CMJ: there was no finer role model for sports journalists

ROB STEEN pays an affectionate and personal tribute to Christopher Martin-Jenkins, the former cricket correspondent of the BBC, Telegraph and Times, who has died, aged 67

Death, or so we hacks are prone to assert, is never just death. It is premature, sad, tragic or, at the very least, untimely. Nevertheless, given that the ethics of our scruffy trade are currently being assailed as seldom as ever before, the passing of Christopher Martin-Jenkins a few days before his 68th birthday can justly be described as both horribly premature and profoundly untimely.

Christopher Martin-Jenkins: a model professional as a journalist
Christopher Martin-Jenkins: a model professional as a journalist

As cricket correspondent of the Daily Telegraph (1991-98), The Times (1998-2008) and the BBC (1973-91, with a five-year hiatus), not to mention a prominent television commentator and Test Match Special ball-by-baller, CMJ occupied the highest thrones available, and did so with an endearing modesty, a relentless hunger for accuracy, an unslakeable passion for his subject and, most refreshing of all, an extraordinary and implacable sense of fairness. As an embodiment of the virtues his calling demanded, I can’t think of a finer role model.

Thirty years ago, I could never have envisaged airing those sentiments. To a fairly loony leftie nursing ambitions to ridicule and terminate with extreme prejudice the public schools-Oxbridge-MCC-Tory axis that had long ruled English cricket with a less than enlightened rod, CMJ (double-barreled name, military dad, Marlborough, Cambridge, 12th man in the Varsity Match) was a standard-bearer for the opposition. Then I met him.

In the summer of 1984, while studying journalism at the London College of Printing, I went for work experience to The Cricketer, where he spent most of the decade editing. Always kind and encouraging,  it was with regret that I turned down his offer of a part-time job on financial, rather than philosophical, grounds.

Unlike his TMS teammates, CMJ never played professional cricket (his playing career peaked in the Surrey 2nd XI). His appreciation of those he watched, as a consequence, was more profound; no cricket commentator in my experience has more vividly captured the technical and visual splendour of a cover drive. Even more welcome was his impartiality: asked to nominate the occasions he felt most privileged to have attended, he plumped for three record-breaking innings by that Caribbean conjuror Brian Lara, the most sheerly watchable batsman of the past half-century.

Beneath the clear diction and well-judged phrases lurked a hapless technophobe. He was known as “The Major”, not because his father was a lieutenant-colonel, explained his predecessor as Times cricket correspondent, Alan Lee, but “more as a nod to Fawlty Towers, the distracted character of the Major himself and the general pandemonium of the set”. If CMJwas decidedly unfortunate to become a member of the daily press gang just as the Tandy was giving way to the laptop, mistaking his mobile phone for a TV remote control was merely the most priceless of his legendary gaffes.

Speaking as one who has long suffered from a recurring nightmare wherein I turn up late to the wrong match, it was easier to empathise with him on another fabled occasion. One morning CMJ called Peter Baxter, then producing TMS. “Hello Peter? CMJ here. I’ve a horrible feeling I’ve gone to the wrong ground.”

Upon learning that the Test match was actually taking place at The Oval, the response was typical: “Fishcakes! I’m at Lord’s.” And yes, “fishcakes” was about as close as this staunch Christian ever got to the eff word.

The wit and talent for mimicry that made him such a formidable after-dinner speaker were seldom in evidence in the commentary box (his writing eschewed such distracting fripperies altogether) but he had a much more important job: being our eyes. To TMS colleague Vic Marks he was “a consummate broadcaster”, possessor of a “clipped, precise” tone “synonymous with the English summer”. If neither utterer nor audience were ever quite sure where his similes were heading he was always calm, assured, distinctive, a dependable source of facts and the personification of clarity.

As a wordsmith – besides his journalism, he was a prolific source of reference works and tour diaries – what he lacked in lyricism and humour he more than made up for in authority. That he rose to be president of MCC in 2010 said far more for the universal respect he commanded than any perceived favouritism towards the elite. At the Telegraph and Times he had the ear of the mighty but as his Wapping teammate Richard Hobson warranted, “he was nobody’s poodle”. County cricket, forever on its knees, has had no more fervent defender. Rarely moved to anger, CMJ was infuriated when informed that the Test selectors planned to name a squad on a day when county reports had been scheduled, for once, to dominate, and sent an advance copy of a damning article to David Collier, the ECB chief executive; the announcement was swiftly postponed.

It was apt, not only that he should be typing away to the last, but that his final piece for The Times, published the day before he died, should have been a tribute to that “impetuous enthusiast” Tony Greig, who had died the previous day and whose decision to trade in the England captaincy in 1977 to help Kerry Packer recruit the world’s best players for the piratical venture that split the game but eventually improve the lot of cricketers worldwide. Back then, CMJ, for whom tradition and honour always took precedence over victory and money, was firmly with those who condemned Greig as a mercenary; on Monday, he referred glowingly to his skill and courage.

Of all the tributes, Martin-Jenkins would have cherished above all the one offered by his successor at The Times.

“Former players,” admitted one such, Mike Atherton, “can become jaded and weary of the game, the benefits of expertise lost amid the cynicism. Those who have not played, meanwhile, can have an overly romantic view of and not necessarily accurate insight into the game as it really is. Having played cricket seriously enough and to a certain level, but never having lost an essentially amateur outlook on the game, CMJ was the perfect amalgamation of the two.”

I will remember him most for meeting so admirably the sportswriter’s ultimate challenge: reporting on matches involving his son, Robin, a useful Sussex all-rounder. Never was that dispassion tested more sternly than during the 2006 Cheltenham & Gloucester final at Lord’s, when Robin was sent packing by an erronenous umpiring decision; all you need to know about CMJ is that you would never have guessed, from his live commentary or his subsequent report in The Times, that the victim was his own flesh and blood.