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.

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