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Team-mate, rival and friend, Mike Denness was a gentleman cricketer, a man with a happy disposition and a caring soul
April 20, 2013
The cricketing gods chose Mike Denness to become the first Scottish-born cricketer to captain the England Test team. (Douglas Jardine, who presided over Bodyline was born of Scottish parents, but he was born in India.) It was a wise choice, for Denness was a man of purpose and resolve, a man with a happy disposition and a caring soul.
I first heard of him when I played a season for Ayr Cricket Club in the Scottish Western Union in 1967. There were three things a budding young cricketer whom the club had employed as a professional-cum-groundsman needed to do: learn all about the poet Robert Burns, buy a kilt, and take care not to do anything to upset the club's ground convenor, Bill Denness, Mike's dad.
Learning about Burns was fine; after all, there was, and is, the Burns Cottage in Alloway, a Mike Denness on-drive from the club ground in Cambusdoon. I settled for a Farquharson clan kilt after getting one on the strength of my mother's maiden name (West). But for all that, I couldn't get one past Bill Denness, who like his son presented the broadest of straight bats to the most curly delivery. Bill Denness' bedroom overlooked the square at Cambusdoon. I succeeded in getting what Bill wanted, a "light and dark" effect: you know, the sort we see at every Wimbledon Championship. Alas, I couldn't get the cuts with the grain and against the grain straight. My light and dark meandered all over the place, and never did I get it right. Bill Denness hired and fired them, so I might have been dismissed early that summer had it not been for Mike, who was then playing for Kent.
I discovered later that Mike intervened, explaining to his dad that wickets taken by the young colonial for the Ayr Cricket Club were of more value than his grass-cutting abilities. So I stayed, and eventually improved enough to get to play for Australia against Mike when he captained England.
When I heard that Mike was to lead England's 1974-75 tour of Australia, I set about organising with an Adelaide car yard a sports car bearing the England colours for his exclusive use whenever he was in Adelaide that summer. I got a photo in a kilt on the Brig-O-Doon and Mike got the use of a stunning car in Adelaide a few summers later.
In the Test series Mike and his fellow batsmen copped a battering from Jeff Thomson, who was bowling faster than anyone I've seen before or since, and a rejuvenated Dennis Lillee, who returned to the Test arena after more than a year out with a near-crippling back injury.
The pair formed a fearsome attack and the England batting was put to the sword; so much so that the captain, Denness, dropped himself from the fourth Test. He need not have bothered because England lost that game and with it the Ashes fell to Australia.
Mike returned for the fifth Test, in Adelaide, scoring a gallant 51, then 14, but again the side lost. In the final Test of the series, at the MCG, he hit a magnificent 188 and England scored a massive 529, paving the way for the visitors to win by an innings.
Then came the first Test against Australia at Edgbaston in 1975. Mike put us in after winning the toss and we scored a creditable 359. Then it rained, big time. In those days only the ends were covered and the main part of the pitch was laid bare to the elements. On that sodden track, Australia won easily, by an innings, and Denness was blamed. The last address I had for Mike was Hanging Tree Lane, near Hutton in Sussex. It was as if Denness was accused of high treason for putting Australia in after winning the toss. And so, metaphorically he was hanged, drawn and quartered: he was sacked and never again played Test cricket for England.
Thankfully he continued to play county cricket and we played alongside one another on the 1976 International Wanderers tour of South Africa. His former Kent team-mate John Shepherd also toured with us, and there was pandemonium one night in Durban when Shep was told to leave a licensed club on the pretext of him not having worn a tie. Mike was one of those to show the way. We didn't condescend to question the order but left the premises en masse, for we all knew the racist motive behind it: after all, here we were trying to bring cricket to all of the people in a South Africa that was being hamstrung by apartheid. Denness did well in a side that included the Chappell brothers, Glenn Turner, John Morrison, Martin Kent, Bob Taylor, Derek Underwood and yours truly.
He hit 81 and 35 in our win against a South African Xl in Cape Town and fielded as enthusiastically and as well at cover point as he had ever done.
He also undertook some managerial work during the World Series years in Australia, and while he loved the traditional game, he wanted to further the development of a better deal for professional cricketers worldwide.
Mike continued to turn out for Essex until 1980. In all, he played 501 first-class matches. Those back at Ayr Cricket Club will never forgot their favourite son. Blokes like the Simpson clan, Ian "Hank" Johnstone, Derek Thursby and Co will raise a toast in Mike's memory.
Mike played for Ayr and was educated at the Ayr Academy. No doubt he studied the writings of Burns, who wrote a line in his immortal "The Prayer", which really does apply to this gentleman cricketer: "But thou art good and goodness still."
Ashley Mallett took 132 Tests wickets in 38 Tests for Australia. An author of over 25 books, he has written biographies of Clarrie Grimmett, Doug Walters, Jeff Thomson and Ian ChappellFeeds: Ashley Mallett
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