Sunday, April 21, 2013

Mike Denness

It was on the 5 am radio news here in New Zealand that Mike Denness had died. I thought it fitting that the passing of the captain who received six of the sixteen trophies that Kent has won in its 143-year history was regarded as internationally newsworthy (even if the announcer did mangle the pronunciation of his name). But of course it was as ex-England captain that his death was being noted.

It is Mike Denness’ fate to be the Alec Douglas-Home of English cricket, the Scot who wasn’t quite up to national leadership (it was Douglas-Home who presented Denness with his Man of the Match medal in the Gillette Cup Final of 1967[i]). Many of the obituaries have made the point that Denness’ record as England captain is better than might be supposed. He won more Tests than he lost, and had a batting average only a smidgen under 40, better, as one online Kent loyalist pointed out, than Atherton’s or Hussain’s.  

Mike Denness was appointed as England captain for the 1974 tour of the West Indies despite not having been selected for the Test team in the 1973 English season. He succeeded Raymond Illingworth, who had led England to a two-nil defeat against the West Indies including an innings-and-226 run hammering at Lord’s—I was there for the first day, which featured a century from Rohan Kanhai, one of the finest I have seen[ii]. There were two county captains assured of their places in the England XI, but they were Geoffrey Boycott and Tony Greig, neither Establishment men. So Denness, the most successful county captain of the day, it was.

With the lack of tact and sensitivity for which the rulers of English cricket have been famed through the ages, the announcement was made while Denness and Illingworth were leading their counties in a Championship match at Folkestone. Illingworth escaped the press pack waiting for a quote on the pavilion steps by climbing out of the dressing room window and shinning down a drainpipe.

England were outplayed for much of the series but a win in the final Test at Port-of-Spain salvaged an unlikely overall draw, ironically due to the brilliance of Boycott with the bat and Greig with the ball. That he had effectively kept Denness in the captaincy so upset Boycott that after the first Test of 1974 he absented himself from the England team for more than three years. Such a team man.

An easy home summer meant that Denness was guaranteed what Colin Cowdrey never achieved: the captaincy of a tour to Australia. He set out with apparently realistic hopes of keeping the Ashes that Illingworth had won in 1971 and retained a year later. Most of the previews wrote off Dennis Lillee, who had not played a Test since suffering a crippling back injury in the Caribbean 18 months before. None mentioned Jeff Thomson, an erratic quick with a bizarre slingy action who had bowled a wicketless 17 overs for 100 runs against Pakistan in his solitary Test appearance.

There was no clue that the 1974/75 Ashes series would establish Lillee and Thomson as one of the great fast-bowling partnerships. They blew Denness and his team away. It was, remember, the last helmetless Ashes series in Australia. So wretched was Denness’ form that he dropped himself for the fourth Test. So it is that in any game of word association “Denness” will produce “Lillee and Thomson” or “Ashes humiliation” not “Kent’s best team” as it should do.

He was given one more chance in the first of the four-Test series that followed the World Cup in England the following summer (back-to-back Ashes series are not a new idea) but, despite a dodgy weather forecast, put Australia in when he won the toss. This, in the time of uncovered pitches, handed the Aussies the game, as well as condemning young Graham Gooch to a pair on debut. That was it for Mike Denness in Tests.

Mike Denness’ Test debut was also mine. I was in the Vauxhall Stand at the Oval as he walked out to bat against New Zealand in 1969.[iii] He came in with England at 88 for one in reply to New Zealand’s 150 (Underwood 6 for 41). It was one of the most tortured innings I have seen. This free-flowing stylist made two from 43 balls, playing and missing repeatedly against Cunis, Taylor and Motz. It was a relief when he was caught behind off Cunis after three-quarters of an hour.

Perhaps it was as well for Kent that he did not make an immediate impact on international cricket. It meant that he was available for most of the five seasons (six if you count 1971 when he deputised for the ill Cowdrey for most of the season) for which he was captain. It was Kent’s Golden Age, and for those of us who watched it, especially those fortunate enough to be young and impressionable, it was quite wonderful. A team of very good cricketers, and two great ones, played the game as it should be played, and made it seem beautiful.
Mike Denness led by example. As a batsman he always had an attacking attitude, and had the technique to make 17,000 runs for Kent, mostly in the top three, though he was also good against spin. As I always write about the batsmen of the uncovered pitches era, add ten to Denness’ first-class career average for Kent of 32.90 for comparison with the batsmen of today. And he was one of the best fielders—mostly in the covers—in a team that was ahead of its time in this part of the game.

It was a disappointment that the three Championship wins of the seventies came in the seasons immediately before and after his captaincy, but six one-day titles in five years kept us happy. Then they sacked him.

I have written before about the mysterious case of the sacking of Mike Denness, which Clive Ellis did a good job of unravelling in Trophies and Tribulations:

Denness spent the last years of his career in Essex, and it was a pleasure to be at Lord’s when he was part of the team that won that county’s first trophy, the 55 over competition, in 1979. He had made his peace with Kent and was on the committee for a number of years, no doubt making sure that players were treated better by the men in suits than they had been in his day. At his death he was in the final days of his term as President of the club, having succeeded John Shepherd in that role.

Too many of the golden Kent team have died before their time: Cowdrey, Bob Woolmer, Dave Nicholls, Stuart Leary and Mike Denness’ opening partner Brian Luckhurst. My, they stole singles as easily as Scousers nicking hubcaps. As my Blean correspondent wrote on Facebook this morning “part of our youth has gone”.

Here’s to the softly spoken Scot with the exquisite cover drive.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

New Zealand v England, 1st Test, University Oval, Dunedin, 6–10 March 2013

A midsummer dawn, June 1978. Catching the first train on the north Kent line; urging the tube faster around the Central Line to make a 125 from Paddington to Taunton; arriving to find standing room only for the 55-over semi-final between Somerset and Kent. No matter. They played for an hour before the rain set in.

For 35 years the 212 miles between Herne Bay and Taunton remained my personal record for travel to a washed-out day’s cricket. Not any more.

The present day. Take off from Wellington as the sun rises, change at Christchurch, a lift cadged from Dunedin airport (curiously located some distance from the city), and a hurried walk to the University Oval, the world’s most southerly Test ground. More portliness, less hair, but the same sharp anticipation of a day’s cricket in a new place, the same fatalism when the first drop of rain hits the ground the second I walk through the gate. 472 miles for a washout. New record.

No matter. My Whiteladies Road Correspondent, just arrived from the frozen north, was sheltering under a tree, and we repaired to a bar to dry out and swap old stories.

The second day provided rich consolation. It was one of the best—and certainly the most surprising—day’s Test cricket that I have seen. My correspondent remarked on the downbeat mood of the locals as far as the cricket was concerned compared to his last visit, in 2008. I explained that we had become as accustomed to failure as an Italian field-marshall and were simply providing verbal ballast against the tide of disappointment. There was relief that Brendon McCullum had put England in. We would settle in and watch England bat for a couple of days. At least there would be no New Zealand collapse today.

Southee induced Compton to play on in the third over, but nothing suggested that either the pitch or the bowlers would be a source of English distress. But on his first day as captain in a home Test (and in his home town) McCullum was Midas. Every bowling change seemed to take a wicket, every field change an irresistable lure for the batsman to hit the ball straight to the relocated fielder.

His first bowling change, an obvious one, replaced Southee with Wagner. Unaccountably, Alistair Cook slapped Wagner’s second delivery straight to Rutherford at point. Next ball Wagner welcomed Kevin Pietersen with the ball of the day, one of full length that swung in late to trap him leg before.

Bell and Trott settled in for an hour until Bell drove straight at Rutherford at short extra cover, a third wicket for Wagner. Was the ball stopping a little or was it simply the Englishmen’s inbred suspicion of abroad that causes them to start away series so poorly?

Another McCullum bowling change, another wicket. Left-armer Boult pushed one across Root, who edged to second slip. Eighty for five at lunch. Enough to overcome local reticence? No. There were two lines of argument. First, that Prior or Trott, probably both, would be good for a century in the afternoon. Second, that the pitch had devils (unspecified) in it, and that New Zealand would struggle to make three figures. Three fours off successive Boult deliveries by Prior suggested that the former was the more likely explanation, but it was time for an unlikely hero to step forward.

Bruce “Buck” Martin was selected for the New Zealand twelve against Australia at Hamilton in 2000, but was omitted on the first morning. The selectors did not call again until the tour of South Africa early this year, but Martin was not picked for a Test. So here he was, 32 years old and 14 seasons into his career, on Test debut. Buck played for Northern Districts when I was CricInfo’s man at Seddon Park, so I was happy to be there when he finally bowled with the fern on his jersey, but a mite concerned that the step up to international level would expose him.

I need not have worried, not today at least. He sent both potential centurions back to the rooms, within four balls of each other. Prior became Martin’s first Test victim when he top-edged a cut to Williamson at backward point. Trott followed in Martin’s next over, another top edge, well caught by Boult, running in from short fine leg.

His third wicket owed much to McCullum‘s new-found ability to travel about 30 seconds into the future before returning to the present to set the field accordingly. Brownlie was pushed back to the mid-wicket boundary; Broad hit the very next ball—a long hop— straight to him. It is difficult, watching Broad bat, to work out how he could possibly have scored 160 in a Test, as he did against Pakistan at Lord’s in 2010, such is the absence of worthwhile brain activity in his approach.

Buck Martin was jubilant. Players who come to the international game late usually savour it all the more, the perspective of experience allowing them to appreciate their time in the sun knowing that it will be short.

Finn and Anderson were obdurate for a while, but England were all out for 167, 300 fewer than the visiting supporters were hoping for, and 700 fewer than the home fans feared.

Martin and Wagner had four wickets each. Wagner was playing his first Test in his adopted homeland after a protracted qualifying period, so two patient bowlers had good days. The New Zealand bowling was certainly tidy and disciplined, but most of the England batsmen got out to bad shots.

What had happened before tea was, to we locals at least, astonishing. But what occurred in the final session suggested that credulity had an elasticated waistband, so far was it stretched. For at the close New Zealand were 131 for (and here’s the thing) none, the recalled Peter Fulton and debutant Hamish Rutherford untroubled, indeed  dominant. We wandered away from the University Oval much like kids leaving Disneyland for the first time, our emotional reservoirs drained by a day on which something wondrous was to be found around every corner.

On day three, just to confirm that it had not all been a dream, Fulton completed his first Test fifty for seven years, before being caught behind off Anderson. Fulton’s innings was all the more admirable for being against type: his strike rate was 33, about half what the rate at which he scores in domestic cricket.

At the other end Rutherford was secure, then dominant. He was particularly strong through the covers, invariably a sign of class. There were three sixes, all off the pedestrian Panesar, and 22 fours. He reached 171 before chipping Anderson to midwicket.

Rutherford apart, the most relishable New Zealand batting came from McCullum, who always bats as if he is seeing it like Bradman, and at the moment actually is. Three fours from one over off Finn early on was a statement of intent. Early on day four there were three sixes within six balls off Broad and Anderson. This combination dismissed McCullum for 74 (from only 59 deliveries) when Anderson held on to under a skyer.

Buck Martin’s fine debut continued with 41 from 63 balls. McCullum declared when Martin was dismissed. The lead was 293 and the best part of two days remained.

For New Zealanders, the rest of the day was a matter of watching Hope move steadily towards the horizon, disappearing over it by the close, at which point England were 234 for one. Though there was little to cause the pulse to race, it was satisfying viewing, chiefly for the enjoyment of the technical mastery of Alistair Cook, out shortly before the close for 116. As much as any batsman I have seen, Cook has refined batting to a state of technical purity. Loose balls are scored off, good balls defended. Here, he seemed slow, but scored his runs at not much short of three an over. Watching Hutton must have been something like this. Besides, nobody has seen an England player score his 24th Test century before.

At the other end, Nick Compton reached his maiden Test century shortly before the close. His was a more dogged effort, but impressive enough for someone on a pair and with the press raising questions about the genuineness of his credentials as a Test batsman.

It was cold though. Not for nothing is Dunedin known as the Edinburgh of the south. My Waikato correspondent had joined us for the weekend, and, with little prospect of excitement at the University Oval, we decided to explore Dunedin on the fifth day. My correspondent was concerned that we would miss something remarkable, and that she would be left with a shell of a man as a result. I always bear in mind John Arlott’s cautionary tale of skipping a day of an up-country match in South Africa in 1948/9, only to find that he had missed Denis Compton scoring the fastest triple century of all time.

There was no need for such concerns here. Steve Finn, taking his night-watchman job far too seriously, ground out 56 over two sessions. I arrived at tea for the most interesting hour of the day, during which three wickets fell, but it was too late to be of any significance.

The University Oval is an impressive venue, just right for Test cricket. Though it is a comfortable walk from the city centre, it has a rural feel to it, tree-lined with green hills nearby. I was reminded a little of Mote Park, Maidstone, one of my favourite grounds. It was a pleasant place to watch a good Test match, even if the weather and the placidity of the pitch combined to produce anti-climax.






Arlott, Swanton and the Soul of English Cricket

In the same package as this year’s Wisden , there arrived Arlott, Swanton and the Soul of English Cricket , co-authored by Stephen Fay ...