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Last Updated:  Tuesday, 25 February, 2003, 06:58 GMT
Zimbabwe struggle to keep pace
By Martin Gough
BBC Sport in South Africa

Four years ago, Neil Johnson was the star against Australia at Lord's, hitting an unbeaten 132 in a World Cup Super Six match as a fighting Zimbabwe went down by 44 runs.

On Monday he was sitting at home in Cape Town, watching on television as Zimbabwe put up a fight but ultimately fell short of downing the world champions in Bulawayo.

Former Zimbabwe international Neil Johnson
Johnson starred for Zimbabwe at the last World Cup
With a worsening situation in Zimbabwe and a child on the way, Johnson decided in 2000 to retire from international cricket in favour of a contract with South African provincial side Western Province.

In terms of ability he is far from ready for a pipe and slippers, starring with the bat as Province downed South Africa in a warm-up match at the beginning of this month.

But he insists he made the right decision in quitting the international scene at the age of 30, and passing up another World Cup chance.

"I went to the opening ceremony and it was difficult seeing the boys and knowing I could have been a part of it," he says.

"I do miss it but I have a wonderful life now - I don't have any regrets."

While proud of his personal achievements, Johnson's favourite memories of CWC '99 are the group-stage upsets of India and South Africa - something the current side looks incapable of repeating.

They're a good team but the batting department four years ago was stronger and the bowlers were a bit better
Johnson on the current Zimbabwe side
A 48-run win in Chelmsford over their African neighbours clinched a place in the second round for the first time, Johnson hitting 76 and taking three for 27.

"There's a real big brother thing with South Africa - it's like playing county cricket against Surrey," he says.

"They seem to be better at everything and it's always nice to beat them, but getting into the Super Six was the biggest thing.

"We celebrated hard after that win. If there's one thing Zimbabweans are really good at it is enjoying themselves."

Johnson believes there will be smiles on Zimbabwean faces after the match against Australia, whatever the scenes outside the ground.

"In terms of Zimbabwe cricket it was important that the games go ahead," he insists.

"There hasn't been much for people to smile about recently.

Andy Blignaut
Blignaut was in top form against Australia
"As Andy Flower and Henry Olonga have shown, just because the team is playing cricket doesn't mean they are supporting what's going on - they're doing what they love doing."

Johnson was impressed by the fight shown by the hosts against Australia.

But he does not believe that a side lacking players of the calibre of Murray Goodwin, Alistair Campbell and Bryan Strang can stack up to the class of '99.

"They're a good team but the batting department four years ago was stronger and the bowlers were a bit better and a little more experienced.

Old faces such as Heath Streak and the Flower brothers, Andy and Grant, continued to shine, but there was little to back them up.

However, Johnson does pick out a couple of younger players who have come to the fore since his time in the side.

"Andy Blignaut is exciting and he strikes the ball cleanly, although you're not going to get 50 from 20 balls every day," he says.

"And Brian Murphy did well, although it's never going to be easy against Australia."

On a single, sunny day at Lord's, Johnson showed that occasionally it is.


SEE ALSO
Ponting praises Aussie batting
24 Feb 03 |  Team Pages
Streak positive despite defeat
24 Feb 03 |  Team Pages
Australia ease past Zimbabwe
24 Feb 03 |  Team Pages
Have Your Say on Australia
04 Jan 03 |  Have Your Say
Have Your Say on Zimbabwe
04 Jan 03 |  Have Your Say
All quiet in Bulawayo
24 Feb 03 |  Team Pages



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