180 Championship appearances, 10,200 runs – record-breaking Steve Johnson reflects on his Shropshire career

Steve Johnson has played comfortably more Championship matches than anyone for Shropshire, is well out in front as the highest run scorer and was a key member of what remains the county’s only title-winning team.

He’s certainly a true legend of Shropshire cricket.

As he reflects on his 24 happy years playing for Shropshire between 1967 and 1991, the record-breaking Johnson declares: “It was all one big highlight, with a few peaks.”

The right-handed opening batsman, a model of consistency throughout his career, played 180 Championship matches for Shropshire and accumulated an impressive 10,200 runs.

Also an accomplished slip fielder, Yorkshireman Johnson took more than 200 catches for Shropshire and was involved in so many memorable matches for his adopted county.

Such was his consistency, Johnson was called up to play for the Minor Counties representative side.

Typically, he made the most of his opportunity, most notably when he gloriously compiled an unbeaten 146 in a three-day match against India at Wellington’s Orleton Park in the summer of 1979.

“I was lucky to have played at the right time when I was able to play representative cricket,” says Johnson, who lives in south Shropshire. “It was the best time to play as an amateur.

“If you want to be a professional cricketer, there’s an opportunity now because if you’re spotted then the coaching’s good and there’s a route through into the first-class game.

“But purely as an amateur cricketer – once I got a job I had no ambition to play first-class cricket, even though I might have been able to – I was just lucky to have been playing in the right era.

“I’ve made friends all over the country and it really was a terrific time to play, so I think myself as being very fortunate.”

Johnson was born in Doncaster in July, 1944 and began his cricketing career after he moved across Yorkshire to Harrogate, joining the town’s cricket club.

He played for a strong Harrogate side alongside several former Yorkshire players until a new job brought him to Shropshire in September 1966.

He quickly joined Bridgnorth Cricket Club and a first county call up soon followed early in the 1967 season when he was selected to make his Shropshire debut against Cambridgeshire at his new home ground.

“I came here for work and knew nothing about Minor Counties cricket,” recalls Johnson. “I was fortunate to be offered a job as a nutritionist for South Shropshire Farmers.

“I wanted to play competitive cricket and it was suggested I joined Bridgnorth, so that was my lucky break and that’s where it started.

“Bridgnorth was a super pitch to bat on after the slowish wickets of Yorkshire and I quickly got into the Minor Counties side.

“Ken Arch, who was a Shropshire selector at the time, was a stalwart of Bridgnorth Cricket Club and Shropshire cricket. I got a few runs in April, but then it rained in May. I was picked for the first Minor Counties game at Bridgnorth, so I was extremely lucky to be in the right place at the right time.

“I didn’t even know where Shropshire was really until moving here. I knew it was somewhere near Wales, but I’ve been here ever since and I’ve had a lovely time.”

Johnson immediately became a county regular and was an established member of the team by the time Shropshire were memorably crowned Minor Counties champions for the first time in 1973.

“When I first started playing for Shropshire, we were fairy lowly and still learning the game, so we weren’t terribly strong,” he admits.

“We gradually got stronger and we had one or two useful pros. Tony Mann was a good influence and came in and gave us a lot of confidence. Mervyn Winfield from Nottinghamshire was another good influence, but the big factor was Doug Slade coming in from Worcestershire. He was a wonderful all-rounder and a great asset.

“By 1973, we had a nucleus of about eight experienced cricketers who played most of that season, people like Dave York, Peter Bradley was a key player, and Geoff Othen as captain cemented the whole thing together and created a very good spirit in the side. There was quite a family atmosphere and we were all friends.

“Brian Perry, Rob Burton and Eric Marsh, who had played first-class cricket at Oxford University, were also in the team and we had a number of youngsters that were starting to come through like John Hayward, Philip Oliver, who went on to play for Warwickshire, while David Humphries and Cedric Boyns both also played for Worcestershire.

“I think we only used 16 players throughout the season and that’s the key to winning anything. If you have a settled side then you always have a chance of winning things.

“That season was one of the highlights of my career. It was a cumulation of a whole season. We lost a match early in the season, but then we won a string of matches on the trot, so it all built up to a great peak.”

As a title winner, Johnson continued to hold down a regular spot in the Shropshire side as an opener – later in his career he batted at three when John Foster and Bryan Jones opened – and the appearances just kept on coming, the number of games he played going up and up, as, if fit, he always made himself available for selection.

“Fortunately, I had a good job and the cricket season was the slackest time in the year work wise, so I was able to take time off,” he says. “At that time you were also only having to take one day off as Championship matches would be played on a Sunday and Monday. That was the beauty of two-day games.”

Johnson was Shropshire captain between 1982-84, a spell which included being skipper when the county famously beat Yorkshire by 37 runs in the NatWest Trophy.

That memorable match at St Georges saw Johnson come face to face with long-serving Yorkshire and England opener Geoffrey Boycott, a man he was once compared to in a national cricket magazine.

“I was once described in an article in The Cricketer as the Boycott of Minor Counties, so that was quite flattering,” he smiles.

Johnson completed the milestone of 10,000 Championship runs for Shropshire against Wiltshire at Trowbridge in July, 2001 when, as stand-in captain, he scored 79 in the first innings as he put on 185 for the first wicket with Jones.

On scoring so many runs for the county, he says: “I’m just lucky to have played at that time as it will never happen again now that there’s only four Championship games each season.

“I was so lucky to be playing 10, sometimes 12, games in a season, so it was a good time for the amateur cricketer and we were able to pick the best side.”

He is also proud to have taken so many catches in the slips for Shropshire, with his 200th catch for the county arriving in his final season.

“That did please me,” he says. “Apart from wicketkeepers, I don’t think anybody in the whole history of Minor Counties has got 200 catches, so that was a real thrill.

“When I was young, I used to spend hours practicing catching against the wall. My mother used to walk me round the St Leger Racecourse in Doncaster throwing balls at me, so from a very young age I was practicing. I’m still quite good at catching crockery as it falls!”

Johnson’s 180th and final Championship appearance came just after his 47th birthday. He marked the occasion by scoring 71 in the first innings against Devon at Oswestry as he ended his county career with exactly 10,200 Championship runs at an average of 34.34. He also played a further 14 matches for Shropshire in one-day cricket.

“It’s always difficult to know when to finish, but that was the right time,” says Johnson, whose top score for Shropshire was 118 not out against Bedfordshire at Dunstable in 1975.

Alongside his long and dedicated service to Shropshire, Johnson was proud to receive the chance to play for the Minor Counties representative side.

He played a starring role in a drawn three-day match against the Indian tourists at Wellington in July 1979, impressively carrying his bat to end unbeaten on 146 in the first innings, before making 24 in the second innings against strong international opposition.

“It was a great experience and was one of the highlights,” he says. “If you look at records, an average of 170 will never be beaten as amateurs do not play first-class cricket any more.

“With no representative cricket, that record will probably stand forever. It was a bit of a quirk really, but it became a quiz question around the Shropshire clubs.

“It was a terrific day. Kapil Dev was opening the bowling for India, Venkat was captain, so it was a highlight.

“It was a very good pitch that Wellington produced and there were a lot of runs scored over those three days, but I’m not complaining!

“It was a great thrill to play against an international team, especially on your home soil in Shropshire.

“I also played for the Minor Counties against the West Indies at Jesmond, against Malcolm Marshall and Michael Holding. It was a two-day game, but it was washed out after lunch on the second day.

“We were sent out to bat and the heavens were obviously about to open. I think they thought it was a bit of a joke really trying to play in those conditions.

“Michael Holding came in and bowled me a tennis ball. Then the next ball was for real and it whistled past my nose – but within minutes the whole ground was awash. We should never have gone out really, but it was an amusing moment.”

Johnson played 16 List A games, appearing for both Minor Counties East and Minor Counties North in the Benson & Hedges Cup, fondly recalling hitting a half century at Trent Bridge against a Nottinghamshire attack led by Richard Hadlee and Clive Rice.

He also helped Minor Counties beat Gloucestershire by three runs at Chippenham in 1980.

Johnson enjoyed a long career in club cricket. After Bridgnorth, he played in the Birmingham League for Old Hill and Kidderminster, where he was part of a title-winning team.

He then returned closer to home to play and spent many years with Ludlow in the Shropshire League, later being appointed president of the south Shropshire club.

Johnson also served on Shropshire County Cricket Club’s committee for several years as a selector before becoming an umpire in the Minor Counties Championship, the Birmingham League and the Shropshire League.

“I’ve always loved the tradition of the game,” he adds. “I’m a lover of cricket rather than a fan.

“I was very lucky to play as an amateur at the best time – it was wonderful.”

By Stuart Dunn