Dipping into the memory bank

2007-12-19 00:00

When I began my cricketing career as a Howick schoolboy, I had a dream of one day being a professional cricketer and playing the game all over the world.

Fortunately, this dream came true and I was given opportunities to tour many different countries. In my short career I was fortunate to travel to Pakistan, Bangladesh, the West Indies, Sharjah, Singapore, Kenya, England and Zimbabwe.

Pakistan was the first place I toured with the Zimbabwe team for a Test and one-day series and it proved a real eye-opener. We spent over two months there. It was a long time to tour, but was a remarkable experience. I had never heard of places such as Peshawar, Sheikapura and Gurjanwala, but they now hold special cricketing memories. I have to confess there are not many places in Pakistan that would lure me back as a tourist but I still found the experience truly memorable.

Dhaka, Bangladesh, is where I made my one-day international debut against New Zealand in the Wills International Cup. In a country with a population of over 100 million, it was easy to feel overawed by the sheer mass of people. The poverty was evident everywhere and I had never seen anything like it before. I was also unprepared for the passion of the people for the game of cricket. I recall our first practice when over 1 000 people came to watch.

Unfortunately, my memories of Dhaka are overshadowed by the last over I bowled in 40 degree heat and 100% humidity. New Zealand needed 14 runs to win off the last over and Chris Harris hit me for four off the last ball. It was a good but painful introduction to the challenges of international cricket.

I was fortunate to go back there and join a World XI match against an Asian XI a few years later and play alongside the likes of Chris Cairns, Michael Bevan, Mark Waugh and Sachin Tendulkar. We played in front of 80 000 spectators and that helped dim the memories of that last over on my previous visit.

England is a wonderful place to tour and having spent every English summer there for 10 years it is like a second home. The memories of the 1999 World Cup (Zimbabwe beat South Africa) are ones I will never forget.

Like many young schoolboy cricketers I pictured myself one day competing at the highest level and I am grateful that Zimbabwe finally provided me with that opportunity to prove myself in that arena.

Now we have the West Indies in South Africa. Touring their islands was another marvellous opportunity. We played in Grenada, Trinidad, Antigua and Jamaica. The match at Sabina Park — where I so nearly became Courtney Walsh’s record-breaking 435th Test wicket was unforgettable. Fortunately, Henry Olonga obliged by becoming his victim and I was spared that place in cricketing history.

Zimbabwe’s performances in the West Indies were not particularly memorable, but I will never forget the generous hospitality and the honour of meeting so may legendary West Indian cricketers.

Having toured the West Indies, I can understand why they do not always present as a solid unit. All the islands are countries with their own currencies and laws, and the distance between Jamaica and Guyana, for example, is thousands of kilometres.

It is a real challenge when it comes to team selection and I think this lack of unity and cohesion is the reason why they struggle to unearth that fighting team spirit when things get tough.

The current squad are relatively inexperienced with exciting and talented bowlers though, perhaps, they lack the batting depth. Still, their developing talent will welcome a tour of South Africa and the chance to start filling their cricket bags with their own cricketing memories.

• Neil Johnson is a former Natal, Western Province and Zimbabwean all-rounder now living in Pietermaritzburg.

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