Neil Johnson and the 1999 World Cup
Multifaceted cricketers like Neil Johnson were instrumental in Zimbabwe advancing into the super sixes of the 1999 World Cup. He was arguably at the peak of his relatively short career which spanned over two years before he retired because of payment disputes - similar incidents and political factors have pushed Zimbabwe Cricket down and it seems to be at its nadir now.
Neil Johnson opened the batting for Zimbabwe in the World Cup and his aggressive style of batting often forced the bowlers to alter their plans. He also opened the bowling - the fact that the particular team had the dangerous Eddo Brandes, Heath Streak and the lively Henry Olonga establishes Johnson’s credentials as a bowler.
He took 4 wickets against Kenya in Zimbabwe's opening match and scored a brisk half-century chasing 230 - this earned him his first of the three Man-of-the-Match awards of the World Cup. With a narrow victory over India, Zimbabwe looked confident but their inability to put on defendable totals resulted in defeats against Sri Lanka and England.
The final match of the Group Stage was against the South Africans and the stage was set for Johnson - Zimbabwe wanted an encore of Johnson’s performance against Kenya. He rose to the occasion brilliantly scoring a 117 ball 76.
With contributions from Murray Goodwin and Andy Flower, Zimbabwe reached 233-6 in 50 overs. The total did not seem enough then as South Africa had a power-packed batting line up.
Johnson proved his worth as an allrounder again by starting with a wicket off the first ball - Gary Kirsten caught at gully by a diving Andy Whittall. With support from the disciplined Heath Streak from the other end, South Africa lost two more wickets and were reeling at 25-3.
Jacques Kallis who would in course of time be regarded as the greatest all-rounder nicked one behind off Johnson and was out for a duck. Captain Hansie Cronje was yorked and with other bowlers chipping in, South Africans were well and truly short - half-centuries from Shaun Pollock and Lance Klusener notwithstanding.
A dismal performance with the bat against New-Zealand and a bad bowling performance against Australia dashed Zimbabwe’s hopes. Chasing 304 against Australia, Johnson had Zimbabwe in sight of victory as his partnership with Murray Goodwin blossomed.
However, with regular loss of wickets, Zimbabwe could muster only 259 but Johnson’s valiant century - 132 not out of 144 balls meant that his third Man of the Match was on its way. His half-century against Pakistan went in vain as Zimbabwe could score only 123 chasing 272 and they were on their way back home.
Johnson soon retired from cricket because of problems off the field. With many of his contemporaries like Lance Klusener, Wasim Akram and Shaun Pollock being good all-rounders, he perhaps does not get the recognition he deserves. Nevertheless, he was a sensation - very few had consistently opened the batting and bowling as effectively as he did.
Neil Johnson’s heroics in the World Cup were overshadowed by Lance Klusener, but Johnson is still looked upon in amazement and remains one of the greatest all-rounders of Zimbabwe. It was totally unfortunate that avoidable events brought down the curtains on what was supposed to be a successful if not great career.