1975 December 12, 2009

The captain who dropped himself

We look back to when Mike Denness, England's captain on a particularly unsuccessful Ashes tour, dropped himself

While being hired and fired by selectors is part of the territory for captains, it is rarer for them to actually drop themselves, all the more so when on tour, where their role is significantly more important than during home series. On the rare occasions that captains have stood down, it has usually been masked as being because of injury or illness, as was the case with Wally Hammond in Australia in 1946-47. But in 1974-75 Mike Denness, England's captain on a particularly unsuccessful Ashes tour, dropped himself for the fourth Test in Sydney.

Denness had been a controversial choice as Ray Illingworth's successor as England captain in September 1973, with critics claiming that he wasn't a good enough batsman to justify a place in the side. In nine Tests - all but one the previous winter - he had hardly set the world alight, and had not been chosen for any matches in 1973. However, he led England to a creditable draw in the Caribbean in 1973-74 although his captaincy and ability against pace was heavily criticised. A decent summer against a weak Indian team and Pakistan in 1974 did little to quell the disquiet.

In Australia the following winter, England were blown away by the unexpectedly fearsome pace attack of Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson. In the first three Tests only Tony Greig had made a hundred, none of the batsmen were in any kind of form, and the injury list was long. Denness, whose weakness against top-class fast bowling was cruelly exposed, managed only 65 runs in six innings, and the British press quickly turned on him with venom remarkable even by their standards.

The beleaguered Denness, who had suffered from ill health during the early weeks of the tour, was described as "and embarrassment to his side", and "a captain isolated". The Sunday Times even suggested he return home for the good of the team. Faced with daily opprobrium off the pitch and a battering on it, is was hardly surprising that Denness felt the pressure.

The idea of stepping down first occurred to him as early as the second Test at Perth. After the third Test at Melbourne - a close and low-scoring draw - he admitted that he lay down in his hotel and realised that runs were needed and he was not the man to get them. He said that he felt he had succeeded as a captain but failed as a player. In his book about the tour - Assault on the Ashes - Christopher Martin-Jenkins agreed. "As so many of us expected, he had been 'found out' in Australia by very fast bowling. He was not the only one: but he looked the least likely to make the alteration in his method which was essential."

Years later Denness reflected that Lillee and Thomson were "in the ascendancy all the time … it was very difficult to get runs. You got maybe two balls an over to try and score from. There were players who said they'd wear them down. Greig said he was just going to get out of line and try to under-cut the ball. None of which really worked."

"If Denness were to bat against this Australia side until Christmas I would not back him to make a hundred," wrote Henry Blofeld in the Guardian on January 3 in a scathing article calling for him to stand down.

Far better batsmen than Denness were left floundering. In 1974 Dennis Amiss came within two runs of breaking the record for the most Test runs in a calendar year. But in Australia his form fell apart and by the middle of 1975 he was out of the side. "There was no respite," he said. "They were in your face the whole time."

Keith Fletcher, who had been dropped in Melbourne after only 40 runs in the first two Tests, was less impressed with Denness's captaincy. He observed that the team "did not have a regard for him as a captain and ... they felt he should not have been in the side in the first place".

But Denness wanted to bring in Fletcher - who had looked in form despite his lack of runs - for a must-win game (England were 2-0 down with three to play). "I made the decision without consulting anyone else at all," he recalled. When Alec Bedser, the tour manager, dropped in for his regular early-morning chat with Denness, the bombshell was delivered. Bedser, Denness recalled, thought it was wrong but agreed that it was down to him and him alone.

The team was informed and John Edrich was named as Denness's replacement. Reaction was mixed. Tony Greig, who replaced Denness the following summer, said that the decision "showed a courage that demanded admiration"; Fletcher regarded it as "a sign of weakness" and would have preferred Denness to have fought his way out of a bad patch; Fred Titmus, the veteran offspinner, was surprised and commented that any player should "believe in his own ability ... or not be out there".

The press were more welcoming, although some of the same journalists who had been calling for Denness's head accused him of taking the easy way out. The public was more sympathetic, although he wryly told of one letter which was simply addressed to "Mike Denness, Cricketer". "If this letter reaches you," it said, "the Post Office think more of you than I do".

Denness could only watch as Edrich led England onto the SCG. "It is difficult to describe how I felt," he later wrote. "It was probably a mixed feeling of despair, sadness and frustration. If I had had my leg in plaster or my arm in a sling, it would have been different, but I was fully fit."

He sat out a bad-tempered match which Australia won by 171 runs, and, in doing so, ensured they regained the Ashes. Fletcher scored 24 and 11, Edrich was struck by Lillee and broke his ribs, although he returned after retiring hurt in a vain bid to save the game.

Edrich's injury meant that Denness returned for the fifth Test, and although England again lost, he top-scored in the first innings with 51. Suggestions that he was not good enough against the best bowling were underlined by his success at the end of the tour. In the sixth Test, Australia were without Thomson and Lillee broke down after six overs, Denness hammered 188, the then-highest score by an England captain in Australia. In the two Tests against New Zealand that followed he made 181 not out and 59.

In matches against West Indies and a full-strength Australia he scored 372 runs at 19.58 with two fifties; against all other opposition he made 1295 runs at 56.30, including five fifties and four hundreds.

Denness's reprieve was brief. He led England in the 1975 World Cup when they lost in the semi-finals to, inevitably, Australia, and was appointed for the first Test of the summer only, also against Australia. He won the toss and, in what The Cricketer described as "one of the game's great disasters", put Australia in under a leaden sky. They made 359, and then England were blown away twice by Lillee, Thomson and Max Walker on a rain-affected pitch to lose by an innings. Much as he had done in Australia, it was again Denness who suggested to the selectors that a change might be good. They agreed, and this time there was no way back.

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Bibliography
I Declare - Mike Denness (Arthur Baker, 1977)
Assault On The Ashes - Christopher Martin-Jenkins (MacDonald & Jamesl, 1975)
Ashes To Ashes - Keith Fletcher (Headline, 2005)
The Cricketer -Various

Martin Williamson is managing editor of Cricinfo