Sunday, December 18, 2016

Graham Johnson at 70

The seventies and eighties were decades of great injustice. The Guildford Four; the Birmingham Six; Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov; Nelson Mandela and Steve Biko; Geoff Miller of Derbyshire selected for 34 tests while Graham Johnson of Kent played none.

Johnson and Miller were both off-spinning allrounders. Their first-class career stats are quite similar. Johnson averaged 24.5 with the bat and 31 with the ball. Miller’s figures are 26.5 and 28 respectively. Bear in mind that Johnson played much more of his career on uncovered pitches, that as an opener he was exposed more often to the new ball, and that he was down the bill to Underwood when the ball was turning (though at Canterbury the slope meant that he would always take the Nackington Road End while Underwood stalked with the Pavilion behind him).

Graham Johnson made his debut in 1965, but did not find a regular place until 1970—Championship year—batting mostly at No 3, but opening when Brian Luckhurst was playing for England. An average of 23.76 may not sound much, but he made three hundreds, two in wins. He also took 25 wickets, 12 of which came in the game against Surrey at Blackheath that was the first of three late-August wins that propelled Kent towards the title (and yes, Underwood was playing).

The last of these is part of Kent folklore. With eight balls left, Surrey needed 13 to win with the tenth-wicket pair of Arnold Long and Pat Pocock together.  Surrey themselves were still on the fringe of the Championship race, so even in those cautious days felt an obligation to go for the win. Pocock’s slog (I wasn’t there, but saw enough of him to be confident that this is the right word) appeared to be clearing the long-off boundary, but Asif Iqbal moved like the wind to pluck the catch from the air.

Johnson was a first-team regular for the next 15 seasons, and contributed handsomely to Kent’s ten trophy wins of the golden decade. Opening the batting, he made a thousand runs in each of 1973, 1974 and 1975, and was the highest scorer in the last of those years.

When Mike Denness was sacked from the captaincy (despite winning two trophies) in 1976, Johnson was his choice—and that of many supporters—to replace him, but he became Asif Iqbal’s vice-captain instead. When Asif was sacked at the end of the season (despite winning the Championship jointly with Middlesex) because of his association with Kerry Packer, Alan Ealham, rather than Johnson, was chosen to replace him. It was Johnson’s bad luck to have had a poor, injury-blighted season at the wrong time, though it was widely thought that the EW Swanton and the other old school ties on the committee were relieved to have an excuse to turn elsewhere, as Johnson was reputed to be unafraid to speak his mind and even (on the basis of not much more than that he studied at the London School of Economics when it was at the centre of sixties radicalism) a bit of a leftie, though the fact that Johnson wintered in Vorster’s South Africa suggests that he was not exactly in the vanguard of international socialism.

He would have been the best choice to succeed Ealham after the terrible 1980 season, but after prevaricating by returning to Asif for a couple of years, the county turned to the next generation. Kent fans of that generation still pass rainy afternoons by debating whether Johnson or Bob Woolmer was the best captain that Kent never had. A couple of years of either would probably have made the following decade less painful.  

As a middle-order all-rounder in the Championship winning side of 1978 Johnson made 685 runs and took 56 wickets at 19 apiece. He continued to open in one-day cricket for a few more seasons, filling in at the top of the order as late as the 1983 NatWest final.

Johnson took 105 wickets in one-day cricket, or, put another way, just 7 a year over the 15 seasons when he was more or less a regular. I always felt that he was under-bowled in the shorter game, especially in the first half of his career. It was a time when medium pace was king, with all sorts of mediocre trundlers favoured over quality spinners.

He was one of the best of a fine fielding side, succeeding Colin Cowdrey at first slip, but being somewhat more mobile than his predecessor on the boundary on Sunday afternoons.

Quite often in the mid-seventies Johnson would be in a minority (sometimes a small one) in the playing XI as a non-international player. He, Ealham and the others were the chorus line without which the stars could not perform. But once in a while he stopped the show with a solo, most notably in the 55-over final against Worcestershire at Lord’s in 1976.

Opening the batting against Imran Khan, Johnson made 78 and put on 110 for the first wicket with Woolmer, the basis of a total of 236, which sounded much more formidable then than it does now.  Kent won by 43 runs, with four catches by Johnson, including three off Underwood, all (in my memory at least) on the boundary. One of them—Imran I think—was taken on the run in front of us in the Warner Stand.

The end of Graham Johnson’s Kent career was unfortunate and said much about the medieval attitudes of the committee room of the eighties. It came about on the first morning of the game against the Australians in 1985 when Johnson was told he was playing shortly after learning that his contract was not to be renewed. His refusal was termed with sufficient robustness as to ensure the immediate cessation of his employment, so he did not get the dignified farewell that his service deserved (Brian Luckhurst had to step in, playing his first game in nine years).

These days, relations between the committee and the players are conducted in a manner that acknowledges that feudalism ended a while ago, not least because players who were mistreated by the old regime have moved into the committee room. Graham Johnson has chaired the cricket committee for more than a decade, a tough job with the money short.

Johnson probably wasn’t quite international class, but a number of players who were no better have a collection of England caps nevertheless. His off spin would have been more testing than that of Moeen Ali and Gareth Batty in India at the moment (but then, how are spin bowlers to develop if half the County Championship is played before May is out?).

Graham Johnson turned 70 recently, though this photograph (taken at Tunbridge Wells in July) makes that hard to believe. He and Derek Underwood both look ready to tie up an end each for an hour or so after the interval.  There may not have been any tests, but few players have won more domestic trophies than Graham Johnson and we in Kent were fortunate to have enjoyed his career.

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