x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Refereeing controversy overshadows fine playing career of Mike Denness

Mike Denness, who died last week after battling cancer, is destined to be remembered most for his actions as a match referee even though he played 28 Tests for the England cricket team, 19 as captain.

Scottish cricketer Mike Denness, a former England captain, died of cancer aged 72.
Scottish cricketer Mike Denness, a former England captain, died of cancer aged 72.

In his 28 Tests for England, 19 of them as captain, Mike Denness scored 1,667 runs and four hundreds. The last of those games was in 1975, in the middle of a purple patch where he led Kent, his adopted county, to six one-day trophies. But Denness, who died last week after battling cancer, is destined to be remembered most for his actions as a match referee.

An otherwise unremarkable, rain-affected Test in Port Elizabeth in November 2001 ended with him sanctioning six Indian players, including Sachin Tendulkar.

In the hysteria that followed, the South African board and its Indian counterpart "dismissed" him, despite the International Cricket Council backing their man. The third Test at Centurion was reduced to an unofficial farce.

Four of the players were penalised for excessive appealing, on the recommendation of Ian Howell and Russell Tiffin, the on-field umpires. Sourav Ganguly got his punishment for failing to control his players.

But it was what happened with Tendulkar that incensed the nation across the Indian Ocean.

On the third day, he had swung the ball appreciably during a short spell. TV cameras that zoomed in got footage of him working on the seam of the ball.

Denness saw the recording and informed the Indians that he would be banning Tendulkar for a game under Law 42.3 (b).

The actual charge wasn't tampering, but of cleaning the ball without seeking the umpires' consent.

Predictably, puerile allegations of racism followed. Almost no one mentioned that Denness had officiated in nine previous matches involving India without a single player being sanctioned.

Nor was it said how highly regarded the Lanarkshire-born Denness - the only Scottish-born captain of England - was in the game.

Sadly, that incident, which effectively ended his time as match referee, also summed up his trials-and-tribulations-filled tenure as England captain.

When he took over from Ray Illingworth, who had won the Ashes in Australia in 1970/71, there were more experienced players that coveted the job.

One of them was Geoffrey Boycott, who played in only six of the Tests where Denness led the side.

Even a quarter-century after the event, the anger hadn't subsided.

When I interviewed him at an event in 2001, Boycott referred to Denness as a "buffoon", saying "me mum could have led better".

Without the solidity that Boycott often provided at the top of the order, England were routed in Australia in 1974/75.

Dennis Lillee was back from a career-threatening back injury, and as a sidekick he had Jeff Thomson, who bowled even quicker.

"When Thomson and Lillee were bowling, the atmosphere was more like that of a soccer ground than of a cricket match, especially at Sydney, where England's batsmen must have experienced the same sort of emotion as they waited for the next ball as early Christians felt as they waited in the Colosseum for the lions," says the tour report in the Wisden Almanack.

Denness, who dropped himself for the fourth Test, finished the tour strongly, top-scoring in England's only success, at Sydney, and going on to make 181 against New Zealand at Auckland.

It prompted the Almanack to say: "That was a tribute to his determination, for it was not until his 13th innings that he even managed a fifty, and his lack of form, and technical deficiencies were such that he felt obliged to leave himself out of the reckoning for the fourth Test."

After his time at Kent ended acrimoniously, he moved to Essex and won more silverware there.

He retired with nearly 26,000 first-class runs to his name.

It would be a great pity if he was recalled only because of a media-orchestrated furore.