- Born 24 December 1970 Salisbury (Harare) Rhodesia (Zimbabwe)
- Educated Howick High School, Natal; Port Elizabeth University
- Occupation Professional Cricketer
- Debut 1 May 1998 v Glamorgan at Castle Avenue
- Cap Number 612
- Style Left hand bat, right arm fast medium, occasional wicket keeper
- Teams Eastern Province, Natal, MCC Accrington, Rochdale, Leicestershire, Hampshire, Matabeland, Western Province, Western Province Boland, Zimbabwe, South Africa Masters.
Neil Johnson, the South African raised Zimbabwe Test cricketer, who was Ireland's overseas player for the Benson and Hedges cup of 1998, was a very good left hand upper order batsman, and, while not quite in the all rounder class, a more than useful bowler of somewhere above medium pace, often opening the attack in one day matches. His record for Ireland, which is described in more detail below, must be judged to have been somewhat disappointing for a player of his class, but, overall he was a successful and highly effective cricketer.
His first class career, mostly but by no means entirely, played in South Africa, brought him 7569 runs at 34.50 with 11 centuries and fifty three 50s. His career best 150 was made against Lancashire, when he was Leicestershire's overseas player in 1997. That summer he scored 819 first class runs for the county at 63.00, but was judged to have been rather disappointing. He had been signed to replace the unavailable Phil Simmons, the future Irish coach having, in Wisden's words, "sailed past", the 1000 mark the previous summer. Furthermore Phil had bowled to some effect, whereas Neil, handicapped by an Achilles problem, took only 6 wickets all season.
Nevertheless against the Red Rose County, he came into his own. Facing a total of 373, Leicestershire, playing on their own Grace Road ground, were in some trouble when Neil came in at 5. He proceeded to make what Wisden termed "a splendid 150". Rain and a century by Mike Atherton in the visitors' second innings meant that the match was left drawn. He also played for Hampshire in 2001 - 02 scoring almost 200 runs with three 100s. His highest score of 117 came against Kent at Canterbury in the sort of match that gives 4 day county cricket a bad name. Kent, with Rob Key making 160, posted a massive 577-7 declared to which Hampshire responded with an even more imposing 671 all out. Neil, batting at 5 made an aggressive 117, but his contribution was hardly noticed. He put on 222 for the 4th wicket with John Crawley, who made 272! No prizes are offered for guessing the result of the match.
He never scored a hundred in his brief spell in the Zimbabwean first class scene; his highest innings in South Africa however, was 136 for Natal against Border in the 1993/94 season.
In Test cricket, he scored 1679 runs at 24.18 with one century, a brilliant 107 v Pakistan at Peshawar in November 1998, which helped his side to victory and also brought him the Man of the Match award. He came in a crisis, with Pakistan having reduced their visitors to 63-4 in reply to their own 296. Waqar Younis, having removed Murray Goodwin and Andy Flower with successive balls was on a hat trick. Neil averted this and proceeded to make his 107 off 117 balls in 164 minutes. He was missed on 99 but achieved his maiden - and only - Test hundred in his second Test Match. Fine bowling by Henry Olonga caused a Pakistan second innings collapse and Murray Goodwin saw the visitors to victory, Neil not batting in the run chase. He played a very different, but equally, good innings against Australia at Harare in 2002, in a match won by the tourists by 10 wickets. He batted 246 minutes for 75, facing 186 balls and hitting 9 fours, before departing c M Waugh b McGrath, a common form of dismissal to end an uncommonly good innings.
He was also a highly successful one day player, scoring 4 ODI hundreds. His best score, and best innings, was 132* v Australia at Lord's in the 1999 World Cup.
One more innings in his career may be referred to. He was a consistent performer in ODIs, managing 1679 runs at 36.50 with four 100s. His highest and best innings was a superb 132* v Australia at Lord's in the 1999 World Cup. Zimbabwe had reached the Super Six stage of the competition but found the eventual champions in prime form. Australia racked up 309-5, with Mark Waugh scoring an elegant hundred. Neil, who had opened the bowling, got him eventually and, in his opening spell, had disposed of Adam Gilchrist for 10, thus saving Zimbabwe further destruction. Neil, according to "Wisden Australia", "made a memorable century in his uncomplicated style." In fact he added 114 for the second wicket with Goodwin and the underdogs were at one time 153-1. However three quick wickets changed their game plan to batting out the innings to boost their overall run rate. However Neil with fourteen 4s - including four off successive balls from Shane Warne - and two 6s, finished the day as unconquered Man of the Match, having faced 144 balls and batted 214 minutes. He had been on the field throughout he match.
Other examples of his powerful stroke play could be provided but the point has surely been made that, even though most of the above feats occurred after his brief spell with Ireland, he was a good signing for Ireland and his failure to do more in his three matches, was not due to lack of ability or commitment, the latter having been evident in at least one more recent overseas experiment. As it was there was only one match in which he did not make any worthwhile contribution. This was on his third appearance, the match at Lord's against a Middlesex side thirsting for revenge after their Cronje inspired defeat the previous summer. Neil was out first ball, caught by all rounder Paul Weeks off Alastair Fraser. He did not bowl during the county's innings.
His batting failure was a disappointment for Middlesex struggled to pass Ireland's 199-6 doing so with only two overs to spare having become semi becalmed against Matt Dwyer and Derek Heasley. On his debut v Glamorgan he came on to bowl in the 32nd over and helped Heasley put a break on the scoring, both having figures of 10 - 0 - 40 - 2. Neil removed Robert Croft for 67 and Younis, who could be as dangerous with the bat as with the ball when he got going, for a smash and grab 33. Neil then failed with the bat, suffering a fate common to many batsmen of the time, leg before to a toe crushing Younis yorker. His bowling was rather mauled against Essex as Nasser Hussein and Ronnie Irani got after him, but he struck back with the bat topscoring with 53 as Ireland fell away to 188 all out in response to the county's 359-6. Apart from Neil only Ed Joyce, and to a lesser extent Angus Dunlop, made any headway against the Essex bowling.
His Irish spell over Neil Clarkson Johnson returned to his other cricket commitments, meeting, as we have partly seen, with not inconsiderable success. In company with a number of other players he left the Zimbabwe side for reasons other than cricket, in his case the parting of the ways being in 2000. He continued to play at first class level in South Africa until 2005 and, in 2009/10 led a South African Masters XI in a tournament with similar international teams in Barbados.
Edward Liddle, April 2010