Obituary: Ian Johnson

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The Independent Culture
IAN JOHNSON is best remembered in England as the Australian captain who led the 1956 touring team that won only nine of 31 first-class matches, lost a five-Test series to England 2-1, in one of which Australia were dismissed for 84 and 205 at Old Trafford, Jim Laker taking 19-90, and in which no Australian batsman scored a century.

Johnson, like Laker, was an off-spinner, of high flight and sharp spin, a rare breed in his own country but highly effective on his own firm pitches, if less penetrative than Laker on the wet or drying turf of England.

The son of a Melbourne grocer and wine merchant, he made his debut in grade cricket at 16 and a year later played his first match for Victoria, against Tasmania. He was an early friend of Don Bradman but had to delay his cricket when joining the Royal Australian Air Force, flying Beaufighters in the South Pacific. He was thus 27 before he made his Test debut, against New Zealand, but was chosen 12 times in Bradman's last 15 as captain and was, next to Bill Johnston, Bradman's most-used bowler on the all-conquering tour of England in 1948, taking 85 wickets in 22 matches, and claiming the prize scalp of Len Hutton four times. He was so lethal against the tail - "the rabbits" - that he won the nickname "Myxomatosis".

Johnson's talent for public relations, and his qualification as captain of Victoria, put him in line for Australia's captaincy once the post-war dynasty of Bradman-Lindsay Hassett had ended. He was the first state captain to invite reporters into the Victoria dressing room and it may have been that factor, and Bradman's influence, that led to his appointment before that of the public idol and more famous Keith Miller.

He was then almost 36 and playing his 29th Test, after taking 30 Sheffield Shield wickets in 1953-54. He lost a home series to an England team that included Frank "Typhoon" Tyson. Nevertheless his appointment was confirmed for a tour of West Indies, with Miller as vice- captain, at a time when diplomacy was vital (bottles had been thrown at England in 1954).

Johnson was the right man. He won Jamaican hearts at Sabina Park when, as the team were leaving the field, brushing aside barefoot boys, he picked up one toddler and carried him, chuckling, to the pavilion. His relationship with Miller could be strained. At Bridgetown Johnson wanted to recall his strike bowler, the great Ray Lindwall, who was reluctant to take another stint. Miller said: "If he doesn't want to bowl he shouldn't bowl." Johnson retorted: "I'm captain. I'll say who bowls." Words flew across the dressing room and when Johnson invited the younger, bigger, stronger Miller to settle it outside, players moved between them. After play the pair left the ground in the same car.

The tour turned into a huge success: 21 Test centuries were scored against fast and thrilling fast bowling and Johnson's men were such good Tourists that Ray Robinson, reporting the tour, commented, "The only bottles thrown were empties into bins."

Miller, too, won some revenge when he introduced Johnson at a dinner in Antigua as "a cattleman. He exports beef. You could say he was Australia's leading bullshipper."

When Johnson led his team to England in 1956 he genuinely believed Australia's batting was the best since 1948 but the supremacy of England's spinners, and helpful surfaces, brought a defeat by Surrey and a touring record that still scars Australian memory. Johnson was criticised for his tactics, for his attempt to turn the hostile fast left-hander Alan Davidson into a spinner, and for his own form, but his courage and determination was never doubted.

He won seven of his 17 Tests as captain and lost five, taking 109 wickets, at an average of 29, and scoring 1,000 runs as a dependable middle- to late-order batsman, in his 45 Tests. He also made 30 catches, some brilliant, mostly at slip. When he retired he was chosen, from 45 applicants, to be secretary of the Melbourne Cricket Club and during his 25-year term of office he saw the ground capacity of the MCG swell from 105,000 to 125,000.

At the age of 47 he was still fit enough to qualify for a bronze medallion at surfing. Denis Rogers, the Australian Cricket Board chairman said of him yesterday: "He was a wonderful ambassador for our country. The sides he led to West Indies, Pakistan and India were the first official tours to each of those regions and he built the foundations for the relationships that exist today between Australia and our fellow Test nations."

Derek Hodgson

Ian William Johnson, cricketer: born Melbourne, Australia 8 December 1918; married Lal Park (two sons); died Melbourne 9 October 1998.