At a time where the Flower brothers flowered for Zimbabwean cricket albeit cracks in the team’s form and usual struggles, there emerged Neil Johnson like a breath of fresh air. And in an all too brief a career which seemed would, at least, touch the heights of premier all rounders like Chris Cairns or Carl Hooper, the left hander faded away. But it wasn’t before springing to great form in the mother of all sporting battles- the 1999 Cricket World Cup, where his heroics brought much joy to a country where the only positive word spoken these days is memories.
Memories of once being Africa’s bread-basket, memories of the Zimbabwean Dollar being at par with the USD, memories of a beautiful haven that it was in the 1970s.
Yes, that’s right, the only beautiful thing in the Zimbabwe of today, marred by social injustice, an economy that’s all but shattered and a Government that’s hell bent on creating an authoritarian rule are memories of the past.
In the mould of reminiscing cherished memories, one such memory which would bring a smile to every Zimbabwean and may be cricket lovers around the world was the inspiring performance of Neil Clarkson Johnson, an all-rounder at the heart of possibly the best Zimbabwean ODI side that single-handedly decimated the Proteas to take The Chevrons to the Super 6 stage in the 1999 Cricket World Cup.
The date was twenty-two years to this day, 29 May, 1999 and the Southern African neighbours locked horns in the beautiful setting of Chelmsford.
Alistair Campbell, Zimbabwe’s captain won the toss and decided to bat on a typical English wicket conducive to bat and ball.
Neil Johnson opened the batting for the Chevrons pitted against a Proteas bowling attack boasting the likes of Shaun Pollock, Steve Elworthy, Jacques Kallis, Lance Klusener and The White Lightning, Allan Donald.
Formidable to say the least.
Not to be overwhelmed by a bowling line-up filled with such fine talent, Neil fought his way to build a crafty knock of 78 vehemently latching onto every loose offering to take his team to not a massive but a fighting total of 233.
In his pursuits, he was ably supported by compatriots, Murray Goodwin and Andy Flower who went onto score 34 and 29 respectively.
South Africa would have fancied their chances to chase this modest total down with Gary Kirsten, Herschelle Gibbs, Hansie Cronje, Daryll Cullinan, Jonty Rhodes and Jacques Kallis making a batting line up look as daunting as they come.
Well, little did they know they would be Johnsinated. Again.
Yes, Neil Johnson took his batting confidence into his bowling too, taking three precious scalps of Gary Kirsten, Jacques Kallis and captain Hansie Cronje as the Proteas were dwindled out for a meagre 185.
Having been adjudged player of the match, The Zimbabwean champion propelled his team to the next round, the Super 6 stage and this was the first time in the history of contesting World Cups, The Chevrons had done better than a group stage exit.
Johnson would soar further in this World Cup, smashing a whopping 132 against Australia, his highest ODI score and taking two wickets albeit in a losing cause.
Unfortunately, the cricketing universe could only enjoy this southpaw’s all-round exploits for a skimpy two years as Neil prematurely retired from the international game owing to payment disputes with the Zimbabwean Cricket Board in 2000.
In these two years, the Harare-born amassed a little over 2,000 runs and 50 wickets in his international career with 5 tons.
Imagine, the feats he would have achieved had he played more?
A true champion in the golden era of Zimbabwean cricket which now is just a memory amid an ocean of plenty more.
But to this day, what hurts and puzzles in equal measure is the lack of knowing of the circumstances in which a fantastic talent, full of courage and will was allowed to wither away.