Obituary: Mike Denness OBE, cricketer

Mike Denness in his playing days at Essex. Picture: PA
Mike Denness in his playing days at Essex. Picture: PA
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Born: 1 December, 1940, in Belshill, Lanarkshire. Died: 19 April 2013, in London, aged 72

Mike Denness, who has died following a lengthy battle against cancer, is the only Scot to have captained the full England cricket team since the Second World War, and only the second to hold the office after Douglas Jardine.

He was born in Bellshill, but the family moved to Ayr when he was young. With the Denness home situated adjacent to Ayr Cricket Club’s Cambusdoon ground, the young Mike gravitated towards that game.

He was not solely a cricketer. At Ayr Academy, he was a member of the legendary unbeaten rugby XV which included two other future national captains: Ian Ure, who captained the Scotland team in a non-cap international against Israel during the 1967 world tour, and Ian “Mighty Mouse” McLauchlan, who captained Scotland on a record number of occasions.

While he was a good enough rugby player to go straight into the Ayr RFC 1st XV on leaving school, he was a far better cricketer, winning his first Scotland cricket cap when still at Ayr Academy. His promise attracted the attention of Kent, where he made his debut in 1962, recommended to the county by another Scot to have played for them, Jimmy Allen, then a team mate at Ayr. He played more than 700 first-class matches and List A matches over his 22-year first-class career. He was a right-handed bat, either an opener or going in first wicket down.

Denness won the first of an eventual 28 England Test caps against the touring New Zealanders in 1969, but, like many of his contemporaries, he suffered from the vagaries of the England selection system. He led England in 19 of his test matches, after succeeding Yorkshireman Ray Illingworth in 1973, but suffered badly at the hands of the Australian opening bowling pairing of Denis Lillee and Jeff Thomson.

Geoffrey Boycott, it is alleged, didn’t rate Denness as a player or a captain and, fighting unrest back home in Yorkshire, absented himself from the England team during Denness’s reign.

After the Aussies had hammered England in Australia in winter 1974-75, then came to England that summer to defend the Ashes and promptly beat England in the opening Test, at Edgbaston, Denness was replaced as captain by South African-born Scot Tony Greig, and his international career was over. Ironically, in the final test of the 1974-75 series in Australia, in Melbourne, with Thomson missing from the Australian XI and Lillee getting injured, Denness posted his highest test score of 188.

He was a much more successful captain of Kent, where he formed a formidable opening partnership with the late Brian Luckhurst. He led the county to six one-day trophies: three John Player Leagues, two Benson & Hedges and one Gillette Cup, prior to leaving the county in 1977, crossing the Thames to play-out his first-class career with Essex, prior to retirement in 1980. He made 33 first-class centuries, four in test matches; his test career also included seven half-centuries, giving him a test average of 39.69 from his 1667 runs. Overall, he scored more than 30,000 first-class and List A runs, at an average of 33.48. His highest first-class score was an unbeaten 195 while his top one-day score was an unbeaten 118. He was an occasional bowler, taking just two first-class wickets, but he was a fine close fielder, with more than 500 catches to his name.

In retirement he pursued various business interests, but kept in touch with cricket as a test match referee, but this career ended in controversy in 2002 when he was quietly dropped from the list after sanctioning six Indian players during a test match against South Africa in Port Elizabeth. At the same time he underwent heart surgery.

Always immaculately turned-out, a very orthodox and stylish batsman, he stood for the finest values in cricket. He was a gentleman through and through, remaining on good terms with his friends and his ex-wife’s family in Ayr after his marriage, to his childhood sweetheart, Molly, was dissolved.

Denness was made OBE for his services to cricket. He was an inaugural member of the Scottish Sports Hall of Fame and was in the Scottish Cricket Hall of Fame. He had been named as one of Wisden’s Cricketers of the Year in 1975 and was an honorary member of MCC. At the time of his death, he was in his final week as president of Kent County Cricket Club.

He is survived by two daughters, a son and his partner, Doreen Wadlow.