Je Banshi Bhenge Gache: A Tribute to CMJ

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The beginning of the year 2013 wasn’t a very happy time for the cricket lovers throughout the world. Just a few days after the death of Tony Greig, the ex England captain, came the news of the death of Christopher Martin Jenkins (CMJ). Here in Bangladesh, we were shocked to hear the news of Tony’s death. Over the last decade and a half, as Bangladesh was introduced to the big league, he was quite a frequent visitor here. He came here in 1998, as a commentator, when Dhaka hosted a knock out event. He was impressed by the following of the game in this country, and he was a big advocate in welcoming teams like Bangladesh in the bigger arena. He had a firm belief that cricket can’t survive merely relying on the big elites (India, Pakistan, England, Australia and a few others); it is important to involve the ‘minnows’ as well; and Bangladesh in his views was an ideal launching pad. So, he was a great a friend of our cricket, and we were greatly grieved to hear the news of his departure.

In direct contrast, the death of CMJ didn’t make much impression to our young cricket lovers. Yet, like Tony Greig, he too is a legendary figure. Unfortunately, he is still largely unknown to our cricket lovers. While, Greig made it to the top as a player, before becoming a very distinguished TV commentator, CMJ never came close to reaching the heights as a cricketer; being the 12th man of his versity team (Cambridge) in the traditional fixture against Oxford was the closest he came to 1st class cricket. Most of his playing career involved playing (and at times captaining) the Cambridge University 2nd XI. Yet, his love for the game was enormous, and although he graduated with a history major, it was certain that his future career would be involved with only one thing; the game of cricket. And eventually he became a legendary cricket commentator for BBC radio.

Immediately after his graduation in 1967, he joined ‘The Cricketer’ Magazine as the deputy editor, working under E.W. Swanton. He joined BBC Radio Sports News Department in 1970 and made his commentary debut in the summer of 1972. He became a part of TMS the following summer. For more than 4 decades CMJ served cricket in different capacity. Apart from his commentary duties , he edited ‘The Cricketer’ from 1980 onwards and wrote or edited more than 20 books. Yet, all my connection with him was via the TMS; that’s why my memories of CMJ are entwined with TMS. So, here in this article I would be mostly recalling my own memories of TMS.

The Test Match Special (TMS) of BBC Radio is still going on and even in the days of almost continuous live cricket telecast by TV or live streaming via internet, it still holds a very distinguished position among many cricket lovers. In fact, I have heard that some people watch test cricket in their TV with sound off, instead listening to the TMS commentary from radio. If BBC is a highly reputed institution, then TMS is an institution itself within BBC. Yet, my introduction to this great institution came via an accident rather than by any design.

Ever since my dad took me to my first cricket match, between Bangladesh and MCC, in Jan 1977, I had followed cricket, from both home and abroad with great interest. Thanks to the Agortala station of Akashbani, I specially followed the progress of the Indian cricket team. Thus, I followed the gradual decline of the great Indian spin force ( in the late 70’s), I followed Gavaskar’s purple patch between 1978-80; Kapil Dev’s arrival (in 1978) in the big arena; Vishy’s fighting ton at MCG (1981), and Dilip Vengsarkar finding his feet in the test arena following hundreds at Lord’s and Feroz Shah Kotla in 1979. Then, in the summer of 1982, Sunil Gavaskar’s India was in England for a 3 match series. The series was scheduled to start on 10 th June, at 4 o’clock (in the afternoon) Dhaka time. And I was beside my radio on that afternoon waiting for the commentary. But, unfortunately (or fortunately) the weather in Dhaka on that afternoon was extremely inclement. There was heavy wind blowing, I had problems receiving the weak signals from Agortala in the east. I was dejected. Yet, my problems were solved late in the evening, as my dad returned home and solved my problems by connecting to BBC test match special; opening up a new wonderful world for me. For the next decade and a half, TMS commentary was an integral part of my June-August days. I missed the commentary by John Arlott (who had retired in 1980), but I had the opportunity to listen to the likes of Brian Johnston, Henry Blofled, Don Mosey, CMJ and others. Then there were the experts (they were called the summarizers) normally an ex test cricketer; I remember (among others) Fred Trueman, Trevor Bailey, Brian Statham in that capacity. And there were the guest commentators from the visiting country; thus there were Mushtaq Muhammad from Pakistan, and Farokh Engineer from India; from WI it was Tony Cozier (obviously). Finally, there was the statistician, Bill Frindle, very meticulous in his duties. Together they formed a wonderful team, Brian Johnston, the most senior of the group, following the retirement of Arlott, was the unofficial leader of the group, until his death in 1993. Now, I revere Johnston, Blofeld, CMJ and the others of TMS as cult heroes. Yet, back in 1982, they were unfamiliar names to me. It was over the next 15 years, as I spend numerous summer and monsoon evenings listening to their commentaries that they became like friends to me.

All of them had their distinctive styles; but I would come to that later. First, I would like to describe what made TMS commentary so special. Here, I would like to give an analogy. For almost half a century, Sir Neville Cardus continuously set new standards in cricket writing. His specialty lied in the fact that, whenever he covered a cricket match, he tried to bring (through his writing) his reader to the game. That’s why he would describe the surroundings, the character of the individual players; while the others were just happy to describe the happenings of the match; just satisfied to give the numbers. In similar way, the TMS commentators managed to take their listeners to the ground. That’s why during many wet monsoon evenings when I was confined (physically) to our house in Gulshan, in my mind I could find myself somewhere else. At times,, I was at Lord’s, watching Dilley charging in from the Nursery End, or Vishwanath, adding 4 to his name with a trademark square cut. Later, in the season I would be at the Oval; where the WI supporters would Clap Micheal Holding all the way during his lovely smooth run up to the wicket, or Waqar Younis would make life uncomfortable for the English batsmen with his pace and late swing.

Now to the styles; while Henry and CMJ would welcome their listeners with friendly jovial voice, Mosey had a somewhat husky voice, reminiscent of Arlott; both CMJ and Henry liked to focus on the details a lot; Henry would often describe the color of the bus passing by the cricket ground. (Like CMJ, Henry too went to Cambridge, unlike CMJ, he did promise great things as a school level cricketer, until a very serious accident briefly threatened his life. He, however was a regular with the Cambridge first team, and in the late 60’s, he and CMJ played together in a match for the Cambridge Allumni XI). Among the experts, Trueman and Bailey were the traditionalist, that’s why they generally preferred solid Edrich, dependable Gavaskar and almost pedestrian Boycott, over flamboyant Greenidge and dashing Srikkanth.They, both were delighted to see Maninder Singh bowl in the summer of 1986. With his orthodox delivery action, and variation of flight, he reminded everybody of Hedley Verity and Bishen Bedi.

Back to CMJ, as I stated earlier he always had a friendly, jovial voice, he was like the friendly neighbor saying hello to the boy next-door on a bright holiday morning. Listening to his voice, I often felt that there was something surreal about it; his voice seemed to come from some other place; a place where everybody is happy,where the young boys don’t have to attend schools for 5 days a week, while the elders are just happy to go fishing or bask in bright summer sunshine. (I still get that kind of feeling when I listen to the voices of Lata Mungeshkar or Shehnaz Rahmatullah).

During the 1986 Ashes tour down under, he was a guest commentator for ABC radio. Obviously his voice was easily distinguishable from his Aussie counterparts. Their styles were different as well; with both parties sticking to their original styles. While, CMJ was busy describing the surroundings of Gabba or MCG; the Aussie commentators were more involved with the statistical details. (Not surprisingly, the Aussie commentators excel in TV commentary; Channel 9 of Kerry Packar is equivalent to BBC TMS for TV commentary). The Jim Maxwell and Co. sounded more analytical to me; CMJ seemed more natural.

Another notable thing regarding CMJ, was that he always enjoyed elegant, attractive bating. In his view, the attractive batting was not synonymous with aggressive batting; that’s why he always enjoyed the soft elegant touches of Vishy’s batting, even when he was scoring only at a rate 15 runs per hour. CMJ was disappointed with the Indian batting in 1982; with Vishy in the twilight zone of his career, the Indian batting then revolved around Gavaskar, Vengsarker, and Yashpal Sharman; all of them were dependable, but lacked the grace of a real entertainer. Admittedly, Kapil batted well down the order, and Sandip Patil did hit Wills for 6 fours in one over, (it was a 7 ball over due to a no-ball) on his way to hundred, still, overall the Indian top order disappointed CMJ, to him it was not spicy enough. He was missing the effortless timings of Vijay Manjrekar, the soft touches of left handed Wadekar, the back foot square of the wicket shots of Engineer; or the ‘Majestic’ drives of Nawab of Pataudi.

There are tons of information about CMJ and TMS in different websites; but I am not interested about the details. I simply like to remember him as one of the men; who turned many boring monsoon evenings during my childhood days into wonderful, exciting moments. Thanks to them, I visited Lord’s, Oval, or Trent Bridge, without setting a foot outside my Dhaka home. To me, CMJ is more than just a cricket commentator, to me, he is an artist, of the highest order.

Epilogue: In the process of writing this article, thanks to BBC and the web technology, I listened to an audio clip of CMJ commentating, with Trueman as the expert accompanying him. It was a clip of the 1977 Ashes test at Headingley; he was describing the over where Geoffrey Boycott reached his 100th 1st class 100. As I listened to it, I found the soft amiable voice of CMJ, a perfect match for the lovely early spring sunshine that was shining on the small garden just beside my windows. Briefly, very briefly, I felt that I was back to my childhood days.

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