The death of Christopher Martin-Jenkins on Tuesday means a lot for cricket fans of a certain vintage, who remember what it was to follow matches played in distant countries by devotedly tuning in to commentary through the mad hiss and crackle of short wave radio. He was part of a stellar cast of commentators that delivered the Test Match Special programme on BBC Radio, which the organization describes as a national treasure on its website.
The high noon on the Test Match Special was when the triumvirate of John Arlott, Brian Johnson and CMJ (as Martin-Jenkins was fondly called by his colleagues in the commentary box) were in control of the mike. They complemented each other. Arlott had the poetic ability to make even a humdrum match seem interesting; Johnson was the witty raconteur; CMJ was precision personified.
Johnson was known for his gaffes. His colleagues doubled over into a fit of laughter at this comment during a 1961 match between England and Australia: “There’s Neil Harvey standing at leg slip with his legs wide apart, waiting for a tickle”.
At the other end of the world was the Australian Alan McGilvray, who was never comfortable with the more relaxed and witty style of Test Match Special. He once complained that Arlott was a good commentator but he did not share the score with his listeners. E.W. Swanton wrote about McGilvray: “He and I were brought up in the school wherein the unforgivable sin was to be late on the stroke. The prevailing wisdom was that the listener had to be given a mental image of the bowler’s run up, delivery and the batsman’s stroke as they happened. This gave a regular pattern to which comment was added.”
Now that matches are habitually televised, it would seem that there is more value in the Arlott style rather than McGilvray style, since description is less important for a television audience. Listening to Arlott was a treat. One of his famous quips after a South African bowler named Mann had an English batsman also named Mann in knots: “We have a clear case of Mann’s inhumanity to Mann”. Some of his descriptions were beyond brilliant: “He played a cut so late as to be positively posthumous”, or “The umpire signals a bye with the air of a weary stalk”.
Following those commentators made the cricket fan thousands of miles away feel as if he were listening into a fireside chat among friends. Or it was reminiscent of a scene described in an Arlott poem:
Dozing in deck-chair’s gentle curve,
Through half-closed eye’s I watched the cricket,
Knowing the sporting press would say
‘Perks bowled well on a perfect wicket’.
Just compare the languid ease of this scene with the slightly hysterical tone of modern commentary, especially on television. The English is bad, the clichés are unbearable and the analysis is pedestrian. Indian commentators have generally been bores, though there were some excellent men behind the mike, such as Anant Setelvad with his measured tone and Pearson Surita with his descriptive powers. Today, some like Saurav Ganguly save the day for the fellows in the commentary box; one hopes Rahul Dravid joins his former captain as a regular.
The Test Match Special broadcasts were so popular that when Johnson once complained on air that he had not got any cake with his tea during the afternoon beverage break, he was sent cake by hundreds of sympathetic listeners. It soon became something of a tradition, as listeners continue to send cakes to the commentary team. And when Arlott gave his last bit of commentary in 1980, he ended in a very matter-of-fact way: “Boycott pushes this away between silly point and slip… picked up by Mallett at short third man… the end of the over… it’s 69 for two, nine runs off the over, 28 Boycott, 15 Gower, 69 for two, and after Trevor Bailey it’ll be Christopher Martin-Jenkins.”
The Lord’s management then announced over the public address system that Arlott had just signed off for the last time. Every cricketer on the ground turned to the commentary box, and joined the spectators in a hearty round of applause for the great man. On the way out, Tony Lewis reportedly asked Arlott: “Not a very romantic last word, John”. “There’s nothing remotely more romantic than a complete-and-forever clean break,” Arlott replied.