2001 January 15, 2011

The Denness affair

When a match referee started a row that briefly threatened to rip world cricket apart on racial lines

The fifth and final day of the second Test between South Africa and India in Port Elizabeth in November 2001 should have been a fairly uneventful affair. On a decent batting strip India resumed on 28 for 1, chasing an improbable 395 to win, and a draw appeared likely. As it was, it was just the start of a row that briefly threatened to rip world cricket apart on racial lines.

At the heart of the furore was match referee Mike Denness, a straightforward and firm Scot who had captained England in 12 Tests between 1973 and 1975. Two incidents in the game had attracted his attention. The first surrounded over-enthusiastic appealing, orchestrated by Harbhajan Singh, expanded on by several team-mates and not checked by Sourav Ganguly, India's captain. The second centred on allegations Sachin Tendulkar, a hero to hundreds of millions of Indians and a player with an unblemished record, had been found tampering with the seam of the ball.

The first charge was not one many outside India disagreed with, although citing five of the side seemed uncalled for and the South Africans at times had been no less vociferous. But by, in effect, suggesting Tendulkar had cheated, there was only ever going to be an unholy row.

On the third day Tendulkar had bowled four overs of gentle medium pace but had almost immediately started swinging the ball more than any other bowler. The local TV producer instructed cameramen to zoom in on Tendulkar's hands, ostensibly to check what grip he was using. Instead, on two occasions he was spotted working on the seam of the ball with the thumb and forefinger of his left hand. The commentators went into overdrive and close-up replays were shown ad nauseam.

In his eyrie Denness saw this and asked to be sent a copy of the recording. What he saw left him in no doubt something untoward had occurred. But lost in the maelstrom that followed was the fact that Tendulkar stood accused of not informing the umpires he was cleaning the ball under Law 42.3 (b), rather than tampering with it.

On the fourth day Denness informed India he would be banning Tendulkar for one match, suspended for a year, for his actions. Ganguly was to be given a similar suspended punishment for not controlling his team - Wisden noted that considering he had been suspended and/or fined three times in the previous 12 months "he was fortunate to get away with only a suspended ban for not upholding the spirit of the game".

Virender Sehwag was to be banned from the third and final Test for claiming a catch off Jacques Kallis that had clearly bounced and for attempting to intimidate the umpire by charging at him, as well as using "crude or abusive language". Batsman Shiv Sunder Das, wicketkeeper Deep Dasgupta and spinner Harbhajan Singh were to be handed suspended one-Test bans for excessive appealing. All six were also fined 75% of their match fees. While action against Tendulkar and Ganguly was instigated by Denness, the other four players had been cited by the on-field umpires.

Denness did not intend making the punishments public, but infuriated players leaked the news to the media on the fourth afternoon. In punishing six people from one team, the Indian media immediately accused him of racism, while the general public were outraged.

To their credit, India's team - after briefly discussing refusing to take to the field for the final day - carried on with no outward signs of the anger they felt. But as the Test drifted towards a draw, the situation rapidly escalated, and Denness angered Indian journalists by declining to explain his actions at the end-of-match press conference. Ravi Shastri, working as a commentator, asked: "If Mike Denness cannot answer questions, why is he here? We know what he looks like."

In fairness to Denness, ICC regulations specifically prevented him from discussing the matter and he did not want to be there. "I was asked by Gerald Majola, the chief executive officer of the United Cricket Board of South Africa, to accompany him," he later said. "I did not think it a good idea, because there was nothing I could say. The normal procedure is to issue a press release."

The ICC decided to back their man, but that led to it being savaged in the Indian press, with accusations that it was biased. India board president Jagmohan Dalmiya demanded Denness be removed from the final Test, where he was again the nominated ICC referee. Niranjan Shah, honorary secretary of the BCCI, said of Denness: "We are unhappy with his inconsistency and the India team have no confidence in him. We feel that all the decisions are against only India. The South Africans committed the same excessive appealing."

"It was easier facing Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson than waiting to hear whether the third Test was going to take place."
Mike Denness

Not for the first time, opinions appeared to polarise on colour grounds. The English, Australian and New Zealand boards supported the ICC's authority, while most other boards, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, sided with the BCCI.

Ehsan Mani, the Pakistan-born businessman who was president-elect of the ICC, said he did not think there was any racism. "However, what we have is an enormous communication problem. There is also a big cultural gap between Asian culture and the white culture."

"The tourists were mere bystanders while war was waged on their behalf by Dalmiya," Wisden noted. "He had to take a stand - not that he needed much provocation to adopt a bellicose posture. He was presented with an ideal opportunity to settle scores with his old ICC adversaries."

It was apparent that the ICC could not back down, but India would not play if Denness was not replaced. Initially the South African board sympathised with India, but stopped short of more than that. Dalmiya's threats to scrap the final Test meant it stood to lose a lot of money and so it rapidly changed tack, a decision helped when its own government waded in.

"Although the crisis is not of our making, we have received reports of protests at South African embassies in India and our country has been caught up in this issue," Majola said. "South African cricket could not have afforded a cancellation of the final Test of a series that is still open."

Frantic discussions in the three days between the second and third Tests proved fruitless. The BCCI and UCBSA would accept nothing less than Denness' replacement, while the ICC could not back down and be made to look as if it was beholden to the boards. Malcolm Speed, the ICC chief executive, had come into the job months earlier vowing to clean up on-field conduct and that mission would have been blown out of the water if he did not support Denness.

"During his time refereeing Test and international matches, Denness' record has been one of fairness and consistency," Speed said. "On the previous nine occasions where Denness has acted in a match involving India, no Indian players have been reported or penalised. When contacted in September this year, neither India nor South Africa had any objection whatsoever to Denness' appointment."

In India, the popular press was in overdrive. "Denness' sense of fairness dates back to the Victorian era when Britannia ruled the waves," fumed an editorial in the Hindu. "In the event, Denness truly believes - in the manner of his forefathers who ruled this land with such cunning for so long - that there are always two sets of rules. Nothing has changed since the days when the sun never set on the British Empire." Inevitably, politicians jumped on the bandwagon and demanded retribution.

On the eve of the match the two boards, backed by their respective governments, snubbed the ICC and sacked Denness - who had refused a request to stand down voluntarily - and replaced him with former South African wicketkeeper Denis Lindsay.

Speed's response was swift. "No cricket board has the authority to remove Denness from his position as match referee. The ICC cannot accede to demands for his removal. To remove him under this kind of pressure would be to disregard the rules agreed by all member countries and set an unacceptable precedent. It has been suggested in South Africa that a replacement match could be staged if the Test does not go ahead. If this were to happen it would not be recognised by the ICC as a Test match. It would not be officiated by an ICC referee or umpire and neither the result nor statistics would be included in Test match records." He added the action taken against the six India players remained.

Denness remained taciturn about events. "I cannot really say anything at this stage, but it's disappointing. I certainly won't be going to the ground on Friday but that is all I can say." Privately he had been told if he did, he would be prevented from entering the ground.

Stripped of its status, the third "Test" went ahead in a surreal atmosphere and was easily won by South Africa, with Shaun Pollock, who scored a century, admitting it had not felt like a proper international.

The sadness of the whole affair was that it was unnecessary. The Indian players were aggrieved, and with some justification given the lack of any action against their opponents. But as no players from the home side were reported by the umpires, Denness' hands were tied.

Once the storm was underway, Dalmiya wasted no time in doing what he was good at - stirring it. In the Sunday Telegraph, Scyld Berry described him as "the control freak, the player of political games, the man who destabilises then poses as the saviour of the Indian tour by telling his players to play on". However, Harsha Bhogle pointed out Dalmiya was "a reflection of the Indian mood".

Even then the ICC could have engineered a tactical retreat without losing face by suggesting to Denness he stand down - whether he would have agreed was another matter. It also helped create the situation by allowing wildly differing standards to be applied, with some officials hopelessly weak at applying its own regulations - regulations that often seemed obsessed with bat logos and over rates and more woolly on sledging and intimidation.

"There is, and always has been, a complete lack of uniformity or consistency among match referees, something I complained of tirelessly when I was captain of England," noted Mike Atherton, who had recently embarked on his journalistic career. "Throughout my time as a player the ICC concerned themselves only with irrelevancies, instigating numerous pathetic regulations. For example, from the mid-nineties onwards players were not allowed to walk on the pitch, or tap it with a bat, before the start of play [and yet] they failed to do anything about the critical issue of match-fixing."

What happened next?

  • India's series against England, which started the following month, was for a short time under threat because the ICC insisted Sehwag's ban had not been served by him missing the "Test". Dalmiya postured and eventually compromised - Sehwag missed the opening Test against England. It later emerged Speed had asked Dalmiya to tell him three days before the Mohali Test whether Sehwag would play. Dalmiya said the request violated the playing conditions, adding it might have to be investigated by the ICC's Anti-Corruption Unit.
  • Denness served as match referee in only two more Tests and three ODIs and was not reappointed by the ICC the following year. "There was a reduction from the part-time referees, of which I was one, to the full-time referees," he said. "I wasn't included in that full- time list but I don't think it was anything to do with the Tendulkar thing."
  • Plans for the ICC Disputes Resolution Committee to hear a case in June 2002 were cancelled because Denness had to undergo heart surgery.

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Martin Williamson is executive editor of ESPNcricinfo and managing editor of ESPN Digital Media in Europe, the Middle East and Africa