Michael Denness was the only native-born Scotsman to have captained England at cricket. He was a fine batsman, who possessed of a wide range of strokes, not least a beautifully timed cover drive. He also excelled as an outfielder. As captain of Kent between 1972 and 1976 he guided the county to six one-day titles.
When Mike was seven the family moved to Ayr, where, over the next five years, his father planned and built a house next to the cricket ground. This proved particularly appropriate because the younger Denness showed an outstanding talent for games and athletics. At Ayr Academy he proved a brilliant fly-half; indeed one of his team-mates, Ian McLauchlan, who became captain of Scotland in 1974, declared that Denness would have been a fellow international if he had persisted with rugby.
Cricket, however, was his first love. Ably coached at the Ayr ground by Charlie Oakes, the Sussex all-rounder, he was invited to play for Scotland while still a schoolboy. The Daily Telegraph’s E W Swanton, visiting Ayr cricket club for the centennial celebrations in 1959, heard tell of the prodigy and eased his passage to Kent. After a trial in 1961, Denness was taken on the staff the next year.
In 1963 he made more than 1,000 runs, the first of 14 times that he would accomplish this feat; and in 1964 he established a profitable opening partnership with Brian Luckhurst.
Soon he was attracting notice beyond Kent, being chosen for an International XI led by Micky Stewart, which in 1967-68 visited Africa, Pakistan, India, Ceylon, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Hong Kong.
In 1969 Denness was selected for the last Test of the summer, against New Zealand at the Oval. He thus became the fifth Scottish-born cricketer (after Gregor MacGregor, Ian Peebles, David Larter and Eric Russell) to play for England.
Things went well for Denness in the summer of 1970 in Kent, where he frequently took over the captaincy in Colin Cowdrey’s absence. Although the county were bottom of the table at the beginning of July, they then embarked on an extraordinary run that saw them win the championship.
In 1972, when Denness became full-time captain, Kent won the John Player League and came second in the championship. In consequence he was appointed vice-captain for the tour which Tony Lewis led in 1972-73 to India and Pakistan.
Back in England he made a brilliant start to the season of 1973. He led Kent to victory in both the John Player League and the Benson and Hedges Cup. At the end of August, it was announced that Denness would be leading England’s forthcoming tour of the West Indies.
This represented a formidable challenge, with players such as Garry Sobers, Rohan Kanhai, Clive Lloyd and Roy Fredericks among the opposition. After England lost the first Test Denness found himself the subject of increasingly vituperative criticism. Yet the West Indies pace attack was not then as formidable as it would later become. Thanks to splendid batting by Dennis Amiss and Tony Greig, England managed to draw the next three Tests, and then square the series with a narrow victory in the final match in Trinidad.
Mike led the England team in Australia in 1974-75. From the start of the tour things went wrong, not least when the captain was struck down by a virus as soon as he landed in Australia. He had scarcely recovered when he was flung into a Test series against perhaps the most vicious Australian attack in the history of the game.
Dennis Lillee was already well established as a threat. Jeff Thomson, with his slingy action and penchant for hitting batsmen with some of the fastest bowling ever seen (or not seen), appeared as a most painful surprise. The Australians, mindful of the humiliation inflicted upon them by John Snow in 1970-71, gloried in their revenge. “Ashes to Ashes,” went the chant. “If Thommo don’t get you, Lillee must.”
In fairness to Denness, it must be asked whether any team could have coped with such a fearsome attack. During the first Test both Dennis Amiss and John Edrich sustained fractures in their hands, so that an SOS had to be sent to bring the 41-year-old Colin Cowdrey out to Australia as a replacement.
Whilst this series had been a poor one for England, their luck changed in the last test match and they took full advantage, bowling out Australia for 152 and the scoring 529, with Denness scoring 188, the highest-ever score by an England captain in Australia. It was a triumph of resilience, as the Australians were beaten by an innings and four runs.
He had played in 28 Tests, in which he had scored 1,667 runs (including four centuries) at an average of 39.69. As captain in 19 Tests, he had won six, lost five and drawn eight.
At Kent, Denness’s remarkable achievements as captain in one-day competitions continued in 1976 when the county won the Benson and Hedges Cup (thanks in part to a superb century from the skipper in the semi-final against Surrey) and the John Player League. The county, however, slipped that year to 14th place in the championship.
To everyone’s surprise he was dismissed as captain at the end of the summer and accepted terms to play for Essex, for whom he played until 1980. He was an important member of the side which won both the county championship and the Benson and Hedges Cup in 1979.
In all, Denness played in 501 first-class matches and scored 17,047 runs (including 33 centuries) at an average of 33.48. His highest score was 195, for Essex against Leicestershire (captained by Ray Illingworth) in 1977.
Eventually Denness would return to Kent as a committee member, an acknowledgement by the county that an injustice had been done.
The game, however, had one more misfortune to inflict upon Denness. From 1996 he served as an occasional Test match referee; and in November 2001 he was viciously attacked for his actions in a Test between South Africa and India at Port Elizabeth.
Denness had imposed penalties on four Indian players reported to him by the umpires for over-aggressive appealing, a charge which few in world cricket would have considered unjust. He had also laid another suspended ban upon the Indian captain, Sourav Ganguly, for failing properly to control his team.
These actions sufficed to create indignation among Indian supporters. Denness, however, then caused extreme outrage by daring to apply another suspended ban to Sachin Tendulkar, the idol of India, for tampering with the ball. Subsequently Denness attempted to mitigate the charge by explaining that Tendulkar had not asked the umpires to supervise the removal of mud from the ball. This explanation did nothing to still the storm. Denness was disgracefully slandered as a racist, and India refused to play in the next Test match if he officiated. Although the International Cricket Council stood by Denness, the South African and Indian Boards independently arranged for the third Test to be played with Denis Lindsay as referee. The ICC responded by refusing to accord the game official status.
Denness’s passion for the game then saw him share his wealth of experience through other channels. He became an ECB pitch inspector, thoroughly enjoying working with the unsung heroes – the groundsmen. This was Denness at his happiest with the game he loved, at grass roots level. He was inducted into The Scottish Sports Hall of Fame in 2002 and The Scottish Cricket Hall of Fame in 2011. He was awarded an OBE in The Queen’s New Year Honours list in 2013.