Cricket: World Cup - A genuine hero out of Africa

Iain Fletcher finds Neil Johnson enjoying the month of his life
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WHEN Zimbabwe return home, their legacy to the 1999 World Cup will be at least one abiding memory, apart from their role as the tournament's surprise package - the emphatic emergence of Neil Johnson.

One of the main reasons why both public and pundits believed they would exit proceedings after the initial group stage was that they lacked a world class player. No one who witnessed Johnson's undefeated century at Lord's on Wednesday against the ominously improving Australians will be in any doubt that they have one now.

Not only was it the first individual century for Zimbabwe at Lord's, it was an innings played under the greatest pressure as they needed to score over 300 to win, or at least get close to reduce the adverse effect on their net run rate. Then on Friday, Johnson proved his courage with a half-century against Pakistan after being hit on the helmet by a Shoaib Akhtar bouncer.

Over the past month Johnson has shown immense natural talent, a willingness to compete, bravery and possibly most important, the ability to assume responsibility and change matches through his own individual efforts. Twelve wickets, one century, three half centuries and three man of the match awards, the figures do not lie.

Witness his match-winning performance against South Africa in the group stage. Defeat would have meant an early flight home but Johnson anchored the innings with a half-century, claimed three vital wickets and fielded brilliantly. The country that spurned him suffered an unexpected loss and Zimbabwe celebrated a place in the next stage.

Consider how many other players in this tournament could have propelled Zimbabwe so far. Steve Waugh perhaps, Wasim Akram, Jacques Kallis or Lance Klusener? Who opens both batting and bowling with such great effect?

Born in Rhodesia 29 years ago, Johnson moved to South Africa just before independence. After college in Port Elizabeth - "I went to study industrial psychology but really to learn cricket under Kepler Wessels" - he moved to Natal in 1992, continued his cricketing education with Clive Rice and met Klusener, now a good friend.

The former team-mates for Natal and South Africa A both possess Rice's uncompromising attitude and are also vying for player of the tournament, as they once did for the all-rounder's spot in the Springboks' side. But their methods are very different. "At the end of the Australian match when we really needed to slog I was telling myself 'be like Lance, be like Lance', but I'm not a good hitter like that," Johnson said. "I tried to stand there baseball-style as Lance does but I'm more technical and have to hit straight. Lance would have just swung the ball out of the ground. I'm so pleased to have batted like that at Lord's because it's a great honour, but we still didn't win the game. I think maybe I could have done a bit more because I missed a few balls that could have gone and if I'd got 160 or 170 we really could have won."

From some these words would sound like false modesty, but from the softly spoken Johnson they are an accurate reflection of his humility. No tantrums or prima donna antics here. "I went back to Zimbabwe because the chance to come and play in the World Cup was too big to miss," he said. "I can't actually believe I'm doing it. My parents and sister have come over to watch and everywhere I go I"m taking photos and trying to take it all in. After the game against Aussie Mark Waugh shook my hand and said 'well batted'. You know, Mark Waugh, that's fantastic."

And the efforts of the underdogs are appreciated at home where struggle is an accepted part of everyday life. "The feedback we've had from home has been brilliant. I think in the next generation the whole team could be black and that would be fantastic. There is real interest and joy, but Zimbabweans are like that. We are competitive but appreciative as well. It's what we do. Look at Henry Olonga, every day is a new experience to be enjoyed."

Two years ago Jack Birkenshaw brought the then unknown Johnson over as Leicestershire's overseas player. A shrewd judge is England's new "observer", as is the former Australian captain Ian Chappell. "He's a good cricketer, a bloody good cricketer," said Chappell during Friday's match. "He'd definitely get in the Australian side ahead of Tom Moody and I think the only side he might not get in is the South Africans because they've got Klusener."

Klusener again, but Johnson is not jealous, just pleased to be here.