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June 9, 1999

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Johnson brilliant in defeat

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This World Cup has seen some standout performances. Brilliant bursts of bowling, outstanding performances with the bat, individual feats of a very high order. Today, Neil Johnson added heroism to the list.

Having opened the bowling for Zimbabwe and fielded superbly on the boundary (a very draining task, when you have to do that against batsmen making runs at will on a good batting track) he then came back to anchor the chase, batted right through the innings and went out unbeaten on 132 off 144 -- and it is a tribute to the magic of the man on the day that even when the ask went to 12 an over, the feeling was still that if Johnson was out there, it just might be on.

Johnson in fact pipped Mark Waugh to the man of the match award, albeit in a losing cause as he watched Australia take the game home by a 54 run margin. "It would have been great had we won," he said at the end of it all -- but whatever the outcome, this one will be ranked among the best ODI innings of all time.

Earlier, Alistair Campbell opted to insert on a good batting track -- a seemingly defensive move after having brought in an extra batsman into the ranks. Australia promptly made merry.

Gilchrist at the top again failed to impress, but Mark Waugh stroked with a silken touch right from the get-go, playing an outstanding innings, with strokes all round the wicket, to become the first non-Indian to hit a century in this world cup. He also has four World Cup tons to his name now, the highest by any individual batsman. What was most noticeable about his innings was the enormous amounts of time he seemed to have at his disposal -- it was almost as if he had three shots in mind for every ball, and picked the one he wanted to go with at the last split second.

Ricky Ponting looked in ominous touch, playing some scintillating on drives before playing all around one from Olonga on a straight line, but first Steve Waugh, then Bevan, the Moody kept the foot on the gas pedal, relentlessly picking up runs off a Zimbabwe attack that didn't have enough teeth to bite on a docile track. At the other end, Mark Waugh, looking as fresh at the end of his 120 ball innings as he was at the beginning, gave a demonstration of the art of scoring runs without ever working up a sweat. On song, that man's pure magic.

303 on the board and the game seemed over at the halfway stage. More so when Grant Flower left in the 11th over, McGrath trapping him in front. But that brought up the best part of the game -- a brilliant chase authored by Murray Goodwin and Neil Johnson.

Treating pace and spin alike with equal contempt -- Shane Warne went for 34 in his first four overs as both batsmen savaged his bowling with a series of drives, cuts and sweeps -- the two added a rapidfire 114 runs in 109 balls. In the process, first Warne, then Moody, then Reiffel were hit out of the attack, and Steve Waugh seemed to be dangerously short of options.

Cue Michael Bevan, and Goodwin lost his head, needlessly swiping at a straightforward ball on off and holing out on the leg side. That shot pretty much lost it for the Zimbabweans -- Goodwin was looking set, batting with ease and Johnson at the other end was in brilliant touch. More, the two were running superbly between wickets, and that meant the singles were coming in a constant stream.

From that point on, the innings folded. Andy Flower pushed at one from Reiffel leaving him off the seam, and touched it through to the keeper. Skipper Alistair Campbell produced a bigger shocker, though -- the ball from Reiffel was a foot outside leg stump, a wide by any yardstick, when he chased it, flicking high in the air and down the throat of backward square. What looked a very good score when Zimbabwe were 153 at the end of 28 overs for the loss of just one wicket and on course to the target became merely the prelude to an inexplicable bout of suicide by the latter batsmen.

Zimbabwe yet again lost due to inexperience, and a lack of nerve in the chase. But in their victory, Australia might still find cause for worry -- the bowling barring McGrath and to an extent Damien Fleming looked completely clueless, and that could mean a big problem in the tougher games ahead. More to the point, Warne's bowling was a mix of the competent and the mediocre, and that is another area where Australia could find itself hurting.

They could also hurt a bit in the PR stakes, come to think of it. An incident is illustrative -- Johnson played one square on the on, Ponting fielded, the batsman was clearly going nowhere -- in fact, his foot was well inside his crease -- when Ponting blasted a throw, not at the keeper but straight at the batsman. Johnson had to duck and hurriedly raise his bat to fend that one off, and the sight of Ponting casually chewing gum, with not even a token apology being offered, kind of jarred on the sensibilities.

But leave the bad aside, and look at the good -- Johnson, to give it a name. His scintillating strokeplay alone would earmark him for applause, but the sight of him, towards the fag end of the Zimbabwe innings, staggering on his feet through sheer fatigue, yet running every single as hard as he did at the start of his innings, raised the bar to a new high when we define personal heroism.


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