Mike Denness: A Scotsman of rare distinction

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MIKE DENNESS, who died this week of cancer aged 72, broke new ground by becoming the first player to have grown up in Scotland to captain the England cricket team.

He played 28 Test matches for England between 1969 and 1975, 19 as skipper, and scored 1,000 runs in a season 14 times in England and once abroad. The Ayrshireman was, says Warwickshire coach and fellow Scot Dougie Brown, an inspirational figure.

“He was a role model for me as a youngster, proof that it was possibly to come through from Scotland and make it right to the top,” said Brown. “It’s difficult to overstate what a feat that was, but more than just being a very fine player, he was a very humble, nice guy for whom everyone had a lot of respect. He was a real enthusiast, the sort of guy who you could sit down and have a great conversation with; a real thinker.

“Although he refereed me many times, I didn’t know him until I moved down to England. But then, in my early days I played at Canterbury and he came and sought me out to give me some words of encouragement. That was Mike down to a tee.”

Denness’s love affair with the game can be pinpointed to moment when, aged seven or eight, his family moved from his birthplace of Bellshill in Lanarkshire to Ayr and his sports-mad father built a house right next to the town’s cricket club, with only a hedge separating chez Denness from the playground that was Cambusdoon. Although his first love was rugby – he played in the same undefeated Ayr Academy team as footballer Ian Ure and British Lion Ian McLauchlan – that gradually changed as the young Denness spent every summer on the cricket ground, the indulgent pro allowing him to roll the wicket.

Growing up he idolised Tom Graveney, Peter May and Colin Cowdrey, while his father fed his obsession, taking him to Old Trafford for the 1956 Test against Australia in which Jim Laker got all ten wickets in one innings and 19 in the match. As a youngster he practised assiduously, mimicking Graveney’s style and developing into an elegant batsman with good footwork who was known as a brutally effective player of spin, a wonderful cover-driver and superb cover fieldsman.

Those qualities took him into the Scotland team, where he played against Richie Benaud’s Australians, Ireland, the MCC, Yorkshire, Warwickshire and Kent. Against Warwickshire he clearly impressed, with his team-mate, bowler Jim Allen, alerting his former county Kent to Denness’s qualities, while Warwickshire captain MJK Smith, then also England skipper, came into the Scotland dressing room to invite the youngster to Edgbaston for a trial.

Denness joined Kent in 1962 aged 21, reluctantly giving up his rugby career to play under one of his idols, Cowdrey. It was a good choice because Kent were one of the dominant counties throughout the Sixties and Seventies, particularly after Denness succeeded Cowdrey as captain in 1972 and the county won six limited-overs trophies in five years and were runners-up in the county championship. He went one better with Essex, who he joined in 1977 after being relieved of the Kent captaincy, helping them to a county championship title.

By the end of his career in 1980 he had scored more than 30,000 first-class runs in 501 first-class and 232 one-day matches, including 33 centuries and six one-day centuries. An occasional right-arm seamer, he took just two wickets.

There was a streak of iron in Denness’s character that made him a good captain, which was why he was made vice-captain to Tony Lewis in India in 1972-3 after just one Test appearance. Yet many wondered whether he was too sensitive to lead England because it meant dealing with some extraordinarily difficult characters with gargantuan egos. Geoffrey Boycott, in particular, took Denness’s elevation to England captain in succession to Ray Illingworth badly and after Denness scored 99 and 112 in a 26-run win over the West Indies to level the series in his first Test as skipper, thus dashing Boycott’s own captaincy aspirations, England’s finest batsman refused to play under Denness again.

Despite Boycott’s boycott, Denness’s England impressed. In 1974 they beat India 3-0 (Denness becoming the first batsman since Peter May to score back-to-back hundreds for England) and drew the series with Pakistan. But the Scot had the bad luck to encounter the Aussies’ new fast-bowling strike force of Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson in what turned out to be a car crash of an Ashes series. If England were mauled by their hosts – “they were quite ferocious, to the point where players would say ‘thank goodness we got out of that alive’,” said Denness – none suffered more that the captain, with scores of 6,4,2,3,8 and 5 in the first three Tests, after which he dropped himself for the fourth test. Despite Lillee and Thomson both being injured, he rated his 188 in the fifth Test at the MCG as the greatest innings of his life.

After making his fourth and final Test century in New Zealand, the Aussies ended Denness’s Test career in 1975 when his decision to put the tourists in to bat at Edgbaston, despite the likelihood of rain, led to a dismal innings defeat. Although the decision had been a collective one, Denness was an honourable man who took the blame and resigned, handing over the captaincy to Tony Greig (who, like earlier England captain Douglas Jardine, had two Scottish parents and grew up abroad), never to play for England again. His Test average was 39.69.

It was not the end of his time on the Test scene, however. As an ICC match referee in South Africa in 2001 he sanctioned six Indians, including the captain Sourav Ganguly for failing to control his team and Sachin Tendulkar for ball-tampering, after a tempestuous Test in Port Elizabeth. This led to a protracted international incident that only abated after Denness underwent heart surgery and the whole episode was quietly shelved.

A president of Kent CCC, Denness was appointed an OBE in the most recent New Year’s Honours, and is a member of the Scottish Sport Hall of Fame.