Cricket: Johnson answers call

Leicestershire v Lancashire
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The Independent Online
As unenviable tasks go, following a cricketer as exuberantly talented as Phil Simmons as a county's overseas player must merit one of the higher placings. Yet Neil Johnson, the South African who is Leicestershire's stop-gap replacement for the West Indian all-rounder, is making a fair fist of doing so.

When Johnson arrived at Grace Road in April, the revelation that Leicestershire had paid a fee for his services to the Northern League club Netherfield, where he had already signed a contract for 1997, prompted raised eyebrows. Leicestershire had been turned down by another South African, Lance Klusener, and there were suspicions that they had signed Johnson rather in desperation. An overseas player for the sake of one, it was muttered.

Jack Birkenshaw, the Leicestershire manager, who knows the South African scene well, insisted this was not the case. He must have felt a certain vindication yesterday as he watched Johnson benefit from an early escape and then build a measured century of immense value to his side.

The 27-year-old from Natal should have been out for 20, when he drove Gary Yates high into the air but was dropped by Lancashire's other spinner, Gary Keedy, at deep mid-off. The let-off occurred at a time when Leicestershire seemed intent on duplicating the manner in which Lancashire had set about their business on Thursday, rattling along at more than five runs an over and dealing almost exclusively in boundaries. The sunshine, a placid pitch and a short boundary to one side of the ground served up a heady cocktail.

Leicestershire lost Darren Maddy to a catch at cover but rushed to 57 in 10 overs before Ben Smith was lbw to Ian Austin. Vince Wells completed a half-century in 65 balls with a flurry of hits, taking 14 in an over off Peter Martin. He set a fashion for the day by passing the milestone with a six, having made 46 of his runs to that point in boundaries. However, having survived chances at 60 and 72, Wells paid for his boldness just five runs short of a century. Michael Atherton brought on Jason Gallian, whose gentle medium pace altered the tempo, and Wells nibbled at his second ball, wide of off-stump, to be caught at slip.

The mood changed when Martin discovered some swing in mid-afternoon, putting Aftab Habib in all kinds of trouble before eventually bowling him. At 215 for 5, Lancashire's total suddenly seemed large. But, joined by Paul Nixon, Johnson treated Lancashire's bowling with greater respect, although he continued to drive with great authority. Even though the South African completed his hundred with his third six, the second 50 had taken 98 balls.

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