Wisden Obituary

Christopher Martin-Jenkins

Viv Richards, Christopher Martin-Jenkins and Vic Marks on the field, England v West Indies, 2nd Test, Headingley, 2nd day, May 26, 2007
Christopher Martin-Jenkins interviews Viv Richards and Vic Marks © PA Photos
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Players/Officials: Christopher Martin-Jenkins
Teams: England

MARTIN-JENKINS, CHRISTOPHER DENNIS ALEXANDER, MBE, died in the early hours of January 1, aged 67. In cricket, he was universally just CMJ, initials that became almost as synonymous with the game as lbw or MCC. For someone who never played at first-class level, his list of achievements was unmatchable: editor of The Cricketer, cricket correspondent of the BBC (twice), the Daily Telegraph and The Times and, ultimately, president of MCC - an honour that had eluded even his mentor, E. W. Swanton.

However, he will be best remembered as a radio commentator. Mellifluous, eloquent and with a wonderful eye for the game - though without the individualistic brilliance of John Arlott or Brian Johnston - CMJ was, for 40 of Test Match Special's first 57 years, the calm-sounding straight man at the heart of the programme. There has probably never been a more reliable broadcaster on cricket: he could spot the telling detail, and grasp the wider context; he took the game very seriously, but never lost sight of its humour. The calmness was deceptive, since there was a comically chaotic side to his character. It was part of his charm.

Martin-Jenkins was born in Peterborough, the middle of three sons; his father was chairman of the big shipping firm, Ellerman Lines. As a boy, he was engrossed not merely by cricket, but by cricket commentary, and the garden games took place amid the background noise of his descriptions. While at Marlborough College he even wrote to Johnston to tell him of his ambitions.

Characteristically, Johnston invited him to lunch, and encouraged him to keep practising. (Later, CMJ would always strive to be just as helpful to aspiring youngsters himself.) As a player he captained Marlborough at Lord's against Rugby, scoring 99 in the second innings as the batting collapsed around him. It was not his last on-field disappointment. Though he captained his Cambridge college, Fitzwilliam, he failed to get a game for the university. But when he graduated he was taken under the Swanton wing, and became his assistant at The Cricketer.

The ride to fame was sometimes bumpy. His first major article - "In Defence of Professionalism" - was too radical for Swanton, and printed only with an editorial disclaimer that it did not reflect the magazine's views. He moved on to the BBC sports room, where he crossed swords with both the formidable boss of Sports Report, Angus Mackay, who tried to make him change his name to Chris Jenkins, and the equally irascible Don Mosey, who lost out to the 28-year old whippersnapper when Johnston retired as cricket correspondent in 1973.

CMJ had made his TMS debut the previous year and, once established, never looked back. His career followed an unusual path as he tried to balance his love of the game with the need of a growing family for both his presence and a decent income. He left the BBC staff in 1981 (which allowed Mosey a short pre-retirement stint as No. 1) and went back to The Cricketer as editor, while continuing his commentaries. Three years later he became BBC correspondent again, and then in 1991 moved into the Swanton role at the Telegraph, where he stayed for eight years before - after much prevarication - accepting the blandishments of The Times.

In fact (like Arlott) Martin-Jenkins was not a great cricket writer: his match reports were highly competent, even elegant, but he was neither an electrifying phrase-maker nor opinionated enough to be truly Swantonian. However, he was famous enough to make his name an adornment to the sports pages, and had enough connections to turn in a regular supply of medium-level exclusives, especially on stories emanating from Lord's. And his firm but unfusty insistence on the best traditions of the game struck a chord with his readers, as did his insistence that his Test reports should be backed up by full county coverage: on both his newspapers this withered after he left.

He was also not a natural on his excursions into television, which included the 1981 Headingley Test: listeners enchanted by his voice may have been slightly startled by his gangly body and unclassical features. But he was perfect for radio, with an instinct for striking the right tone and - now and again - plucking an arresting phrase, apparently from nowhere. When Graham Onions appeared in the Test team, CMJ described his thin face as "rather medieval", which was not at all unkind, and just so. He was also a hugely popular after-dinner speaker, with a talent for mimicry and jokes that always erred on the side of good taste.

His private life was a happy one: his solid marriage to Judy produced a daughter and two sons, all with the family's exquisite manners and gifted at sport: James won a golfing blue, and his younger son Robin enjoyed a career as an all-rounder with Sussex. Christopher himself played high-standard club cricket whenever work allowed, opening the batting for Sir Paul Getty's XI at Wormsley when he was 61, and was an obsessional golfer. Playing with him on tour, recalled John Woodcock, "he would produce a couple of strokes so good that they would have brought forth roars of applause at a Ryder Cup, only to hit the next, or the next but one, far among the eucalyptus".

He would greet adversity of all kinds with swearwords of his own invention: "Oh, Captain Carruthers!… Fish cakes and buttercup pie!… Bishan Singh Bedi!… Billingsgate Harbour!… Schubert!… Fotherington-Thomas!" Most of his troubles (aside from rabbits on his lawn, which drove him to real bad language) came through his traumatic relationship with technology. His inability to make computers work was a regular source of press-box hilarity. The most famous story, about the time he tried to call the Telegraph on a TV remote control, has attained the status of a Fred Trueman yarn, and there are many versions, though the definitive one appears to be Mike Selvey's. It happened in Jamaica, on England's 1997-98 tour, when they were driving from Montego Bay to Kingston; CMJ had left his phone, neatly, on top of his hotel TV. His colleagues called him "The Major", after the absent-minded Fawlty Towers character. These misadventures were nearly always regarded fondly, though not necessarily by fellow commentators forced to do unpaid overtime because he was late.

In 2010, John Barclay nominated CMJ to succeed him as MCC president. The role should have crowned his career, especially as it included England's first Ashes triumph in Australia in 24 years. But it turned into a difficult term: he was drawn into the vituperative internal arguments over the redevelopment of Lord's, which gave him far more anxiety than he expected or deserved. It was a year that really needed a more combative president. Perhaps by then he was already ill, though his cancer was not diagnosed until early 2012, after he had commentated on England's series against Pakistan in the Gulf. His last year was a cruel one, though he was sustained by his family and his quiet but profound Anglican faith. And his early death was cruel to the whole game: an enormous database of cricketing knowledge and wisdom had disappeared.

Martin-Jenkins chose the hymns for his own memorial service. What he could not have known was that it would take place in St Paul's Cathedral and certainly not that the following day the cathedral would be the centre of global attention for Margaret Thatcher's funeral. One of the handful who attended both said that the service for CMJ was better judged and more moving. It was an appropriate tribute to a man who inspired affection from everyone within the cricketing family, and from millions who never met him.

© John Wisden & Co.