The Major steps back

Christopher Martin-Jenkins' father was chairman and managing director of the Ellerman Line, a shipping line that was the largest private company in Britain after World War II. Dennis Martin-Jenkins seems to have liked the idea of a dynasty because he proposed that his three sons should join him in the business. Two did. Christopher had other ideas.

As a boy, he was already utterly absorbed by cricket. He wrote his first book aged eight, about imaginary heroes of the game of toppers, which he played by himself, hitting a hard ball against a pillar in the garden. He was given his first Wisden at 13 and before he left Marlborough, his public school, he had already received advice from Brian Johnston about becoming a cricket commentator. It is a life dedicated to cricket.

When he joined the Times in 1999, his editor suggested he might like to write for different parts of the paper, but he didn't push the idea. "If you're going to be a conscientious cricket correspondent, there's not much time to take your eye off the ball," he says. At the age of 63 that is precisely what he now proposes to do.

CMJ - as he is universally known - is about to retire as chief cricket correspondent of the Times. From this summer onwards he will continue to work on Test Match Special for as long as they will have him, and to write as a freelance, for his old paper, The Wisden Cricketer and others. The voice will not be extinguished, but the volume will be lower. "I don't want to go from the frying pan into the fire and just write all the time, which is always the temptation of a freelance, isn't it?" He might even be able to get in some cricket.

His dedication has been amply rewarded. He plunged in at the deep end, virtually editing The Cricketer within a month of joining the staff. He moved seamlessly through the most elevated reaches of quality journalism - starting as a 28-year-old at the BBC (1973-1991, with a break in the early eighties), then moving to the Daily Telegraph (1991-99) and the Times. He was present at the birth of World Series Cricket: "I'm sure I coined the phrase 'pyjama cricket.'" He disapproved of Kerry Packer - "good for the players but not for the audience".

His memory is crowded with the pleasure given by fine cricketers, principally Bishan Bedi and Brian Lara. Once he starts to list players he has admired, it grows like Topsy: Ricky Ponting for his recovery from defeat; Warne, though he didn't like the way he worked the umpires; Darren Gough, Dennis Amiss, Derek Randall, Sachin Tendulkar, and Adam Gilchrist. "He and Jack Hobbs are the only cricketers I've never heard a bad word about."

He wrote books - mainly for the money. They were written in a hurry, but nearly everything he writes is. He has liked writing for a daily paper because, compared to radio commentary, his views have survived overnight. He resists the idea that he pontificates: "Surely not, but I enjoy making judgments."

His voice is confident, the manner is a little clipped, and his sense of humour is more pronounced than his readers might imagine. In the press box he is known as 'the Major'. He has been for some time; it's time he was promoted. He is slim as a rake, has a full head of hair, and lives comfortably outside Horsham in Sussex, where his son Robin is an allrounder in the county XI. Christopher thinks Robin tends to bowl better when he is watching, and suspects that when Chris Adams [the Sussex captain] sees CMJ in his deck-chair at the Cromwell Road End he gives Robin a few extra overs. A second son plays good club cricket. The family is said to be fiercely competitive on the tennis court, though this is a quality he seeks to mask.

CMJ's entry in Who's Who suggests a prominent position in the establishment. It gives the titles of 23 books and lists no fewer than 12 clubs he belongs to, starting with MCC, I Zingari and the Arabs - the crème de la crème of post-public school cricket. It is easy to assume that this is the voice of the old cricket establishment, sitting comfortably in the pavilion at Lord's. Jim Swanton was the authentic voice of that establishment. The alternative was offered by John Arlott, who became the honorary chairman of the players' union. CMJ has often seemed to be a quintessential Swantonian, but it turns out he regards himself as more complicated than that. He resists such superficial journalistic distinctions.

He accepts that Swanton was an influential figure when he was young, but that was because his parents took the Telegraph. CMJ also accepts that Swanton opposed the appointment of Len Hutton as England captain because he was a professional. But he insists that Swanton was liberal on race, in South Africa and the West Indies. "He was a bit of a mixture, Jim." The position CMJ finally adopts comes as a surprise: "I'd consider myself somewhere in-between, probably a bit more Arlott than Swanton."

He declares that it is "not fair" to place him in the establishment camp: "I think I've been critical of the establishment quite often. It's the commercialism of the establishment that worries me." But this is a new establishment, obsessed by maximising TV income: "Another great heist is about to happen. India's discovery of Twenty20 is going to unbalance the whole thing."

"Do you have dark moments of despair?"

"Not despair, but mild depression. At any stage in history somebody is going to say the game is going to the dogs, but what I dread, and what would be a disaster, would be if two-innings cricket were deemed old hat and boring. The profundity and variety of cricket are what make it different from all other games."

He regrets that journalists now have less access to players: "They're far better paid, and protected, rightly or wrongly, by their employers. Their time is limited and they're made to think they're something special, which up to a point they are, but I think they're less self-sufficient, more molly-coddled and regimented."

One cricketer CMJ enjoyed talking to was his replacement at the Times, Mike Atherton. Not in his grumpy press conferences, but in one-to-one conversations: "I knew he had very interesting views about cricket, and that he was interested in other people's views." Apparently Atherton would occasionally give him a meaningful look and ask: "When are you giving up, Major?" End of April is the answer.

Incidentally, Ellerman Lines was taken over in 1983 by the Barclay Brothers, who sold the shipping business. Had Christopher done as his father had wished, he would have been redundant, with plenty of time on his hands to watch cricket. It wouldn't have been enough.