Cricket: Hilton’s Director of Cricket Neil Johnson

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Johnson was a much-travelled professional and represented Ireland, Zimbabwe, Eastern Province, Hampshire, Leicestershire, Matabeleland, Natal, Western Province and Western Province/Boland during a first-class career spanning 16 years.

Three man-of-the match awards were won during the 1999 World Cup in England with a career highlight being a ton against eventual world champs Australia at Lord’s. “A hundred at Lord’s against the Aussies, what more could one ask – just playing at Lord’s is amazing,” says the immediately likeable, laid-back “Johnno” who came to South Africa from his native Zimbabwe at a young age.

The man who loves positive, aggressive cricket played 13 Test matches and 48 one-day internationals during an abbreviated career for Zimbabwe before he moved down south again to ply his trade. In that short Test stint he hit a Test hundred and four tons at ODI level. His long first-class career saw him play 161 first-class matches and 236 limited-overs encounters at first-class level. This stylish left-hand bat who often opened the innings was also a right-arm fast-medium bowler of note and he notched up a combined 24 tons in the first-class and limited-over arena and took 384 wickets at the same level, so he knows a thing or two about the game.

Experienced school cricket coaches add much value

His job at Hilton largely revolves around the first XI and alongside Hilton’s cricket professional Bruce Roberts, time is also spent identifying and nurturing the up-and-coming youngsters who are being groomed for first XI status. “Coaching courses help aspiring coaches who have limited playing experience,” says Johnson. “They gauge how coaches are increasing their knowledge and also helps established coaches with fresh ideas, thinking about the game from a different angle, perhaps, but if you keep up to date with the game you should be okay.”

Johnson cites the “golden triangle” of cricket schools in the midlands. “There is Howick at the apex with Hilton and Michaelhouse making up the triangle,” says the Howick High School old boy with an impish grin. “Well, maybe not quite, but midlands schoolboy cricket is strong and getting stronger.” Johnson played for Natal Schools’ B in matric and then SA Schools’ in his post-matric year at Kingswood College in the Eastern Cape.

He reserves much praise for school coaches. “Most have been around a long time and know their stuff. Mike Bechet at Maritzburg College is one; he has a fantastic record and knows how to produce good schoolboy cricketers capable of going on to higher honours. There are many coaches of this nature but I don’t think the cricket has improved much compared to my day, although the boys are probably stronger and fitter, and there is a massive difference in cricket equipment now, which has changed the game to some extent.”

Johnson says the gap between the best players and the rest has narrowed somewhat, and T20 cricket has played a role. He is concerned, though, about top-order batsman being picked because of their strength at the expense of technically more correct team-mates. “Some of the guys know there will be no short-pitched stuff and know they can have a swing because the ball will be pitched somewhere in the arc. The preservation of your wicket is no longer valued and 22 off 16 balls is considered a success whereas in the past players were taught to value their wickets and churn out big scores.”

Studying for a qualification outside cricket is vital

The emphasis on limited-over cricket mustn’t discourage school coaches from developing quick bowlers and spinners. It is important, Johnson says, for coaches to educate their captains in ensuring the correct field settings for such bowlers. Spinners are match-winners in limited-over cricket at top level while school coaches must encourage the seamers to explore their skills rather than deliver the military-medium stuff that is all too prevalent on the school circuit.

One-on-one coaching with a professional is a must for aspiring youngsters and while Johnson feels it has a place, he says there is no short cut to success other than disciplined, hard work put in over many, many hours. “Cricket is not as glamorous a profession as people think, and you have got to want it from deep inside.”

Only a minute percentage of boys make it and Johnson is emphatic that youngsters must back up their ambitions with a qualification outside the game. “Don’t get sucked into what you perceive as the glamour; the kit, the sponsored cars and so on; you have got to make sacrifices, be disciplined in fitting your studies in between the cricket to ensure long-term success rather than wasting your time on other things,” says the BA Industrial Psychology graduate who attended the University of Port Elizabeth (now Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University) and writes a weekly cricket column for The Witness along with some TV commentary.

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“Most franchise cricketers don’t study much while it is interesting that NMMU are going back to the model that brought Eastern Province success; a strong cricket set-up at the university, as academic study produces a more rounded cricketer.”

While the possibility of coaching a first-class side had popped into his head occasionally, it is clear that Johnson has great reserves of enthusiasm for mentoring U19 cricketers. “Speaking of Hilton College, it is a brilliant school with very good people, both staff and boys, and they just love their sport. It’s such a great setting for sport and it’s a very well-run school all the way through, the whole set-up is unbelievable,” says Johnson.

Going to a top cricket school is not everything

At the time of writing, Hilton were going to Zimbabwe to play in the St George’s T20 Festival in Harare before the highly regarded Oppenheimer Week hosted by Maritzburg College over the Michaelmas (end of Term 3) holidays. Johnson says it is tough for private schools competing against the government schools with their larger numbers but it is a challenge and a special moment when success is achieved.

The coach says boys’ inherent love for sport must be encouraged by their parents. “If parents can instil in their kids a pure love for sport, the sheer enjoyment of the activity, and encourage them to choose whatever sport they want to try out, and support them irrespective of success or failure, they will have done their children a great service.”

Johnson says boys who develop at a slower pace than their peers must be encouraged, as quite often they outstrip their bigger, more mature classmates over time. “School coaches must engender in their players an all-round knowledge of the game, so that when they leave school they are equipped to take their careers further,” he says.

It is interesting to note that players with the best techniques are now succeeding and even dominating all formats of the game at top level, from Test to four-day, on to limited overs and T20.

Johnson says it is not imperative that you go to a top cricket school. “You must really want to play and if you have the desire you will get there. In my time Howick was not considered one of the top cricket schools but I played for the first team on Saturdays and then club cricket every Sunday; that’s part of the hunger that helped me get there.”

No doubt there are many young boys of today who will take heart from Johnson’s wise words.