CMJ and a lesson in reporting on cricket
Christopher Martin-Jenkins was honoured recently at the British Sports Book Awards with a Lifetime Achievement Award that was entirely as it should be. There can't have been a British cricket fan who didn't feel a pang when they heard of his death, and there can be no greater tribute to a cricket journalist than that.
I'm not going to attempt a tribute here: there have been plenty already by people who knew him far better than I ever did. In fact, while I found him as courteous and helpful as everybody else has suggested he was, I think the only thing approaching a proper chat I had with him was at the urinals at the Riverside in Chester-le-Street after Durham had beaten Essex in a Friends Provident semi-final in 2007. That game had come immediately after the fourth Test between England and West Indies, which itself had followed straight on from a Test at Old Trafford.
"Home at last," he said, which left me discombobulated as I initially thought he was talking about me being back in the north-east - my confusion heightened by the fact I was just finishing a book about Sunderland and had been cranking out thousands of words about exiles returning and football teams providing a link with home. I started to answer in those terms before I realised he probably had no idea where I was born and was just talking about getting back to his own bed after a fortnight on the road. But after the initial embarrassment, we had a brief conversation about cricket in the north-east and Paul Collingwood, who had just scored a ton, in particular (he averages 193 in Tests in his home county). So, CMJ was a gentleman, as he has been portrayed, even after a misunderstanding in a portaloo.
But actually, far more significant to me was a book CMJ had written 20 years earlier, a book that was probably always expected to have a short shelf life, a book that I suspect is largely forgotten. I don't think it's stretching things too much to say that no book has had such an influence over how I consider sportswriting than Grand Slam: England in Australia 1986-87. It helped, of course, that England won everything that winter: the Ashes, the World Series and the Perth Challenge. At ten, I probably wasn't quite such a connoisseur of English failure as I'd later become (in fact, it startles me to think what a misplaced view of England's position relative to Australia I must have had, what a grim shock the summer of 1989 must have been); I wanted to read about success.
There was, as you'd expect, nothing flashy about CMJ's book. It is just a straight account of the tour - which probably also appealed to my ten-year-old's mind. I was just starting to read "grown-up" books and didn't want great theories or overwrought prose: I just wanted, not that I'd have been able to articulate it, simple descriptions of what had happened, with enough colour and explanation that the text never became dry.
There is an even quality to the writing that makes selecting examples difficult, but take this, from the second day of the first Test at the Gabba:
"Gower, who had already played a couple of his famous swivel-footed pulls through midwicket, was well caught attempting another, hit right out of the middle of his bat. This, his favourite stroke, is both his most productive and his most self-destructive. He never has been, and never will be, able to resist it."
Those are not three sentences that anybody is ever going to memorise to cite at apposite moments but they do convey what happened, how it happened and give some idea of Gower the batsman, his greatness and his fallibility.
Or take the resigned ambivalence with which CMJ greeted England's victory over Australia, Pakistan and West Indies in the Perth Challenge, a competition organised to coincide with the America's Cup as part of a Festival of Sport:
"More profits; more easy money for the players. But who in the future would really care, or even remember, except those who were there, who won the Perth Challenge?"
As it turned out, most England fans do, purely because it was another glorious leg in a winter of success, but the point is apt, the opinion delivered crisply and without fuss - and that really is the essence of reporting.
I'm not going to suggest there is a virtue in all simplicity, or that CMJ's is the only way to write - there is a time for flourishes, for the occasional outré allusion - but for me that was the perfect book at the perfect time, a lesson in how to report on the actual sport. Again, it would be absurd to argue that sports journalists should only write about the game, and to ignore the issues and stories around it and how that game reflects and impinges on cultures and societies, but it showed the value of writing on the sport itself - and at least some of the time, I've tried to do that; The Anatomy of England is an attempt to analyse the England national football team through the actual football.
I read Grand Slam again and again in the late eighties and through the nineties - probably particularly during the traumas of 1989 and 1990-91 - revelling in a time when England won in Brisbane and Melbourne rather than capitulating meekly, but also, although I probably didn't recognise it at the time, learning how to write. It would be wrong to suggest Grand Slam is a great book, but sometimes professional competence can be inspiring.
Jonathan Wilson writes for the Guardian, the National, Sports Illustrated, World Soccer and Fox. He tweets here