A press box legend who brought laughter wherever he travelled

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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 a pile of ashes,” said Johnson, who was used to being asked to wheel out his memories 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.

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