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Ashes 1974-75: Out-of-form England captain Mike Denness drops himself from playing XI against Australia at Sydney

Mike Denness in the dressing room after his team's innings victory in the sixth and final Test against Australia at Melbourne on February 13, 1975. Denness came back into the eleven for the fifth Test and score a half century and in the sixth Test scored 188. Getty Images
Mike Denness in the dressing room after his team’s innings victory in the sixth and final Test against Australia at Melbourne on February 13, 1975. Denness came back into the eleven for the fifth Test and scored a half-century, and in the sixth Test he scored 188 © Getty Images

Mike Denness dropped himself from the SCG Test that started on January 4, 1975. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at the Scotsman at his unbiased extreme.

When Mike Denness was touring Australia during the 1974-75 Ashes he received a letter that was simply addressed Mike Denness, Cricketer. The contents read: “Should this reach you, the post office clearly thinks more of your ability than I do.”

It was not supposed to be like this: Ray Illingworth’s England had retained the Ashes in 1972, and though England did not have the services of Geoffrey Boycott, they were still a formidable side. They were not aware that Australia had a fit and roaring Dennis Lillee and, more significantly, the brutal, tearaway Jeff Thomson. “Never in the 98 years of Test cricket have batsmen been so grievously bruised and battered by ferocious, hostile, short-pitched balls,” wrote Wisden.

They also had the reliable Max Walker for support, and holding the rear was Ashley Mallett. The batsmen – every one of them – did an exceptional job, led by Greg Chappell at his peak and a consistent Ian Redpath. Doug Walters also drew attention by becoming the first batsman to score an Ashes hundred in a session since Don Bradman.

The fielding reached new standards as well. Frank Tyson wrote in Test of Nerves: “Almost everything that left the ground was caught. Had a swallow flown within reach of the Australian fieldsmen it would have done do at its own risk.” The aggressive leadership and sledging earned the tag “ugly Australians” for Ian Chappell’s side. Bob Willis wrote: “Rod Marsh and his captain Ian Chappell would vie with each other in profanity.”

Thomson arrives at The Gabba

England were blown away by the emergence of Thomson in the first Test at The Gabba. He bowled so fast that even Ken Barrington and Jim Laker, sitting in the stands, were terrified; also sitting in the crowd was Lindsay Hassett, who was awestruck by the raw pace of Thomson.

The onslaught continued at the other end as well: with Lillee and Walker contributing and England were not only defeated but blown into sheer non-existence. Dennis Amiss, John Edrich, and David Lloyd had broken hands; Keith Fletcher had a severely bruised arm; Willis had strained his groin; and Peter Lever had a side injury.

Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) called for a replacement batsman from home, and they were sent the 41-year old Colin Cowdrey. Cowdrey had not played a Test in four years, but was reputed for his ability to handle raw pace, was respected by the world for his batting, and was also looked upon in high esteem by the Denness, given that Cowdrey had preceded Denness as Kent captain.

Cowdrey has ‘fun’ at WACA

The message had been clear at The Gabba itself: the pitches and bowling were going to be nothing short of express. Thomson had also made his intent clear: “Truthfully, I enjoy hitting a batsman more than getting him out. It doesn’t worry me in the least to see the batsman hurt, rolling around screaming and blood on the pitch.”

Cowdrey scored 22 and 41, but there was little resistance from others as Thomson routed them again with some help from the others. Ross Edwards and Walters (in a session) scored hundreds, England fielded terribly, and Australia won by nine wickets.

At this stage Denness’s confidence was already on the wane. When he walked out to bat in the second innings, Walters said the words “Oh Christ, don’t tell me we have to put up with that Mike Denness for a couple of balls again” rather audibly. Denness’s scores in the series read six, 27, two, and 20 at this stage.

England fight back at MCG

England were bowled out for 242 at Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG), but Willis struck back, acquiring a one-run lead for the tourists. After Thomson and Mallett were through with them Australia needed only 246, but they were left down at five for two early in the innings. Redpath and Greg Chappell added 101, but at 121 for five it seemed that Tony Greig and Fred Titmus were on the verge of pulling one back for England.

In the end the tail wagged, and a hard-fought contest ended with Australia eight runs short of victory with two wickets left. There were still three Tests left, and England still had a realistic chance of retaining the Ashes.

The bombshell

Having scored eight and two in the third Test as well, Denness became the first captain in the history of Test cricket to drop himself with the series still alive. He had been described as “an embarrassment to the side” and “a captain isolated” by the cruel media.

While Greig called the decision was one that “showed a courage that demanded admiration”, Keith Fletcher remarked that it was “a sign of weakness”. Whatever it was, it was not a decision ordinary men would take.

Frank Tyson commented: “If [Mike] Denness did not warrant selection from amongst seventeen players on the eve of the Fourth Test, the chances are that he was not good enough in the first place to have been in the touring party. It required courage to drop himself at Sydney. It would have been far more judicious act of courage to have refused the captaincy of the touring side to Australia when it was first offered to him.”

Denness later wrote about his frustration when the Test got underway: “It is difficult to describe how I felt. It was probably a mixed feeling of despair, sadness and frustration. If I had had my leg in plaster or my arm in a sling, it would have been different, but I was fully fit.”

John Edrich went out to lead England. When Ian Chappell won the toss it was revealed that England had gone in with only two seamers in the form of Willis and Geoff Arnold (if one excluded Greig) on a pitch that made him “worry about the safety of the English batsmen”.

Day One: McCosker and Chappells dominate

The Test started on a sour note for England: the debutant Rick McCosker’s edge fell short of Alan Knott; he was dropped by Edrich himself at gully; and a run out of Redpath was missed. Redpath eventually trod on to the stumps; McCosker’s 80 took him 169 balls, and both Chappells batted with panache, attacking the bowlers with ease.

Ian Chappell was eventually caught-behind off Arnold for an 83-ball 53, and Edwards followed shortly. Greg Chappell reached his fifty before stumps and remained unbeaten on 59 while Walters was yet to open his account. Australia were already on an imposing 251 for four.

Day Two: England already in trouble

Arnold and Greig decided to give the Australians some of their own medicine back: they were repeatedly bounced by the duo; Lillee was especially battered and bruised, and Greig hit the elbow of Mallett’s bowling arm. When Greig was warned by Tom Brooks for bowling two bouncers at Lillee in one over, he quickly asked whether the same applied to Lillee as well. Brooks argued that Lillee was a tail-ender.

Arnold finished with five wickets and Greig four. England had lost eight wickets for 332, but Walker, Mallett, and Thomson eventually took the score to 405.

England’s first wicket fell when Amiss was caught brilliantly by Mallett at gully off Walker; Thomson caught Lloyd brilliantly before unleashing a series of bouncers on Cowdrey. After being beaten for three balls in a row Cowdrey was caught by McCosker at short-leg off Thomson.

Fletcher played with some eagerness to score runs, and the only serious injury of the day came when Edrich hit a full-blooded stroke on McCosker’s face, rendering him unconscious and forcing him to leave the ground. Mallett, too, could not bowl for more than an over due to the injury from the morning.

England finished the day with 106 for three, still requiring a round hundred to save the follow-on. Edrich and Fletcher looked solid on 13 and 23 respectively.

Day Three: England capitulate again

Fletcher soon fell to Walker next morning. Thomson had Greig caught at slip cheaply soon afterwards; Edrich was battered and bruised all over the body, holding fort for 177 balls and 223 minutes before Ian Chappell had to summon Walters, who had the England captain caught-behind for fifty.

The score read 180 for six when Titmus joined Knott. Knott was dropped by Marsh, survived a caught-behind appeal, and was almost yorked off the second, third, and fourth balls he faced, but thereafter he dug in. He top-scored with a characteristically unconventional 121-ball 82 adding 60 with Titmus, before Walters broke through again; Knott added 33 more with Derek Underwood.

As the tail was exposed, Lillee continued to bounce at them. He even bowled a beamer that narrowly missed Willis. Underwood played a few strokes and was the last to be dismissed. England scored 295, and were 110 runs behind. Thomson finished with four for 74, but the most crucial two wickets had possibly fallen to Walters.

Ian Chappell opened batting as McCosker had to retire after a few overs of fielding early in the day. He was brilliantly caught by Lloyd off Willis, but his brother walked out and took control of the proceedings, scoring runs in a way only he could have done, that too at his prime.

The pair brought up their century-partnership in 110 minutes; Australia finished on 123 for one, 233 runs ahead, with Redpath on 47 and Chappell on 69.

Day Four: England resist

Greg Chappell was at his pompous best the next morning. “His [Chappell’s] batting was disdainfully untroubled and his strength on the on-drive caused the English bowlers to revise their policy of pitching constrainingly close to the batsman’s pads. Reaching a contemptuous fifty in eighty minutes, [Greg] Chappell depressed the accelerator of attack and Australia cruised past the century mark in four minutes under two hours.”

Edrich went on the defensive, but it did not help. Chappell cut loose, and when he eventually holed out to Lloyd at mid-wicket trying to clear the field off Arnold he had already scored 144 in 209 balls. The partnership had yielded 220 in 252 minutes.

Walters followed soon afterwards, but Redpath hung around to score his hundred. There was a brief partnership between Edwards and Marsh before Ian Chappell called things a halt, setting England a round 400 for a victory. To their credit Amiss and Lloyd played out time, remaining unbeaten on 14 and 15 respectively. England finished on 33 without loss: they would surely not go for the win, but had a high possibility of batting through the day.

Day Five: The urn is regained

The openers batted positively, adding 68 in 86 minutes before Thomson had Lloyd caught in the slips; two runs later Amiss was caught-behind off “an unplayable delivery” from Lillee, which brought Edrich to the crease to join Cowdrey.

Before the series, Lillee had written in Back to the Mark: “I try to hit a batsman in the rib-cage when I bowl a purposeful bouncer and I want it to hurt so much that the batsman doesn’t want to face me anymore.” He actually did it when he sent a rip-roaring bouncer aimed at Edrich’s ribs: the almost audible crack resulted him to leave the ground immediately for an X-ray.

Cowdrey gritted it out, hanging around for 26 balls and 37 minutes before Walker had him caught. Fletcher deflected a ball to his cap and “crumpled in a heap” as the ball fell just short of cover-point;he played a predetermined back-foot stroke two balls later and was caught by Mallett at gully.

A fit Mallett came back to remove Knott and Titmus, when a bandaged-up Edrich walked out to everyone’s surprise. He lost the belligerent Greig shortly afterwards; Underwood did not last long either; but he finally found an ally in Willis.

Edrich kept the strike, batting gamely and facing the fast bowlers with courage. Lillee eventually unleashed a yorker to bowl Willis: the pair had batted for 88 minutes, and the last pair had to bat for only ten overs. However, Arnold misread the turn of a ball from Mallett and edged it to Greg Chappell.

The crowds ran in to join in the celebrations as the urn was regained thanks to the 171-run victory.

What followed?

-          With Edrich opting out Denness was re-appointed captain for the fifth Test at Adelaide. Despite Underwood’s 11-wicket haul and Knott’s unusual hundred Australia won again.

-          England surprised everyone by winning the dead rubber Test at MCG where Denness top-scored with 188 and Fletcher added 146 more. Lever picked up nine wickets as well.

-          Denness led England in the return Ashes that summer, but stood down after the first Test, handing the responsibility over to Greig.

Brief scores:

 

Australia 405 (Greg Chappell 84, Rick McCosker 80, Ian Chappell 53; Geoff Arnold 5 for 86, Tony Greig 4 for 104) and 289 for 4 decl. (Greg Chappell 144, Ian Redpath 105) beat England 295 (Alan Knott 82, John Edrich 50; Jeff Thomson 4 for 74) and 228 (Tony Greig 54; Ashley Mallett 4 for 21) by 171 runs.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is a cricket historian and Senior Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He generally looks upon life as a journey involving two components – cricket and literature – though not as disjoint elements. A passionate follower of the history of the sport with an insatiable appetite for trivia and anecdotes, he has also a steady love affair with the incredible assortment of numbers that cricket has to offer. He also thinks he can bowl decent leg-breaks in street cricket, and blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in. He can be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42)

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