Gentleman cricketer

Mike Denness during his playing days. "Fairplay for all could have been the motto on a shield if ever Denness had been given the chance to wear one," writes the author.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

What was not to like about the softly-spoken Scotsman, Mike Denness, with a wicked sense of humour and, as he showed in leading Kent to various triumphs, a keen tactical brain. A tribute by Ted Corbett.

I don’t suppose I will get an award by writing a piece for an Indian magazine saying that Mike Denness was an honourable man but he has so often been maligned in his lifetime, which ended recently, that I want to put a different point of view. I believe he deserves a better verdict on his life.

He had come to the end of his spell as England captain — resigned in a huff because he had read that an England selector had criticised his decision to put Australia in to bat — when I joined the travelling circus of cricket writers but he was still around the scene and I got to know him well.

What was not to like about this softly-spoken Scotsman with a wicked sense of humour and, as he showed in leading Kent to various triumphs, a keen tactical brain. Mind you, with their talent he didn’t need a brain of any sort.

He succeeded Ray Illingworth, who has plenty of good things to say about Denness, and — I can say without hesitation — he found that half the England side thought the job would have been better in their own capable hands. It did not help Denness’ cause at a time when he needed all the assistance he could muster but after being captain of the side to a drawn series in West Indies — in one of their down times — he was chosen to lead the side in Australia and found the fast bowling of Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson unplayable.

They were young and quick and vocal, at the height of their physical powers — Thomson once told me about a day when he “bowled as quick as anyone would ever want to”, a frightening thought — and the crowd joined in the fun. Few days go by when David Lloyd does not tell how he waited three months for a half volley and Colin Cowdrey, flown out as a replacement, tried to introduce himself to Thomson on-field and was rebuffed robustly.

Well, that is a polite way of putting it. Cowdrey, forever diplomatic, polite and urbane went back to pavilion and told his team-mates: “It’s all jolly good fun, isn’t it” but there was a lot of banter that was far from fun and the series inevitably went to the Aussies.

Not much fun either for Denness who dropped himself for the fourth Test but went back for the final match and made a century. By the way his Test average is higher than Mike Atherton’s and Mike Brearley’s and Nasser Hussain’s; he was England captain more often than Ian Botham and Keith Fletcher in the same era and he might have made a success of it although he was a sensitive man as his resignation shows.

Too sensitive for modern sport with its press conferences and quotes and off-the-record briefings, I suggest.

It came about because Jim Laker, a great off-spin bowler of the 1940s and 1950s wrote a column in the Daily Express which said that John Edrich, a selector, had criticised Denness for putting the opposition in at Edgbaston. The reporting of cricket was on the turn in the mid-1970s and Laker had broken a convention by revealing what many would have considered a deep top-level cricket secret.

Anyway Denness stepped down, went back to Kent where he was one of many heroes — including Bob Woolmer, Brian Luckhurst, Alan Knott, Derek Underwood and Asif Iqbal — won a few more trophies and then retired. They may have been the most talented county team of all time, but we can discuss that another time.

Eventually he was a match referee — when that job was still on trial — in a series in South Africa when he banned Indian players, including the immortal Sachin Tendulkar.

Please don’t hold it against me that I cannot give you a definitive verdict on this unhappy incident. I was not there, I did not watch it on TV at home but I do know that when I rang for his side of the story after he returned to this country he seemed to have trouble maintaining that he was right.

Authority had the same trouble and he refereed only a handful of matches thereafter although that may simply have been the influence of the Indian press gang who — not surprisingly — blamed Denness and lined him up as a racist.

He joked with me that “how can a Scotsman who has played all his professional sport in England be a racist” but that is merely a sense of the man; his humour never left him right to the end.

In the last couple of years he has fought cancer and lost the battle which proves that he was not a coward, just as his return for the final game of that series in Australia suggests that he never gave in.

I liked the man but I ask you not to think I am a cricket person from the British Isles defending one of his own. Fairplay for all could have been the motto on a shield if ever Denness had been given the chance to wear one. If ever there was a gentleman cricketer it was Denness, whose only award was an OBE, offered a few months ago when he was dying.

He deserved more but I don’t suppose there were wild scenes of grief in India at the news of his death. Denness in his own fair, understated way would have understood that too.