In a fittingly grand service at St Paul’s last week, Christopher Martin-Jenkins was remembered as the best friend cricket ever had. His amateur affection for the game, and bumbling technophobia, were celebrated by many living legends of the game. But what I admired most about CMJ, one of my heroes as a child, is just what a canny and mischievous hack he was.
I basically decided to be a journalist after reading his match reports in the Telegraph and Times.
A couple of years ago, I wrote to him saying I was researching a book on spin bowling, and invited him to lunch. We duly met at the Fox and Hounds in Funtington, West Sussex, where he ordered cod and chips and gave me the benefit of his wisdom.
I told him in confidence that, on the train down, a funny thing happened. I sat behind Nigel Lawson, and watched as this former Chancellor grew ever more stressed and angry. He was struggling with the Telegraph’s Sudoku – the one marked ‘medium’ on the difficulty level. Given he was famed for his intellectual flair and grasp of arithmetic, this struck me as rather ironic. When I told CMJ, he bellowed out a mighty laugh and said “That’s too good to miss, isn’t it?!”.
I thought nothing of it until, years later, I discovered this tale was relayed in CMJ’s autobiography. Cricket nut and committed Christian though he was, CMJ was a muck-raking hack at heart.
Last Saturday, Chennai Super Kings (166-6) beat Royal Challengers Bangalore (165-6) by four wickets in a thrilling match in the Indian Premier League.
In the last over Virat Kohli, the Royals’ captain, chucked the ball to seamer R P Singh. With the Super Kings needing two to win off the last ball, Singh bowled a bouncer, Ravindra Jadeja slashed at it and was caught at third man, seemingly handing victory to the Royals. It was then we all noticed that the umpire’s arm was outstretched for a no-ball, only the third of the innings, and as the batsmen crossed for a run, victory went instead to Chennai.
Now, when we say this was a no-ball, it wasn’t just any old no-ball. It was about as big a no-ball as you’ll see in first-class cricket. Singh was maybe a foot over. Some screeched foul play; Kohli rushed to defend his man publicly after the game.
Well, I say: not a word of it. This is the IPL. Despite all the billions washing around, foul play just does not happen. What actually transpired is that an extra-terrestrial life force beamed down before that final ball, unbeknown to poor Singh, and moved his bowling mark forward by 13 inches. In such circumstances you could hardly expect a top-class bowler to have his wits about him, and know where the popping crease is.
It’s not the done thing to dance on the graves of the recently deceased, but a friend’s text message last week deserves a wider audience. I sent him a text saying Mike Denness had died of cancer at 72. “Oo-er. That’s a chunk of my boyhood gone,” came back the reply. It went on: “Denness stepping away to square leg umpire v Thommo [Jeff Thomson] in 74-75 [Ashes series in which England lost] the single most humiliating moment in all cricket history.”
Very, very few men with ambitions to play at the highest level make it to the Test arena and a tiny fraction of those that do can boast, as Denness could, that they captained their country. But what a grim misfortune that, to an entire generation, he’ll be remembered not for his fluent batting, but according to the withering verdict above.