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Mike Denness: elegance amidst turmoil

Roar Guru
22nd April, 2013
0

The remarks by Mike Selvey in The Observer about the passing of Mike Denness are fitting.

He was a deft, elegant player of spin with tantalizing offside driving; the first Scot to captain England, and compiler of almost 26,000 first-class runs at a healthy average of 33.48.

Between 1969 and 1975, he played 28 Test matches, serving as captain in 19.

Domestically, he proved triumphant with Kent, winning numerous limited-overs trophies with the club. On leaving for Essex, he led the county to their first county championship.

By the time he left professional cricket in 1980, Denness had played 501 first-class matches and 232 in the limited form of the game.

It remains a sad notch on the belt of achievements that Denness had a habit of aggravating characters with his calm but steadfastly principled manner. A list of those characters suggests that he might have had some justification in exposing their faults.

A particularly truculent Geoffrey Boycott refused to play under Denness, the former being irremediably miffed for being overlooked as successor to Raymond Illingworth.

Boycott’s absence in the Australian summer of 1974-5 was noted when Denness led England to their bruising defeats against Australia in the high speed nightmare that was Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thompson.

It is a point the Australian team has never forgotten, clipping Boycott’s proud wings for what they claimed was more than a touch of cowardice. Statistics, not rib-crunching courage before speed, was what interested him.

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Denness’ own batting average took not so much a trimming as a savaging on the bouncy Australian pitches. In six innings he did not reach double figures.

Dropping himself for the Fourth Test, he returned to finish the series with 188. The speed train at that point had run out of some steam, giving Denness and his players some respite.

On the return leg, Denness did not fare well, miscalculating in the first Test at Edgbaston.

While the Australians made it to 359 in conditions that should have favoured the home side’s seam attack, England stumbled to scores of 101 and 173.

A humbled Denness handed the captaincy mantle to Tony Greig, and would never play for his country again.

His role in the game would continue, and reach the headlines in the South Africa-India series of 2001-2, where he officiated as match referee.

For Denness, the excessive appealing in the second Test match at Port Elizabeth proved hard to stomach.

Another prickly character, this time Sourav Ganguly, did little to rein in his unruly troops, who were being tempted into hysteria by the aggressive Harbhajan Singh.

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Six players were subsequently fined, including the fiery Ganguly, who was also given a suspended punishment.

As was noted in Wisden at the time, Ganguly was fortunate to get away with just that, having been suspended or fined three times in the previous 12 months. The man certainly had form, and the wrong sort at that.

But then Denness made a move against the semi-divine figure of Indian cricket, Sachin Tendulkar.

The supposedly spic-and-span maestro was suspended for one year for tampering with the seam of the ball, with images focusing on his thumb and forefinger as he was readying the ball.

In actual fact, what Tendulkar was targeted for was not informing the umpires that he was cleaning the ball under Law 42.3(b), rather than ball tampering per se (EPSN Magazine, Jan 15, 2011).

The action was taken as a slur by both players and press, and the Board of Control for Cricket in India defied the ruling. It even wound its way into the Indian Parliament, where allegations of racism were trumpeted.

Anyone who had a chance to see coverage of that match would find some reason to agree with Denness and little in the nonsensical claims that he was racist.

Appeals were made for balls that had reached the turf well before finding the hands of players. Umpires were abused. The spirit of the game was not being challenged so much as ignored.

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Virender Sehwag was the star of that show, banned from the third and final Test for claiming a catch off Jacques Kallis that had bounced, and abusive behaviour to the umpire. Ill temper was all around.

The result was something of a revolt against Denness, with both sides refusing to play under him in the next match. The contest was stripped of Test status.

Such fuss, because of, in the words of Pakistan-born businessman and then president-elect of the ICC, “an enormous communications problem”.

Such animosity would give the wrong impression of a genial man, who served his country during a time when cricket was bracing itself for the speeding juggernauts, and ultimately, Kerry Packer’s World Series.

He remained loyal to the spirit of the game to the last, a man who certainly knew the fine print better than some of his colleagues.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com