Cricket: Johnson's quiet revolution

Iain Fletcher hears how fortunes have been revived at Trent Bridge
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The Independent Online
"Another interview" exclaimed the Nottinghamshire captain, Paul Johnson, last week. "Last year we were runners-up in the Sunday League and hardly anyone spoke to me. This year we win three out of six Championship games and it becomes interview season." This may reflect the difference in the respective competitions but is also because Nottinghamshire, 17th in the Championship last season with a solitary victory, have turned around their performances without a revolution.

"We were dreadful last year," Johnson said, "particularly bowling and catching, but Eddie Hemmings has returned as a coach and the bowlers answer to him now. To be fair they struggled because the wickets were so flat, edges rarely carried and they had to break their backs to try and take wickets. Coupled with poor catching - we dropped them everywhere - the bowlers just became demoralised."

A new groundsman has meant livelier pitches but it is not just this and a coach that have revived fortunes. Last year's tussle with Surrey for the Sunday title has reaped dividends in four-day cricket with the players accustomed to close finishes. "We are good at session cricket as our performances in the shorter version have proved and the players have learned how to cope with pressure," Johnson said. "Our problem has been having one dreadful session that has knocked us out of the game. We are working really hard to eradicate that and when things go wrong to try to fight through."

In this respect Nottinghamshire are lucky to have a clutch of talented and competitive youngsters. Usman Afzaal has excelled, displaying a maturity of temperament that belies his 20 years and Mark Bowen has taken 32 wickets. The new generation have also brought an added benefit to the side. "The attitude that the younger players have shown when they've come into the side has shown up the senior players," said Johnson. "It's easy to drift but the senior players are really having to work now to stop being upstaged."

The boost in morale was desperately needed. Johnson knows all too well the importance of team spirit, although he suggests that previous rifts in the dressing-room, which saw the departures of the likes of Chris Lewis and Chris Broad, have not been as bad as reported.

True character is shown by reaction to adversity and Johnson was delighted with the way his team started the season so well without an an overseas player. Although Nathan Astle is now resident, the club saw their first two choices, Chris Cairns and Mohammed Zahid, ruled out through injury, Zahid arriving and leaving within a month without playing a game.

"Our pre-season tour to Johannesburg has been so important," said Johnson. "We played quality cricket and worked on team building. When we came back we wanted the season to start straight away, we were so confident and playing so well. We talked a lot about supporting each other in every situation and the players' response to our early season problems just proves how well they have responded."

This is Johnson's second year as captain and the difference in the side from last year will come as no surprise to those who have followed his career. An aggressive, battling batsman, Johnson is a matchwinner capable of destroying any bowling attack. There are still areas of concern ("the top order have relied on the middle order too much"), but watchers of Nottinghamshire can rest assured that Johnson intends tackling any problems in his usual no-nonsense manner.