Cricket ushered in 2013 in somewhat whispered tones; it lost two of its greats in the space of a week, as Christopher Martin-Jenkins and Tony Greig both lost their battles with cancer, aged 67 and 66 respectively.
Tony Greig was always a figure of controversy, from the very beginning. He was born in South Africa, like so many of our modern greats, but qualified to play for England through his Scottish father, and despite having grown up in South Africa, moved to Sussex for a year for a trial, scored 156 on debut, and naturally, didn’t return home. He rarely looked back. His England career spanned just 5 years in the 1970s, in which time he scored 3,599 runs at an average of 40.43. He would have played more for England, had he not given up the captaincy to go and play in Kerry Packer’s infamous World Series. That story is best told elsewhere.
My own memory of him, as it is for many others of my generation, is as a pundit and commentator. As a young boy, it took me many years to realise he was English: his lilting Afrikaans accent and forthright way of speaking made it difficult to believe. He worked predominantly on the Channel Nine Network in Australia, and his commentary on the some of The Ashes clashes over the years goes down in cricket folklore. My personal favourite is when Glenn McGrath was giving Steve Harmison some “aggro”: Greig commented that McGrath felt he had to “touch him up, before rolling him over”. That was Greig all over. Perceptive, witty, but with a touch of the blue. Billy Birmingham’s Twelfth Man satirises him for his famous pitch reports, and his propensity for jamming his keys into the pitch, both of which were faintly ridiculous, but he carried them off with a charm and dignity which made his slightly rough-and-ready style seem completely natural.
A keen golfer, it was always a disappointment to me that Greig’s name never featured on the starter’s sheet for the Dunhill Links Championships. However, I will not forget his onscreen presence, and his warm commentary. “If you’ve nothing to add to the picture, just stay quiet” goes a famous saying in sports commentary – Tony however, rarely had nothing to add.
Greig was a man the most famous part of whose career I missed, but that of Christopher Martin Jenkins, or CMJ as everyone knew him, is a different story. A talented schoolboy cricketer, he never quite made it past the Surrey 2nd XI, and at the age of 28, he became the BBC’s cricket correspondent in 1973, having started commentating on cricket 3 years earlier. He worked in journalism on cricket right up until his death on New Year’s Day 2013: his final piece appeared in the Times the previous day.
Listening to CMJ commentating on Radio 4 Longwave’s Test Match Special is one of my most abiding memories; so many famous English defeats are engraved on my memory in CMJ’s hand-writing. Listening to his voice there was no doubt as to his breeding and education: in deep contrast to Greig, he had the kind of accent that smelt of pipe smoke, swing dance,white tie and tails, and Saturday morning of the Lords Test match. His perfect diction and clipped tones meant that I could turn the volume right down at 4 in the morning on my radio, and still make out that Geraint Jones had thrown his wicket away again in Australia (although that is a bit of a given). Despite his apparent straight-laces, CMJ had a wicked sense of humour: radio commentary is a very specific skill, with many aspects to it, and comedy is one. He provided the perfect balance of detail and colour, which allowed a listener to close their eyes and immerse themselves in the MCG on Day 2 of the Boxing Day Test. Personally, I could almost smell the spit and sawdust holding the England batting order together.
In my research for this article, I came across this image of CMJ receiving his from HRH The Prince of Wales, while both crack a smile. I imagined the conversation that might have taken place between them; I have no doubt that HRH had a radio secreted in most royal vehicles when the Test was on, and I imagine he may well have personally thanked CMJ for nursing him through all those difficult years of being an English cricket fan. Even looking at the picture now, I can sense the warmth of CMJ’s smile, and despite having never met the man, it brings a tear to my eye.
He was a man who spoke to so many people in every corner of the globe, and yet still had that individual charm, that twinkle in his eye, and that sparkle in his voice. He will be missed the world over.
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