Voices of Sport: Christopher Martin-Jenkins - The peerless sound of authority during decades of cricket

Nick Metcalfe

In our weekly series, Yahoo Sport’s Nick Metcalfe features a famous voice of sport. With the Test series between England and Pakistan in full swing, the great BBC cricket commentator Christopher Martin-Jenkins goes under the spotlight.

Cricket has had more than its fair share of wonderful broadcasters. And Christopher Martin-Jenkins is right up with the very best of them.

From an early age, Martin-Jenkins was besotted with cricket. He was, naturally, captain of his school XI, but even at that time already had designs on a future life as a commentator. He wrote to Brian Johnston in 1963, the year he became the BBC’s cricket correspondent, for advice as to how he could break into the broadcasting business when he was older. Johnston invited him to Broadcasting House and told him to practice his skills using a tape recorder.

Martin-Jenkins continued to play at a decent level through his university years at Cambridge, and he was even good enough to be part of the Surrey Second XI, for a match against Warwickshire at The Oval in 1971.

But it was in broadcasting where Martin-Jenkins would leave an indelible mark on the sport he loved so much. After graduating in 1967 he joined The Cricketer magazine as deputy editor, and then in early 1970 he left to join BBC Radio.

His first match as commentator was a one-day international between England and Australia in 1972. Martin-Jenkins then took over from Johnston as BBC cricket correspondent in 1973.

But it wasn’t just about radio for him in the years and decades to come. Martin-Jenkins was also a terrific writer, enjoying stints as cricket correspondent of The Times and The Telegraph, and writing many notable books.

He also spent some time in the 1980s working for television, and was part of the BBC team during one of the most famous Test matches ever played, at Headingley in 1981.

England were on the verge of a crushing innings defeat against old rivals Australia, when Ian Botham produced an heroic innings of 149 not out, eventually setting up an incredible win. Everyone remembers Richie Benaud commentating at that match (”straight into the confectionery stall and out again”) but Martin-Jenkins was an integral part of the broadcast too.

But first and foremost, despite all his other fine achievements, Martin-Jenkins – or CMJ as he became known to millions of cricket lovers - was a radio man. One of that medium’s finest.

The funny thing is many people refer to Martin-Jenkins as the voice of summer. He was of course exactly that, but in many ways I will also recall him as very much the voice of winter too. Staying up through the night, with the sounds of Test cricket coming to us from far-flung corners of the world through the magic of radio. 

A couple of my favourite Martin-Jenkins moments both came on England winter tours, both in 1986. The first was on that ill-fated England trip to the West Indies, where they were thrashed out of sight 5-0 in the Test series, Mike Gatting’s bloody nose and all that.

But they did win one game on that tour, and on a busy night of sport on Radio 2 they switched to Martin-Jenkins for the final few balls of a one-day international in Trinidad. To this day, I’m sure he was commentating via a phone line.

The final ball of the match could hardly have been more dramatic, with an appeal for lbw, a near run-out and eventually England scrambling to a five-wicket win. The commentary was breathless, dramatic and memorable.

The other moment came late in the year, when England claimed Ashes glory in Australia. This was Gatting’s team that famously couldn’t bat, bowl or field, as one journalist put it. However, they confounded all their critics and clinched a series victory in the Boxing Day Test in Melbourne.

Merv Hughes was caught in the deep by Gladstone Small off the bowling of Phil Edmonds. There has always been a very fine Test Match Special tradition of a commentator from the winning country being on hand to describe the moment of victory, and those crisp, peerless Martin-Jenkins tones were the perfect accompaniment to the special moment.

For cricket fans around the country that had woken up early during their Christmas break, it was a glorious sound.

Much tougher times came for England in the years after – indeed being a supporter of the team throughout the 1990s could often be a pretty miserable business - and they wouldn’t win another Ashes series until 2005. That opened the floodgates for many more wins in recent times however, and when victory in the 2009 series was sealed, a familiar voice spoke into the microphone.

“It was Cook that took the final catch. It’s all over, England have regained the Ashes. Australia are all out for 348, on a golden evening at The Oval.”

One of the great bedrocks of any Martin-Jenkins commentary was simply his diction. There was something so pleasing about listening to someone speak with such precise clarity. A voice of supreme authority and gravitas. A voice you knew that you could always trust.

As with so many of the people profiled in this series, it was the obvious deep love Martin-Jenkins had for his sport that shone through above everything else. He so clearly adored the game, in a totally devoted fashion. 

He was often the voice of calm in the Test Match Special commentary box. When others were joking all around him, Martin-Jenkins was the sound of sanity, the purveyor of sense and reason.

That isn’t to say he was a stranger to laughter, far from it. He had a lovely dry sense of humour. And on one memorable occasion, he showed that he too could dissolve into a fit of schoolboy giggles.

Everybody recalls the hilarious “Aggers, do stop it” exchange between Johnston and Jonathan Agnew, but this special piece of radio comedy involving Martin-Jenkins should never be overlooked.

The glory of the game always came above everything else though. The great heroes, the historic achievements, the epic matches. When the important moments arrived Martin-Jenkins rose to them impeccably, with his usual calm demeanour and natural sense of occasion.

Martin-Jenkins became one of those important constants. If you tuned in to hear England playing in a Test match and CMJ wasn’t on duty, it didn’t feel quite right in a way. Almost incomplete.

Towards the end of his life, in 2010/11, Martin-Jenkins became MCC President. It was a rare honour for a journalist, and showed the sheer level of his standing in the game.

Martin-Jenkins commentated for the final time in January 2012, a Test match between Pakistan and England in the UAE. He was diagnosed with terminal cancer soon after, and died on New Year’s Day 2013 at the age of 67. Cricket had lost one of its best ever friends.

The tributes came from across the whole cricketing world. Rather endearingly, we heard more of Martin-Jenkins the poor timekeeper. The kind of chaos that to my mind can only be applauded. Splendidly, he once turned up to an empty Lord’s, for a match that was being played at The Oval.

There was also Martin-Jenkins the technophobe. There wasn’t a piece of electrical equipment out there that didn’t bemuse him. In a hotel room, he once mistook a television remote for a mobile phone.

But mostly we heard about his excellence and his immense contribution to the sport. As Agnew, the man that replaced Martin-Jenkins as BBC cricket correspondent, said: “I can’t think that anybody has ever written and spoken more words about the game of cricket than Christopher Martin-Jenkins.”

A memorial service was held at St Paul’s Cathedral in April 2013, and was attended by 2,000 people, including many former England captains, among them Michael Atherton, Andrew Strauss and Michael Vaughan.

Cricket hasn’t seemed quite the same since we lost Martin-Jenkins. There’s no doubt that the game misses him dearly.

The final word for this feature goes to former MCC President John Barclay. If you remember Christopher Martin-Jenkins commentating on cricket, I’m pretty certain you will agree with this.

“When CMJ appears on the radio, he makes you feel that all is right with the world.”

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