The only Scots-born cricketer to captain England – Douglas Jardine was born in India to Scottish parents and spent part of his childhood in Scotland – Mike Denness played 28 Tests between 1969 and 1975, 19 of them as captain. He later became a Test match referee and found himself embroiled in a bitter controversy.
He was born in Bellshill, Lanarkshire, and began playing cricket when his family moved to Ayr, where he was educated at Ayr Academy. A stylish batsman, he made his debut for Kent in 1962, and spent most of his career there, making 17,047 first-class runs and captaining the county to six domestic trophies in the 1970s before finishing his career with Essex.
He made his England debut against New Zealand at the Oval in 1969 and replaced Ray Illingworth as captain for the drawn 1974 tour of the West Indies. He made consecutive centuries later that summer as England beat India 3-0, but his captaincy was dogged by a lack of support from senior players, in particular Geoff Boycott, who felt they had been unfairly passed over.
A drawn series with Pakistan followed before England headed to Australia for the 1974-75 Ashes series, in which Denness controversially dropped himself for the fourth Test after making only 65 runs in his first six innings. He returned for the fifth and sixth Tests, making a Test high score of 188 in the latter, but England would lose the series 4-1.
It is fair to say that whoever had been captaining England that winter could hardly have hoped to fare better, giving the destructive appetite of the fast-bowling pair of Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson. As Denness’s predecessor, Ray Illingworth, put it on hearing of his death, “If he was not the most successful England captain, it is only fair to say that not many England sides ran into opponents as fierce as Lillee and Thomson.”
In fact Denness’s decision to drop himself was remarkably brave. “It is difficult to describe how I felt,” he later wrote. “It was probably a mixture of despair, sadness and frustration. If I had had my leg in plaster or my arm in a sling, it would have been different, but I was fully fit.”
When Denness was relieved of his duties the following summer following defeat in the first Ashes Test he received a letter from John Inverarity, Australia’s then chief of selectors, who wrote: “At this moment I am thinking of you, for I admire your attitude to cricket and life. You may or may not know that I am a secondary school teacher. I was asked last February by some students what I considered to be the highlight of the recent England-Australia clash. I was expected to give one of the following as an answer – the speed of Lillee or Thomson, the aggression of these two bowlers, the crushing defeat of the ‘Poms’, etc. I gave my answer – the conduct, demeanour and example of Mike Denness.”
Denness’s final Test century came shortly after as he helped guide England to a 2-0 series victory over New Zealand but an innings defeat in the first Ashes Test in the summer of 1975 saw him relieved of his duties and exit the Test arena with a batting average of 39.69. He had scored four Test centuries and seven fifties, and also played in 12 one-day-internationals, scoring 264 runs.
He retired in 1980, after 501 first-class and 232 one-day matches, scoring 25,886 runs at an average of 33.48. He went on to earn a living in insurance, finance and public relations.
He later became an ICC Test referee and caused controversy in 2001 when he gave six Indian players suspended one-match Test bans during the second Test against South Africa at Port Elizabeth – four for excessive appealing, Sourav Ganguly for failing to control his players and the team’s star, Sachin Tendulkar, for ball-tampering. The Indian authorities refused to accept the sanctions and selected the six for the next Test. Denness’s decision was met with huge hostility in India, with demonstrations on the streets and effigies of Denness burnt. The Indian Cricket Board threatened to boycott the third Test if he was not replaced as referee.
The ICC supported him but the South African board sided with the Indians and replaced Denness, who was not even allowed to enter the stadium, with Denis Lindsay. The ICC declared the match to be unofficial and classified it as a “friendly five-day match”. The series was officially limited to the two matches already completed, with South Africa named as the 1–0 winners.
It was an appallingly difficult time for Denness, who was accused of racism by the Indians. “It was easier facing Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson,” he said afterwards.
Denness went on to coach the second XI at Kent and served as chairman of the county’s cricket committee. He was in the final week of his year as the club’s president when he died. He was named a Wisden Cricketer of the Year in 1975 and was an honorary member of the MCC. Denness, who died after a long struggle with cancer, was awarded an OBE in this year’s New Years Honours for services to sport.
Michael Henry Denness, cricketer and match referee: born Bellshill, Scotland 1 December 1940; OBE 2013; married Molly (marriage dissolved; one son, two daughters); died London 19 April 2013.
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