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Mike Denness 1940-2013

Gracious captain; Kent legend

With a strong work ethic and a moral compass that many a modern-day player would do well to follow, Mike Denness helped build and maintain the glory days of Kent cricket

Mark Pennell

April 20, 2013

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Mike Denness plays through the leg side, Middlesex v Kent, Lord's, April 30, 1975
Mike Denness' Test career was cut short by controversy © PA Photos
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At his pomp during the mid to late 1970s Mike Denness was a man living the dream - a cricketer who became the stuff of Kentish legend. A graceful, fleet-footed and stylish right-handed batsman, astute captain and dynamic cover fielder, his near -telepathic running between the wickets in tandem with county opening partner Brian Luckhurst went down in hop county folklore.

Tall and slim, handsome and dapper, Denness spoke softly and in measured Scottish brogue - he was Kent's equivalent to the matinee idol. Yet beneath the surface lay a fiercely determined personality and under his leadership the county won six domestic trophies between 1972 and 1976.

He won 28 caps for England, his debut coming against New Zealand at The Oval in 1969 and his leadership skills were held in high enough regards for 19 of them to come as captain. He remains the only Scottish-born captain of England, although Douglas Jardine, the scourge of Australia in the infamous Bodyline series, was born in Mumbai of Scottish parents.

With a strong work ethic and a moral compass that many a modern-day player would do well to follow, Denness helped build and maintain the glory days of Kent cricket, yet, around every corner, for both Kent and England, controversy lurked for him.

Born in Lanarkshire and educated at the Ayr Academy, Denness played for Ayr Cricket Club from the age of eight, where he blossomed under the tutelage of club coach and former Sussex stalwart, Charlie Oakes.

Happenchance led to his first opportunity in county cricket when, in 1959, Denness became the first schoolboy to be capped for Scotland. Selected to play against Ireland, he lined up alongside former Kent slow left-armer Jimmy Allan, who recommended the teenager to his old club soon after.

Allan's endorsement was supported by a glowing report from E. W. Swanton, the press box doyenne and Kent's éminence grise, who met Denness while on an after-dinner speaking engagement in Ayr. Les Ames, then the club's secretary and first team manager, duly invited Denness for a month's trial in the spring of 1961 and, after joining the club on special registration, the Scotsman went on to make an ignominious debut against Essex the following July when, on a turning pitch at Dover, he scored 0 and 3 and was twice dismissed by Jim Laker.

Capped by Kent in 1965, Denness ultimately scored 17,047 for the county, making 333 appearances. He reached 1,000-runs for the first time in 1963 and went on to pass the milestone in 12 of the following 15 summers.

After helping Kent to the championship pennant in 1970 - the club's first title in 60 years - he returned to the Test arena as vice-captain on the MCC's 1972-73 tour of India and Pakistan where his fleet-footed prowess against spin bowling emerged. Two of his four Test hundreds came against India.

He replaced Ray Illingworth as England captain and won plaudits for his leadership during a hard-fought drawn series in the West Indies in 1973-74 against a strong home side.

The following winter on England's 1974-75 trip to Australia was a tormenting one for both England and Denness. His preparations for the series were not helped when he was afflicted by kidney inflammation. But that was nothing like the suffering heaped upon England because of the fierce pace of Jeff Thomson and Dennis Lillee.

 
 
He dropped himself 'for the good of the team' for the fourth rubber in Sydney, against the wishes of the tour manager, Alec Bedser - a match the hosts won to regain the Ashes. He called it "the lowest point of my life."
 

Geoff Boycott had opted out of the tour and by the end of the first Test Dennis Amiss and John Edrich had fractures. Denness advocated that Colin Cowdrey, his Kent team-mate, should be summoned back to the fray, but it was no miracle cure as England were caught on a Perth flyer. "Never before had I seen such a variety of armour as was available at Perth," Denness later reflected in his autobiography, I Declare. It was a time before batting helmets and Denness admitted that some players, including himself, feared for their safety.

He dropped himself 'for the good of the team' for the fourth rubber in Sydney, against the wishes of the tour manager, Alec Bedser - a match the hosts won to regain the Ashes. He called it "the lowest point of my life."

An injury to Edrich allowed him to return for the sixth and final Test in Melbourne and he top-scored against an Australia attack shorn of Thomson, who had injured his shoulder playing tennis, and with Lillee nursing an injury. His stoic 188 was his best in Tests.

The following season he captained England to the World Cup semi-finals but misread conditions at Edgbaston in the first Ashes Test, allowing Australia to ease to an innings win.

Denness suggested during the post-match debrief with his TCCB paymasters that a change of leadership might benefit the team and they clearly agreed. The mild-mannered Scotsman never played for his adopted country again.

The distraction of his successful benefit in 1974 also ended his glorious run-scoring feats for Kent, but in 1975 he was named one of Wisden's cricketers of the year after scoring 1,088 runs at an average of 41.84.

His five-year tenure as Kent skipper came to a fractious end in 1976 when, after a fall out with club coach Colin Page, Kent's committee wielded the axe - voting 11-1 in favour of Asif Iqbal. Denness refused to sanction the club's statement suggesting he had resigned and agreed to join Essex the following season. He played three seasons at Chelmsford, playing a major role in their Championship and Benson & Hedges Cup double of 1979.


Bob Woolmer and Graham Johnson lift Mike Denness aloft after Kent's victory in the 1974 Gillette Cup final, Kent v Lancashire, Lord's, September 5, 1974
Mike Denness and his Kent team-mates with the 1974 Gillette Cup © The Cricketer International
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Denness retired from playing in 1980 at the age of 40 with 25,866 first-class career runs at an average of 33.48. He scored 33 hundreds, with a best of 195 for Essex against Leicestershire at Grace Road in 1977. In all, he played 232 one-day games, 12 of them for England, scoring 5,393 runs with six centuries. Several of his limited overs batting partnerships with Luckhurst remain in Kent's records books to this day.

Denness remained at New Writtle Street as 2nd XI captain and then coach until 1984 and worked off-season in insurance and public relations until, in March 1996, he accepted the ICC's invitation to become a match referee - a role he fulfilled through to 2002 officiating in 14 Tests and 35 ODIs.

Once again, Denness courted controversy when, in the 2001-02 series in South Africa he suspended Sachin Tendulkar for ball tampering during the Port Elizabeth Test, while also sanctioning five other members of the India side for unwarranted appealing.

The ICC refused India's call to stand Denness down for the final game of the series but, fearing a boycott, South Africa appointed a replacement match referee. The match was ultimately stripped of its Test status and Denness's career as a match referee ended in ignominy.

A strong desire to give something back to the game led to him working for the ECB as a pitch inspector and to building new bridges with Kent, where he returned as chairman of cricket. It was a role that also came to an abrupt and controversial end in 2004.

Having been asked to intervene following an on-field dispute at New Road between acting Kent captain Ed Smith and his disillusioned team-members Andrew Symonds and Rob Key, Denness called for strong disciplinary measures, particularly against Symonds. But, in the eyes of Denness at least, the matter was merely swept under the committee room carpet and he duly resigned.

Denness was proposed for the Kent presidency in late 2011 by his former team-mate John Shepherd and a little over a year later awarded an OBE in the 2013 New Year's Honours list for his services to the sport.

His fight against cancer was long, yet bravely and lightly born. Just weeks after undergoing surgery to remove a brain tumour he was installed as Kent president for 2012-13 at the county's annual meeting. He died on April 19, during his final week in office. He was 72.

Mark Pennell is the managing director of freelance reporting and public relations agency Kent & Sussex Sport. He has covered Kent cricket for 20 years.

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Posted by   on (April 21, 2013, 16:10 GMT)

Thats a brilliant point you make about the Windies losing 5-1 there the following year and one hardly anyone make when discussing the fact England were beaten 4-1 in 74-5. That Australian side was a great team and had 4 or 5 match winners.

Posted by afs_talyarkhan on (April 20, 2013, 22:58 GMT)

Mike Denness built up quite a reputation in India in 1972-73 for the way he used his feet against the spinners - he went on to hammer the great quartet to oblivion in the summer of 1974. It is easy for us to forget what a fearsome prospect Lillee and Thommo must have been for Amiss, Denness, Lloyd and the rest batting without helmets - even the famed West Indian lineup - Richards, Rowe, Lloyd, Fredricks, Grrenidge etc. discovered that to their cost in 1975. To his credit he ended the tour on a high scoring a 180 odd in the last test against Australia and another double ton against New Zealand. To then retire after just one test against Australia in 1975 was a premature end to the international career of an upstanding cricketer with a neat, unfussy and technically correct game.

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