africa that Johnson was at his best. It was this victory that carried Zimbabwe into the super-six stage.
South Africa, one of the favourites, had won their first four matches. Johnson gave them their first jolt.
A lovely off-drive for four off Shaun Pollock was an ominous sign that Johnson was in irresistible form. He played all round the wicket, though the drive was his forte throughout. He overshadowed Grant Flower in an opening partnership of 65, then added another 66 with Murray Goodwin. With his 10th boundary, Johnson brought up his half-century off just 57 balls.
The South Africans tightened things up thereafter, and Allan Donald had him caught by Pollock for 76. He had faced 117 deliveries and hit 10 fours.
That was just the intermission though. As South Africa chased 234 for a win, Johnson struck straightaway. Off the very first ball of the innings he had Gary Kirsten caught at gully by Andy Whittall.
South Africa went into a slump. Johnson struck another big blow when he had an in-form Jacques Kallis caught behind by Andy Flower for a duck. It was 25 for four after 8.2 overs.
Sensing that Johnson was an inspired man on this day, skipper Alistair Campbell kept him on in an eight-over spell. He caused further mayhem, yorking South African captain Hansie Cronje for four. The scoreboard read 34 for five in 10.1 overs.
Heath Streak trapped Jonty Rhodes leg-before in the next over, and South Africa had collapsed to 40 for six. Pollock and Lance Klusener did fight back with half-centuries in contrasting styles, but the task was too great.
Johnson had pushed them to a point of no return. He finished with three for 27 off 8 overs, capping off one of the great all-round performances of the World Cup.
A belligerent, theatrical character on the field, Johnson lifted Zimbabwe in this World Cup. He made the team believe in itself as it reached the second stage of the tournament for the first time in five attempts.
That he chose to leave the team later was a big blow to a Zimbabwean side on the ascent. Being a person who took pride in his performances, perhaps Johnson wanted to play for a team that won more often.
At Chelmsford that day, his side humiliated Goliath South Africa, and that too on the big stage before the brightest arc lights. That must have given him immense satisfaction; it was perhaps Johnson’s biggest day on a cricket field.
Zimbabwe: 233 for 6 wickets (50 overs), South Africa 185 all out (47.2 overs) (CWC 1999)Published 11 May 2019, 23:51 IST