'I'm gonna effing kill you': The Andrew Johns experiment
Fifteen years on, senior NSW players, administrators and opponents reflect on the key flashpoints of an out-of-the-box-idea that continues to divide Australian cricket
In June 2006, Cricket NSW made an announcement that shocked Australian sport, signing rugby league legend Andrew 'Joey' Johns to play in that season's Big Bash.
Johns, one of rugby league's 13 Immortals and a man regarded by many as the greatest player of the modern era, was nearing the end of his decorated career for the Newcastle Knights, NSW and Australia.
Despite his undisputed sporting prowess, Johns was an amateur cricketer who had played no higher than fifth grade in his hometown of Newcastle, and the move was unashamedly a publicity stunt by Cricket NSW to bring fans through the gates.
At the time, before the Indian Premier League had changed the game forever, before the first T20 World Cup had been held, Cricket NSW argued the move was in keeping with the experimental nature of the game's newest format, and said Cricket Australia's attitude towards T20 cricket created the perfect environment for the idea to gain traction …
(Note: attempts to interview Andrew Johns for this story were unsuccessful. Quotes from a 2020 interview with Channel Nine have been included)
Dave Gilbert (Cricket NSW CEO): "T20 cricket came about in 2003 (in England) … and what really stunned me at the time was just the reluctance of the ACB (Cricket Australia) to even entertain T20s. There was a view in their marketing department that if you introduce that, you're going to cannibalise the 50-over game. So it just kept getting shunted to the backburner. English cricket had three seasons of T20 before we finally put our toe in the water. And even then it was just a complete experiment; we had two groups of three states and you played two games each, and whoever topped each group played off in a final. It was all done and dusted in a two-week period in January."
Simon Katich (NSW captain): "It was something that we probably didn't fully understand or appreciate, just where the game was going to head with it. It's probably a bit like where one-day cricket was back in the day when World Series Cricket started. Because it was still in its infancy, it was hard to know."
Dan Marsh (Tasmania captain): "(T20 cricket) was a bit of fun. Everyone had nicknames on their back. It was very new, it was exciting, it was a really short season. It wasn't like we were taking it super seriously."
Gilbert: "The fact that (in 2005-06) we had a final and there was no prizemoney and no trophy, that gave you an idea of just what the ACB thought of T20s at that time. So that's what allowed this sort of thinking to take place.
"In the winter ... we thought it was an opportunity for us to try and build on the crowds we were getting, and what's a novel way of doing that? And we thought, 'Well, what about a marquee player?'.
"We thought if we were going to do it, we were going to have to get a name that was instantly recognisable, was still current, and was going to really capture the public's imagination. I can't remember any other names (that we discussed). I think Johns came to us pretty quickly because ... he was the superstar player at the time.
"He was probably one of the biggest sporting identities in New South Wales … To get him playing was always going to get people's attention. I knew his manager, John Fordham, pretty well so that's how it started. And it took off."
Nick Fordham (son of John and current CEO of the Fordham Company): "It was a collaboration between my old man (who passed away in 2019) and Dave Gilbert. Obviously my dad had an interest in cricket – he represented Mark Taylor and Ian Chappell and Richie Benaud as well.
Gilbert: "John was a left-field thinker. You just knew straight away that he was a sort of guy that would entertain it. Straight away he said, 'That's certainly out there, I think we need to give that one a little bit of thought'."
Fordham: "Joey was at the top, he was the best rugby league player in the world at that stage. He was pretty hot property. And it was a pretty good marketing thing as well, a branding thing for Joey, to take him to a much broader audience."
Gilbert: "It was a commercial arrangement, don't worry about that. For whatever downside people could say there was going to be in it for him, I think the upside outweighed it massively."
Fordham: "It was a good deal. He didn't do it for free. He was well looked after because it was a big marketing play, and he did a lot of extra stuff around it."
Gilbert: "John Fordham was a big cricket fan himself. He had an interest in this going well. He knew it was good for his client, but he also didn't want to see cricket ridiculed. So he was very helpful throughout the whole process."
Fordham: "I remember the press conference we did in Newcastle. It was going to be about 'Andrew Johns and his playing future'. So you couldn't move in there, because (the media was speculating) that he was going to rugby union or something. And then Joey and Dave Gilbert walked out."
Gilbert: "It was huge news at the time. Huge news. I remember instantly getting a phone call from one of the senior managers at Cricket Australia who was berating me for doing it. And he said, 'He's not even a registered player'. And I said, 'Well, yes he is. He's registered with Merewether Cricket Club (in Newcastle)'. So it couldn't be stopped."
Ryan Harris (South Australia fast bowler): "When that was announced ... it was sort of discussed, like, are they taking the piss? And would we (South Australia) do it? And the answer was no, we wouldn't."
After the announcement, Cricket Australia conceded they could not prevent the stunt taking place, but spokesperson Peter Young said: "We are disappointed, we strongly disagree. We don't believe Twenty20 needs gimmicks, it is succeeding as it is. Our very emphatic view is that it is not appropriate. Although it's new and vibrant, Twenty20 is still a legitimate form of cricket. Our very strong preference is for all our representative teams to be made up of the best qualified players."
Former NSW and Australia batsman Michael Slater led the criticism from former players, saying: "I don't get it at all – it sounds as if it was dreamed up over a boozy lunch. It takes the mickey out of the selection system for that elusive Blues cap. I do feel sorry for the young bloke, the up-and-coming professional cricketer, who will miss out on a rare start for NSW because of a marketing stunt."
Katich: "It used to happen a lot for us with Australian players coming back, (it meant) guys that had played most of summer would have to miss out. I think it was something the team was relatively used to, albeit obviously the guys coming back were proper cricketers. That was the hard part with this decision; it was going to cost someone a spot, ultimately. Someone else is missing out on an opportunity, and that was their career. So I can understand why there was some negativity towards the decision that was made."
Gilbert: "Having played for NSW and been a very proud representative of NSW, I know what an absolute privilege that is. So don't for a second think that I didn't weigh up how this could be viewed when we announced it. But the exhibition nature that T20 was being thought of at the time by the ACB allowed it to happen. At the end of the day, it's about putting bums on seats. And that's what we did."
Katich: "I realised what Dave was trying to do. I don't think any of us viewed it as cheapening the cap. But you could see certainly see why people perceived it that way."
Gilbert: "I'm probably the number one ticket holder for the Simon Katich fan club. I have just so much respect for that person that he would have been the last person in the world I would have wanted to upset. We wouldn't have just gone ahead and done this without him being kept in the loop."
Katich: "We supported it as players because back then, it was a long season … so we viewed (the Big Bash) as a chance for a few of the senior boys to maybe have a bit of a break and for some of the younger guys to get opportunities. We re-jigged things."
Gilbert: "People need to understand that this wasn't a decision made by D Gilbert on his own. This had to go to the Cricket NSW board and be approved, and that's what happened. Mark Taylor was on the Cricket NSW board at that time ... and he spoke in support of it.
"I'm not gonna kid you; I got some quite abusive emails from cricket lovers who said it was a disgrace and it was a terrible indictment on New South Wales cricket. But for every abusive one I got, I got probably 10 complimentary ones. I think people just realised that this is a new form of the game and if it brings in people who previously would rather watch paint dry than watch a cricket match, then it's worked."
Harris: "Geoff Lawson and a few old New South Wales guys weren't happy about it at all. We were in that stage where (T20s were) like exhibition stuff. Cricket Australia saw (it like) that, but we didn't see it that way as players because it was a trophy we had to try and win for our state. He was representing the state, and we were going to go hammer and tongs because you want to win a trophy."
Gilbert: "There were plenty of people death-riding it, don't worry. There were a few managers at the old ACB who weren't happy with me, but they knew I wasn't happy with their reluctance to entertain T20 cricket."
The Johns deal was for two games in early January 2007 – against South Australia in his hometown of Newcastle, and Tasmania in Sydney – as well as the final if NSW qualified. Just days before the South Australia game, Redbacks speedster Shaun Tait – arguably the fastest bowler in the world – withdrew from the match due to a hamstring injury. While Johns was saved from the prospect of facing The Wild Thing, it quickly became apparent on the day of the game that he wasn't exactly match fit …
Katich: "I'll never forget it; he'd been to (league legend) Danny Buderus's wedding the night before, and I've never seen a whiter man in the dressing room than him. He was as pale as a ghost. He'd obviously had a big one, as you would at a wedding the day before.
"I wouldn't say he was in a state where he was completely gone, he wasn't that bad. No doubt there were a fair bit of nerves around it and he certainly wasn't in prime condition. But he wasn't incapable of playing, that's for sure."
Gilbert: "I found out about that after the event. I remember him telling us that he was attending Danny Buderus's wedding. And, you know, connect the dots; there was no surprises that he was going to have a few drinks. But he wouldn't be the first cricketer to play with a hangover and I don't think he'll be the last."
Graham Manou (South Australia wicketkeeper): "We certainly heard some whispers (that Johns was hungover) and then I think through various conversations, things were confirmed at different points. And that probably contributed to some of the emotions surrounding how we interpreted the experiment. From a spirit of cricket point of view, one of the key words is respect. And you would hope that would be shown in this situation."
South Australia elected to bat first and Johns took to the field in front of a sell-out of 11,000 people, the biggest cricket crowd seen at the Newcastle Sports Ground since a tour game on the 1932-33 Bodyline tour.
Darren Goodger (umpire): "It was just packed. It was absolutely chock-a-block, and it was just the most wonderful carnival atmosphere. People came from everywhere, from all over northern NSW just to watch that fixture. I remember saying … that they were on a recipe to success because of all these people that had come to watch a state game of cricket.
Gilbert: "We deliberately played the first match in Newcastle because that's his turf. It was a Sunday afternoon, the atmosphere was fantastic. But what really surprised me was the crowd; it was 50 per cent absolute Andrew Johns devotees, and 50 per cent who were just there to see him fail. It was bizarre. I thought he would have 100 per cent support but in fact, there were people there almost baying for his blood. There were people there almost wanting a gladiatorial contest. They'd come to see the lion tear the gladiator apart.
"(Katich) handled it well and had to work out the right time to try and get Johns involved. He brought him on to bowl late in the South Australian innings. He just bowled little off spinners and he dropped a half-tracker in at Ryan Harris who pulled it flat, straight to deep mid-wicket to Dan Christian, who was probably the safest pair of hands in the team, and he dropped it. He should have had 1-0 off one ball, which would have been extraordinary."
South Australia finished with 9-150 from their 20 overs, with Johns conceding nine runs from his solitary over. An inexperienced NSW batting line-up featuring a young David Warner moved to 4-94 in reply before a collapse of 5-44 brought Johns, batting at No.11, to the crease to join Katich. There were seven deliveries left in the match, NSW needed 13 runs to win, and Johns was on strike to spinner Dan Cullen ...
Gilbert: "I'll go to my grave saying that I reckon he was out stumped first ball. But I reckon the square leg umpire would have nearly got lynched if he'd given him out."
Manou: "I do remember that quite vividly, actually. It was just past the outside edge, just a regulation play and miss. He reached out for it and sort of fell out of the crease. It wasn't blatantly obvious … but in most circumstances you'd expect it would be given out, even with the naked eye."
Katich: "No doubt the umpires would have felt the pressure of not giving the crowd favourite out. Everyone was there to watch Joey, there's no doubt about that. The game was probably a bit of a side event, really."
Terry Keel (square leg umpire): "I honestly didn't think it was out. There was no question in my mind. But the South Australian boys were quite incredulous, and they were convinced it was a hometown decision to keep the local hero out there. But I'm very sincere in saying no. I wouldn't do that … I'll go to my grave saying that.
"There were no television replays to confirm one way or another. I might have stuffed up and it might have been out, but I genuinely don't believe it was."
Manou: "On reflection, you sit back and go 'Maybe I should have played up to it a little bit too'. But when instinct took over, we all sort of carried on.
"I think part of the reason was during that period of time, we weren't having a great deal of success so any opportunity to win was a positive one. We were pretty keen to get off the ground (with a win), but we weren't allowed to."
Harris: "(We decided) if he comes in (to bat), we've just got to treat him like a normal player. By no means in the team meeting did we say we were going to hurt him. It was about maybe trying to give him one (bouncer) early and making sure it's high enough that it doesn't hit him, but just to show that it is different watching (compared to) being out there and facing it. Put a bit of fear into him."
Manou: "Then Katich almost blocked out (the last) over and it essentially cost them a win, because he was protecting Johns from Ryan Harris's bowling.
Harris: "I was bowling a bit faster then. That was when I sort of clicked with my action."
Keel: "(Johns) was like a cat on a hot tin roof. He was standing at the non-striker's end very nervously and he said to me, 'I think I'll just stay up here'."
Johns: "I was at the non-striker's end … I call (Katich) down and say 'Mate, you're either hitting sixes or fours, because I'm not running and I'm not facing this bloke'.
"Until you get out there and see how fast it is, mate …"
Katich: "I just remember the crowd was desperate for (Johns) to get on strike and he was at the other end ... saying, 'I can't face this, don't let me face these boys, they're going to kill me'. So I tried to do the right thing and keep most of the strike, but then we ended up losing the game.
"Ryan Harris executed, and I just couldn't get him away to the boundary. And then when it was obvious we couldn't win the game, I think the crowd was just keen to see what Joey could do. I was torn."
Manou: "That point then was like, 'Is T20s going to be taken seriously as a competition, or what are we going to do?' While it served a purpose (because there was a big crowd), it left an odd taste in your mouth."
Katich: "Because the crowd had come to watch him, they weren't very happy with me, so I actually got booed off the ground! It wasn't pleasant. But I understand why. He did say to me that he didn't fancy facing Harris, so I'll use that as my defence. But in hindsight, I probably should have let him face. He probably would have whacked a few and got us home."
Manou: "Seeing him running around, it was obviously good in a sense that it was bringing people to the ground. But it also messed a little bit with your being, in a way, because you're representing your state and you're always wanting to strive to represent your country. It just didn't feel right. You felt like you were playing in some sort of Mickey Mouse competition. We had some pretty decent players in that side and not many of us were necessarily thinking it at the time, but it could have ended up quite disastrously with him getting injured or badly hurt. Thankfully it didn't."
Katich: "You could say it backfired because we lost the game and Joey didn't quite get to (be the) hero. I copped the brunt of that from the crowd … they wanted to see us win and wanted to see him perform well, and they probably missed out on both.
"I think we all know there's plenty of moments in a game that could go either way ... so I don't think any of one us looked at him and thought negatively. A lot of the boys were just pumped to have him in the rooms with us. I understand why it all happened and I don't think anyone looked at him unfavourably, that's for sure."
Three days later, Johns and the Blues took on Tasmania at Sydney's Olympic Stadium in front of a crowd of more than 20,000 people. With the loss in Newcastle ending NSW's finals chances, Tasmania batted first and racked up 7-202 from their 20 overs, including a century to opener Michael Dighton. Johns didn't bowl but as the game petered out in the run chase, the rugby league star got an unexpected promotion up the batting order.
Gilbert: "I think we lost two or three (wickets) very quickly so of course, there was panic stations amongst the batters to be ready. And I've got a feeling Andrew was one of the few … who was actually ready. So he ended up going out (at No.9) ahead of some more recognised batters."
Johns: "When I came out to bat … there was a bit of a Bronx cheer and everyone was giggling, a few of the Tasmanian boys were giggling. (Ben Hilfenhaus) comes in to bowl first ball and I just blocked it, and he comes down the wicket and … he goes 'You shouldn't be out here, you're taking the piss, the next one's coming at your head'. And I said 'Yeah? How about I spear tackle you right in the middle of this pitch, we'll see how you go then'."
Gilbert: "I can still visualise Ben Hilfenhaus, who was in his pomp in those days, run down the wicket after one ball and apparently said, 'I'm gonna effing kill you'. And next ball was a bouncer, Johns leaned back and sort of tipped it over the slips cordon down to third man very adeptly."
Johns: "So I run and he's staring at me like Gordie (rugby league hard man Gorden Tallis) with these eyes. And I said, 'Mate, didn't you understand? I'll spear tackle you on the pitch'."
Marsh: "Obviously we thought we'd just get him out, but he hung around for a while and then I think Hilfy got a bit frustrated. (He's) a very competitive person. I remember them vaguely having words. I think it was probably just Hilfy being a little bit grumpy.
Gilbert: "Yeah, it was on. It was great stuff. (Johns) was nervous, there's no doubt about it. It was fascinating to see a bloke who had done it all on the rugby league field be so ... well, he was definitely taken out of his comfort zone, put it that way."
Marsh: "I remember the cricket bat he used was horrendous. It was like an autograph bat. The NSW blokes didn't look after him with a good stick so even if he'd swung and connected, I don't think it was going to go very far.
"We were miles in front of the game. It wasn't like it was do or die so (when I bowled the next over) I lobbed one up for him to hit, and because he had such a stinky bat, he might have got it over the top for two. And then I got a bit grumpy so I fired one in ... I think at that point in time it was like, 'Come on, time to get off, you've had your fun, but it's time to get out of here now'."
Johns: "I ended up getting out (for nine off 10 balls). In the sheds after it, (Hilfenhaus) comes in with a six pack, sits down and goes, 'Sorry mate, I got carried away, come and have a beer'. And I thought, 'How old school. This is the way sport should be'."
(Note: Ben Hilfenhaus politely declined the opportunity to be interviewed for this story)
Fordham: "He could have got hurt, yeah. But I'm sure running at Sonny Bill Williams is a lot more dangerous than facing a cricket ball. And Joey looked like the Michelin man in terms of padding. He had arm guards on and everything. He looked like he was doing training with the police dogs."
Harris: "You look back at it now and it's ridiculous to think that it happened. If he'd been hit, what would have happened? And that's all hindsight now, especially after what we've seen with Phillip (Hughes)."
Katich: "It's taken, unfortunately, that tragic event for everyone to wake up and realise just how dangerous this game is, particularly from a batting perspective. But at the time, I don't think any of us genuinely thought that Joey could get hurt."
Gilbert: "We definitely checked out the insurance side of things about what would happen, for example, if he suffered an injury that was going to affect his ability to play rugby league or be ready for the season. We had all that checked out. And this was before the tragedy of Phil Hughes, when nobody thought something like that could ever happen. But Phil's tragic death certainly changed people's thinking. But it's a contact sport, of course people can get hit, so we were very aware of that."
Katich: It just goes to show how tough our sport is, but also how tough he was to be able to face that fear of getting out there and facing the music. A lot of guys would have knocked back the opportunity and gone, 'No, I don't need to be a part of this'. But to his credit, he took it on and copped it."
NSW lost the match by 37 runs, bringing the Johns experiment to an end just days after it had begun. He finished with an official career record of two games played, six balls bowled and nine runs scored.
Manou: "There's a lot of people that would give their left arm to have an opportunity of playing a match at a professional level. In hindsight, you sit back and think it would be nice if that spot was taken up by another young New South Wales (player). But on the other hand, had we not had people like Johns being interested in supporting the growth of the game, would we still be here? I think yes because it's such an entertaining product when played at such a high level.
"It's one of those things, isn't it? He's got a record and good luck to him, I guess. But I'm not sure he's referencing it too much in terms of his career highlights."
Harris: "It's quite amazing (looking at it) now that it was allowed to happen. The feeling was that it was state cricket and this was making a mockery of the competition and of the state rivalry."
Marsh: "I think definitely (it was appropriate) for what it was at the time. We weren't fixed on winning the competition … we were just out there to have a bit of fun. It was nice to win the game but at that point in time, it certainly wasn't as big as it is today, that's for sure.
"I'm sure (the crowd will) remember the day that Andrew Jones played when they were there, and probably a few of them went because of that. And hopefully they've stayed involved in cricket since. There's no issues from me."
Katich: "All I can do now is just have a bit of a laugh about it. It's just one of those things that happens ... a decision gets made at the time, for right or wrong. People are going to have their opinion on it. But at the time we all thought, OK, this is a left field idea, but why not? Why not try it? Nothing ventured, nothing gained. I don't think anyone holds any grudges towards Joey having a professional record in cricket. It was just what happened at the time, and it was the nature of where we were at with T20 cricket."
Gilbert: "I have no regrets whatsoever. At that time, T20 was just not being taken seriously by the ACB. I mean it with the greatest of respect, but the ACB was virtually dragged kicking and screaming into trialling it because there was this thought process amongst the commercial department at the time that it was going to cannibalise the 50-over game. It didn't matter how many times we would mention what was happening in the UK and all the positives that had happened there, it just wasn't cutting any ice. And it just seemed really sad that there was Australian cricket, which for so long had been seen as the leaders and the innovators, and we were really dragging the chain.
"To get 30,000 people in for two matches of Twenty20 cricket, we thought for the outlay to get Andrew Johns to participate, that was chicken feed, really.
"It's never happened after that and it probably will never happen again. But it was just the circumstances of the time allowed it."
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