Life Among The Pie Throwers

Neil Johnson reflects on life as a professional in the English leagues

CRICKET: Luke Alfred

LAST summer a former Australian wicketkeeper named Rod Marsh provocatively called English bowlers pie-throwers. I was reminded of the phrase when I interviewed Natal’s Neil Johnson, currently playing professionally for Rochdale in the Central Lancashire League.

Comparing the standard of league cricket in Durban to what he finds in Lancashire, Johnson commented: “It’s so different. I would say firstly in Durban, per person, it’s much better. But once you come out here the conditions are so different, and so wet, that you get these little guys, they call them pie-throwers, they just put the ball on the spot, and because it’s so wet you really struggle to get them away.”

This is Johnson’s second season rubbing shoulders with pie- throwers from Lancashire. Last year he played for Accrington, by all accounts an unhappy time for the soft-spoken 24-year- old.

“They’re not a very strong side, so they’re always blaming other people, which always ends up blaming the ‘pro'”, Johnson tells me. “We had a few altercations on the field, and I just had to have a chat with them and we decided that it would be better that I didn’t come back.”

The pressures facing the pro are enormous, as teams tend to succeed or fail depending on his performance. “If I do better than the other professional, then generally my side will win,” says Johnson. “The amateurs are not too strong, but every now-and-again you get say three or four in a side who are good amateurs, and then generally that side is up at the top of the league.”

The Central Lancashire League has fewer big names than the other leagues, their biggest drawcard being the former West Indies player, Gus Logie. During cross-league knock-out fixtures last season though, Johnson played against Roger Harper, Phil Simmons, Keith Artherton, Damien Flemming, Michael Bevan and Jo Angel. Harper is the one who impressed him most: “He’s so tall, and when he bowls his off-spinners he can almost bowl bouncers; he jumps-up and bowls from really high and gives it topspin, and once it bounces it really takes off with the spin and the wet track. I thought he was very difficult to face.”

His club’s expectations notwithstanding, Johnson leads what appears to be a remarkably uncomplicated and enjoyable life. He shares a flat in Rochdale with the Natal B player and Middleton’s pro this year, Mark Handman; he has access to a car and the club pays for everything except his food. Johnson isn’t specific about what he earns but tells me that a pro can earn anything between 3 000 and 15 000 for 22 weeks’ work, depending on experience and status. He plays no mid- week fixtures (unless a game is carried over from the weekend) and aside from practices is free to travel and sightsee. He has already been to Scotland, Ireland and Wales and drove down to London in June to spend some time at Wimbledon.

When asked what he has learnt from playing cricket in England, Johnson replies: “I’d say the biggest thing that’s changed is that mentally I’ve become much stronger. If you get out as a professional, then the chances of your side winning are remote, so I’ve got to try and get 50 a game … so really I’ve got to bat the 48 overs. It’s also made me become much more positive, I hit the ball much harder. When I go home now I’m not too scared to hit over the top, which you have to do quite a bit here.”

It’s turning out to be a good season for Johnson: Rochdale have just beaten Radcliff in the semi-finals of the Cup and his contract has already been renewed for next year. Along with several other young players from Natal, such as Doug Watson, Bruce Armstrong and Derek Crookes, Johnson is serving a successful apprenticeship at clubs in the North of England. Is anyone prepared to put money on the fact several of these young players will be representing their country when the Proteas tour England next?

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