Christopher Martin-Jenkins

'Commentary doesn't satisfy as writing does'

Christopher Martin-Jenkins, who has written and commentated on the game for more than 35 years, talks about his experiences and the changes he has seen in the game and its reporting

Christopher Martin-Jenkins, popularly known as CMJ, has given cricket lovers the world over immense joy with his distinctive style of writing for the Daily Telegraphand The Times, as well as his commentary on BBC's Test Match Special (TMS). He has been a member of TMS since 1973 when he joined them at the age of 28. For the past 20 years he has divided his time between commentating and writing. As he approaches his 63rd birthday, he also approaches another milestone: England's tour of New Zealand in February and March 2008 will be CMJ's final assignment as chief cricket correspondent of The Times before he retires.

CMJ, who covered the recent Test series between Sri Lanka and England, spoke of how the game has evolved over the years.

CMJ, as he is popularly known: "My great ambition was to be a cricket commentator and I was lucky to get that when I was young" © Getty Images

How did you get into cricket journalism?
I was lucky in that I got a job straightaway from Cambridge University on The Cricketer magazine, as it then was. EW Swanton was my editorial director. He was only part-time because he was also the [Daily] Telegraph's correspondent and I was pretty well put in at the deep end to learn all aspects of cricket journalism, strictly magazine journalism. It was a fortnightly and almost a 24-hour job. I joined the BBC in 1970 initially as a general sports reporter, but with the intention of getting into cricket as quickly as I could, and worked with Brian Johnston as the BBC's cricket correspondent in 1973.

I had a young family and was obliged to get away on all the tours. For about three years I opted out and went back to The Cricketer as editor. For a number of years I did it, then BBC asked me back and I was cricket correspondent and editor of The Cricketer. For the last 20 years I have been writing for the the Telegraph first and then for The Times. My great ambition was to be a cricket commentator and I was lucky to get that when I was young.

Can you distinguish between writing and commentating?
I thoroughly enjoyed writing. As they say today's paper is tomorrow's fish and chips wrapper, but at least there is a certain satisfaction in polishing off an article and getting the words exactly as you would want, which, when you are commentating, you don't have the time to do. You can be as fluent as possible, but you can't dot the Is and cross the Ts.

How do you manage to meet deadlines doing both commentary and writing for a daily paper?
Somehow I have seemed to have got away with it. It would be quite nice from now onwards to mainly do commentary and just to write occasional articles and not be under great pressure.

To what extent has cricket journalism grown?
The arrival of the internet and laptops has changed cricket writing completely from what it was. In the early days it was dictating and I never really had to use telex as my predecessors did. That cut down the time of actually transmitting it, providing the technology works. If it doesn't, I'd have torn more of my hair out with technology or laptop not working than I would have before, because there were wonderful copy-takers. But when it works it's wonderful because you don't have to carry so many books around and you can get most of the information on the internet.

As they say today's paper is tomorrow's fish and chips wrapper, but at least there is a certain satisfaction in polishing off an article and getting the words exactly as you would want which when you are commentating you don't have the time to do -

Has the style of cricket reporting changed with the advent of television?
The fact that so many international matches are being televised inevitably colours what you write. For example you wouldn't have written about umpiring decisions or maybe catches dropped in such detail before because you only got one quick view of it and you couldn't be so sure of your facts. I suppose writing has become more critical of players and umpires because their mistakes are laid bare and repeated over and over again on replays. Television has changed the game more than anything. That and the helmets.

Is it good or bad for the game?
The game just evolves as life evolves and you have to go with it. Some aspects are good and some bad. Personally I prefer the pace of the old international circuit. We were missing an awful lot, I am sure. Sri Lanka, for example, could have played Test cricket probably 50 years before it did if all the other things had been in place. It is much more hectic now and people really don't have a chance to smell the roses, as the American golfer Walter Hagen said. I prefer the pace of a five-Test series with matches in between to give other players a chance to make a case for themselves and everybody a chance to relax and see the country. It was a more gentle way of life before the one-day game arrived, but I suppose it was less professional.

Is one-day cricket good or bad for the game?
You can't turn the clock back. In many ways it's very good. My personal view is that most one-day games are not interesting as most Test matches. Kandy was a classic example, with Sri Lanka bowled out cheaply in the first innings. In a one-day game England would have won it, but Sri Lanka won the Test match because you have that wonderful capacity of cricket to turn on its head with a couple of great performances.

What was your most frustrating day as a cricket journalist?
Definitely the Test match that was called off after a few overs in Sabina Park, Jamaica. That was simply technology. I had a terrific story - a Test match had never been abandoned after half an hour. The pitch was ruled dangerous. Match referee Barry Jarman said the match had got to stop as the pitch was not fit for Test cricket and people were getting hit. There was a story, a big front page piece, and a big back page piece, and I lost the whole lot sending it. It just disappeared. To this day I don't know how. Then I had a deadline and I had to try and dictate and somebody had put on the public address incredibly loud with reggae music. I could not hear myself think and everything that I had written had gone from my mind. I dictated something and I was grateful to the agencies for the match report tailored to my name. I didn't want to read it.

"How to beat 1981 at Headingley? Botham's Ashes was the most exciting" © Getty Images

Your most memorable occasions?
How to beat 1981 at Headingley? Botham's Ashes was the most exciting. England win the Ashes so rarely that all those occasions stand out, particularly in Australia. I was on the air when they won in 1986-87 at Melbourne. Then the first World Cup final at Lord's in 1975, an amazing day. It started early and finished at nine in the evening. It was a great occasion and a great game. There was real novelty in the one-day internationals then. A pity they've overdone that. The other occasion for personal reasons is when Sussex won the championships for the first time in their history after trying for about 160 years. My son [Robin] was a member of the winning team. They won the championship twice since not so much because of him, but because of Mushtaq Ahmed. He's been sensational.

Counting all your experience as a journalist what kind of advice would you give a budding journalist?
Just love the game and play as much as you can so that you understand as much as you can. Try to remember that cricketers inevitably make mistakes like everybody else in life. Criticise if you must, but criticise generously being aware of what a difficult game it is. Read as much as you can so that words become second nature. These are the guidelines that I followed to become a successful writer and a broadcaster.

How do you spend your leisure hours?
On tour these days a meal and a drink and bed. Usually I have a good book with me, not necessarily cricket but a wide variety. On this tour I read a Thomas Hardy novel and a detective story. If you have to leave your wife to pay the bills it's a great advantage.