AGW members will have been saddened in learning the news Martin Johnson passed away on 13th March, 2021
Martin, and born on 23rd June, 1949, is remembered as the cricket correspondent for The Indepedent, feature writer at the Daily Telegraph and who also wrote for The Sunday Times. He covered many sports in addition to cricket including rugby union, boxing, rowing, show jumping, the Olympics and golf.
He was a tremendous writer and producing stories and observations that would leave in tears of laughter. He had tremendous wit. He would be seen at golf touranaments walking the course with a pencil behind his ear and a notebook in back pocket. You wondered what he was writing about. It was not always about who was leading. Monty was a favourite. He was always approachable, someone you’d love sharing a few drinks with and someone who never took himself too seriously. He was a great friend to so many AGW members.
LIFE AND CAREER
After receiving his education at Monmouth School, Johnson joined the South Wales Argus. He subsequently moved to the Leicester Mercury, before joining The Independent in 1986. According to his Independent obituarist: “Readers were astonished and amused – and some bemused – by a hilarious wise-cracking correspondent with a unique style.” Covering the England cricket tour of Australia in 1986-7, following a string of poor performances in the run-up to the first Test, he famously wrote that there were only three things wrong with the English team: “They can’t bat, they can’t bowl and they can’t field.” When England went on to comfortably win the Test series, he ended his piece summarising the tour with the pithy: “Right quote, wrong team.
He worked for the Daily Telegraph between 1995 and 2008, and subsequently for The Sunday Times. Though an astute observer of the sports that he covered, he was not renowned as a news-getter, and in consequence was ironically known as “Scoop” by his press colleagues. He was also accident-prone. When sent by the Telegraph to cover a heavyweight boxing bout between Lennox Lewis and Ray Mercer, he arrived at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas to take his seat, only to be told that the fight was actually taking place in New York City on the opposite side of the country
He wrote of David Gower, the English batsman, that he was “so laid back, he’s almost horizontal”; on Shane Warne’s delivery to dismiss Mike Gatting in 1993: “How anyone can spin a ball the width of Gatting boggles the mind”; on the bowler Angus Fraser running in “like a man who has got his braces caught on the sightcreen” (sic); on Merv Hughes, the Australian bowler, “He swings it both ways through the air (and that’s just his stomach … his coiffeur appears to have been entrusted to an inebriated sheep shearer somewhere in the outback.”
Gower said of him: “Martin was a writer of great skill, and he wrote primarily to entertain himself. He was also fiercely independent and wasn’t afraid to put the boot in.” His Telegraph obituarist finished his piece with: “Few men in our business have brought so much joy to so many.”
Martin also was a keen golfer and often played in the company of AGW members. He passed away age of 71 after a long illness.
Tributes to Martin Johnson –
Martin Johnson tribute: A press box legend who brought laughter wherever he travelled . The former Daily Telegraph journalist died aged 71 after a long illness and will be remembered as one of the trade’s great raconteurs
By Simon Briggs, SENIOR FEATURE WRITER, 15 March 2021
The last time I spoke to Martin Johnson over the phone, I found myself crying with laughter on the train into London. It was a familiar experience for those lucky enough to know the ultimate raconteur of British sport – a man who was even funnier in person than he was in print.
Johnson – who has died at the age of 71 – wrote for the Daily Telegraph between 1995 and 2008. It was the centrepiece of a magnificent career that began at the Leicester Mercury in the 1970s and also included sizeable stints at the Independent – where he made his first foray into Fleet Street – and latterly at the Sunday Times. Even amidst the eccentricities of the press box, Johnson was one of a kind: a correspondent who could skewer the shortcomings of a team or athlete as accurately as any straight news reporter, yet do it while simultaneously triggering a belly laugh.
He had so many great moments, but the stand-outs tend to involve England cricket tours, for that was the sport which prompted his finest work. In the winter of 1986-87, as Mike Gatting’s Ashes tourists stumbled through their warm-up matches, he famously wrote that “There are only three things wrong with this England team: they can’t bat, they can’t bowl and they can’t field.” When I rang him in 2017, while preparing a historical piece on Gatting’s Ashes, he expressed wonderment at the way his quip has lived on. “It’s extraordinary how the “Can’t bat, can’t bowl, can’t field” thing survives, like finding somebody’s teeth in apile of ashes,” said Johnson, who was used to being asked to wheel out his mmories
of the tour. “It must be like being an impressionist, like Alistair McGowan, and being asked to do your Harold Wilson every time you go to dinner.”
The other central story from his days on the cricket trail dates from the 1996-97 tour of Zimbabwe – a particularly ill-fated trip – where his clear-eyed questioning provoked the then England coach David “Bumble” Lloyd into a notorious outburst. “England had just drawn with Zimbabwe with scores level,” recalled Peter Hayter, a great friend of Johnson’s who was then covering cricket for the Mail on Sunday. “The mood at the post-match press conference was prickly, to put it mildly. Mike Atherton [then England captain] was eyeballing Martin, and Bumble suddenly burst out saying ‘We flippin’ murdered ’em, everybody knows that.’ Martin had the last laugh, as ever. He wrote that ‘When you’re murdering a person it’s advisable to make sure they’re no longer breathing.’”
As it happened, Atherton simmered down and knocked on Johnson’s door that evening with a bottle of wine, which they shared in a mood of reconciliation. And neither was he the only England captain to make up with Johnson in this way after reacting angrily to one of his barbs. David Gower – a man so easy-going that he would sometimes be viewed as a dilettante – was once moved to threaten litigation over the suggestion that his leadership might be improved by a frontal lobotomy
“Even I, having known him so long, took exception,” recalled Gower, whose apprenticeship at Leicestershire had coincided with Johnson’s days on the county beat. “We got a lawyer to write a letter to the sports editor of the Independent threatening to close them down if an apology wasn’t made. Martin rang me, said ‘What’s going on?’ I said ‘I want a bottle of champagne, make it a magnum. I want you to deliver it to my home and then we can drink it. It was a suitably amicable settlement out of court, and certainly didn’t cloud our friendship.
“Martin was a writer of great skill, and he wrote primarily to entertain himself,” added Gower. “He was also fiercely independent and wasn’t afraid to put the boot in. Mike Turner [Leicestershire’s chief executive] would look enviously at Leicester City football club up the road and note that when they lost 6-0, the report would say they were unlucky, because the football reporter was almost a PR man on the club staff. Turner once asked me to speak to Martin about it, but as soon as we got to the bar for a chat, he turned to me and said ‘Quiet word – if it’s about what I am writing for the Mercury, don’t bother.’”
Johnson was not famed as a news-getter – and indeed within the press box he was known ironically as “Scoop”. He could be accident-prone, as when the Telegraph sent him to cover a heavyweight boxing bout between Lennox Lewis and Ray Mercer.
Having arrived at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas in search of his ring-side seat, Johnson was told that he was at the wrong venue, and the fight was way out east. “East side of town?” he replied. “No sir, east as in East Coast.” It was actually being
staged in New York.
Yet he was certainly much more than just a gags man. He was an astute observer of sport in general, and an enthusiastic participant – particularly on the golf course, where his distinctive, Sid James-ish cackle would ring out whenever a shot went
astray. “Our games with Chris Lander [the former Daily Mirror cricket correspondent] and others were often comedy classics,” recalled Hayter. “I’ve seen him laugh so hard that he would literally clutch his sides in pain.” That was my experience, too, when I last rang him and he re-enacted a scene from the 1987 cricket World Cup involving the food parcels that Tesco sent to the England team to keep their spirits up through five weeks on the Indian sub-continent. “There was a giant wheel of camembert, which mysteriously disappeared into Mike Gatting’s hotel room,” Johnson recalled. “John Emburey was banging on the door, saying ‘He’s got the cheese in there!’” At the time, Gatting might occasionally have felt exasperated by Johnson’s one-liners – which included the observation that “How anyone can spin a ball the width of Gatting boggles the mind” after Shane Warne’s wonder-ball of 1993. But he has fond memories of “a man with a very sharp, very dry sense of humour. The press used to put on a little play or sketch show at Christmas, when we travelled to Australia, and Martin used to write all the best lines.”
There were so many to choose from. Johnson was particularly good on run-ups. For Merv Hughes, he wrote that “his mincing run-up resembles someone in high heels and a panty girdle chasing after a bus,” while Angus Fraser “looked like a man who
had got his braces caught on the sightscreen.” Another favourite target was golfer Colin Montgomerie, who – at the height of the 1990 panic over Bovine Spongiform Encephalitis – was described as suffering from “a virulent case of Boiling Scotsman Eruptus”.
I can only encourage lovers of Johnson’s prose to search out his books – there are collections both of his rugby and cricket writing available second-hand, while a more recent compendium Can I Carry Your Bags? A Sports’ Hack Abroad was published by Constable in 2015. Johnson died at the weekend after a long illness. Few men in our business have brought so much joy to so many.
Martin Johnson: his greatest work for The Telegraph –
On Steve Waugh (1999 World Cup, Australia v South Africa): It’s the eyes – barely visible through two narrow slits, and as cold and unblinking as anything you’ll see on a fishmonger’s slab – that let the bowler know exactly what he’s up against. If they’d belonged to a baddie at the OK Corral, Wyatt Earp would not so much have reached for his six-gun as the lavatory paper. When the heat becomes unbearable, as South Africa found out in two epic back-to-back World Cup encounters, Steve Waugh is the last man out of the kitchen. In selecting a man to bat for your life, you’d eliminate Geoff Boycott on the grounds that watching him would render life not worth living, and plump, every time, for the man who is the biggest single reason – Shane Warne included – for England having lost every Ashes series since 1986. His features, as cracked and leathery as a dried up billabong, give another clue to the fact that this is a man devoid of frippery, a man with so much steel that a
crisis sends ballbearings rather than corpuscles coursing through his veins. If they cast the Waugh twins in a re-make of Zulu, it’s not hard to picture which one would play the Michael Caine role, idly swishing flies from his saddle, and which one
Stanley Baker, up to his neck in sweat and sandbags.
On the Henley Regatta (July 3, 1999): Most people’s idea of time travel is confined to H.G. Wells novels, or archive episodes
of Dr Who, but if you really want to experience life in a bygone era, it really doesn’t matter whether you have a Tardis in your garage or a Ford Mondeo. When you pick up your Daily Telegraph at the Henley Royal Regatta, you half expect to be nformed
that the Boers have been kicking up in Pretoria, and that Mr Disraeli has been addressing the House on the thorny subject of increasing the road tax on ponies and traps.
On Colin Montgomerie at the US PGA (Aug 14, 1999): Here in America, the Colin Montgomerie fan club could cram all its members inside a single telephone kiosk, and it’s not just the hecklers from the beer tent for whom the phrase “make my day” has less association with a Clint Eastwood movie than the prospect of Monty’s golf ball disappearing into the long grass. As the Scot struck his opening tee shot on Thursday afternoon in his continuing quest for that elusive first major, a demure middle-aged American woman – a secretary of the bowls club type who looked as though she took her poodle for a weekly blow dry and pedicure – couldn’t help herself. “Oh goood!” she said to her companion. “He’s gone and hit it in the rough.” This love affair, it has to be said, is entirely reciprocal, as you might expect when you have a clash between galleries who greet a routine 3ft putt with what appears to be the mating cry of a South American parakeet and a golfer who can
hear a toffee being unwrapped three fairways away.
On the Horse of the year show (Oct 2, 1999): Da Da Dum, da da dum, dada dada dada dum… Remember the Horse of the Year Show? It used to come on live after the BBC’s nine o’clock news, and Dorian Williams and Raymond Brooks Ward (now commentating on that great jump-orf in the sky) were invariably engaged in the human equivalent of sweating up in the paddock as a regimental Brit cantered towards the final fence. “Group Captain Bulldog Drummond-Haystack on Bengal Lancer III! Will he go clear? Come on Bulldog! Big stride now! Yes! He’s … oh, no! It’s gora! It’s gorn! My word, what rotten luck!” And poor old Dorian would then have to talk us bravely through Deutschland Uber Alles as the dastardly Hun – usually someone called Alvin Schockabsorber riding Kaiser Bill Batman IV – collected the coveted rosette and a handful of grated
carrot. However, even though the Beeb’s sporting cupboard has long since been rendered barer than old Mother Hubbard’s, the traffic around Wembley Arena this week has not been cluttered up by a single outside broadcast van. A couple of
cameras from Meridian have been about the height of it, and an event which once generated millions of viewers is now famous only for generating, over a five-day period, 2,000 tons of horse manure.
On the Sydney Olympics (Sept 16, 2000): There is no more patriotic nation on earth than this one, where advertising for anything from cornflakes to condoms comes complete with a chorus of Waltzing Matilda. If you had a pound for every high-profile Australian who has announced themselves to be “proud” this week, or burst into tears while ferrying a torch around
the Opera House, you’d make Bill Gates look like the owner of a Post Office savings account.
On Kevin Pietersen (Sept 9, 2005): First prize for the worst dismissal went to Kevin Pietersen, a man whom his admirers
say has done a lot to invest this England team with a fierce self-belief. Which is a fair enough comment. Pietersen is not a man who would be awake all night riddled with doubts, and it is hard not to suspect that whenever he gets his first glimpse of himself in the bedroom mirror in the morning, he is not entirely displeased with what he sees.
On the Edgbaston Ashes Test (Aug 8, 2005): It is not so long ago that one-day cricket was threatening to take over the universe, and the year 2077 was being earmarked for a special match to commemorate the 200th birthday of Test cricket, a format heading for the same graveyard as the dinosaur and the local Roxy. And as the game progressed at a leisurely pace, strange conversations would be overheard. “What’s that over Grandad?” “That, my boy, used to be known as three slips and a gully.” Well not any more. There is no more vibrant form of the game than Test cricket, and neither does it need ridiculous gimmicks to fool you into thinking you’re getting something you’re not. If it did, the match just ended in Birmingham – quite possibly the best in history – would doubtless have been marketed as the Australian Aardvarks versus the English Electrics. The survival kit for the Test match spectator has undergone a sweeping change in recent years, from sandwich tin and coffee flask, to incontinence pants and blood pressure pills. You leave your seat for a call of nature at your peril, for fear of coming back to find someone’s stumps splattered, a search party attempting to locate the ball from the pavilion roof, or two players standing eyeball to eyeball proffering what is euphemistically known as a frank exchange of views.
On Tiger Woods (Feb 7, 1998): It is the kind of medical condition that used to afflict teenage girls at Beatles concerts, except in this case the virus is so potent that elderly grandmothers and dribbly-bibbed infants have been known to keel over at the same time. He has more security guards than the President of the United States, and while he too would play off scratch if he decided to take up serial womanising, he’d have considerably less chance of keeping it quiet. As his courtesy car sweeps him through the gates, adoring cries of “Way to go!” and “You the man!” echo around the golf course – and that’s just from his fellow players. The US PGA Tour has no shortage of millionaires at the top end of the scale, but thanks to Tiger Woods every Tom, Dick, and Harry Gump III Junior will soon be making room for another Cadillac in the garage. The latest strain of Tigermania, for which there is no apparent cure, is currently sweeping through San Diego, where symptoms among his fellow professionals include a particularly nasty swelling around the back pocket/wallet area.
On the England tour to Zimbabwe (Dec 6, 1996): Michael Atherton’s plucky tourists did their best but, in the end, there was no holding the might of Mashonaland. After all, they were up against a side containing no fewer than four full-time professionals, and with a bit more luck – such as a ferocious thunderstorm – they might even have managed to take the opposition into a fourth day. Maybe, on their next visit to Zimbabwe, the Test and County Cricket Board will take a more realistic view of the itinerary, and insist on a match against Mashonaland A team.
South Wales Argus – https://www.southwalesargus.co.uk/news/19174147.tributes-paid-ex-argus-sportswriter-martin-johnson/
Cricket Writers Club – http://www.cricketwriters.com/news-2021—martin-johnson—a-tribute-by-mike-selvey.html
RIP Martin from all your friends at the AGW