Mike Denness in happier times © Getty Images
Mike Denness in happier times © Getty Images

Mike Denness, born December 1, 1940, will be remembered for his altercations as Match Referee with the Indian cricketers and BCCI during Port Elizabeth Test in India’s tour of South Africa in 2001-02. Arunabha Sengupta says that there was much more to the man who was one of the most pleasing batsmen to watch when in full flow.

There was much more to Mike Denness than the ban of six Indian cricketers that threatened to fragment the cricket world into two.

At his peak, there were few English batsmen who could match him for elegance and visual delight at the crease. A Scotsman, he was stylish in his drives that threaded the off-side and skipped out gracefully to the spinners. And off the field, his deportment and dress sense were impeccable. As a player and captain he carried himself as the model cricketer.

And no, he was not a sworn enemy of the Indians as the infamous 2002 Port Elizabeth Test led much of the media to proclaim. Sifting through the old photographs we find him putting his arms around Sunil Gavaskar, protecting him from the marauding Indian fans on the verge of mobbing the Little Master in celebration of his hundred at Old Trafford in 1974. His decisions of 2002 remain controversial, questionable — and his reactions to queries rather quixotic. However, most of his life he was an affable man, modest and dignified.

Life and career

Denness scored nearly 26,000 runs in First-Class cricket, and was a superb batsman in English conditions. He was also a fine fielder in the covers.Yes, the pace of Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson in Australia, the turning tracks of the subcontinent and the unfamiliar wickets of the Caribbean often found him out. But, he fought hard, and was not averse from admitting lack of form or runs.

He led in 19 of the 28 Tests he played in, winning 6 and losing 5 — enjoying large stints of success before Lillee and Thomson trampled over the numbers to make them look rather ordinary. Of course, Geoff Boycott’s unavailability did have a major role to play in the final figures.

Denness took over captaincy of Kent from Colin Cowdrey and led them to six limited-overs tournament victories in five years. His leadership skills impressed important men, and after one Test match, he was appointed vice-captain of Tony Lewis for the tour of India in 1972-73.

His subsequent rise to the helm was not quite universally popular. When he was appointed to lead the side to the West Indies the next winter, the reactions were mixed. Geoff Boycott in particular was rather antagonistic, in spite of the several steps taken by Denness to make the difficult Yorkshire personality feel at home and important.

Boycott helped England square the series in West Indies with 99 and 112 in a tensely fought match at Port-of-Spain, but then departed on his famous self-imposed sabbatical. He did not make himself available for England for the next three years and Denness never enjoyed his services again.

It did not matter when the Indians visited in the summer of 1974. England won all three Tests and Denness scored hundreds at Lord’s and Edgbaston. However, things changed drastically when the side toured Australia, to battle for the Ashes against a ruthless home side spearheaded by Lillee and Thomson.

England were battered, and the form of Denness himself bruised. His run of scores read 6, 4, 2, 3, 8 and 5 in the first three Tests. And in an incredible decision, he dropped himself from the fourth Test. He made 51 on his return against the deadly duo in the fifth Test. A career-best 188 followed in the last match of the series at Melbourne, ending in a consolation win for the beleaguered side. True, Lillee bowled just 6 overs and Thomson missed the Test, but a big score in a win after having one’s confidence shattered to bits was more than commendable.

Across the Tasman Sea, Denness scored his final Test hundred at Auckland. England won the series 1-0 — the last win that he would experience.

In the summer of 1975, the Australians were back to resume the duel for the Ashes. With conditions overcast and the skies threatening to open up, Denness put the visitors in to bat at Birmingham. The result was a 359-run first innings for the visitors, following which a thunderstorm transformed the conditions. Lillee and Max Walker ran through the English first innings and Thomson wrecked the second. Scores of 101 and 173 meant a loss by an innings after having put the opposition in. In the wake of the defeat and severe criticism, Denness made way for Tony Greig as captain and never played for England again. He continued to turn out for Kent and then Essex, and under his captaincy the latter won their first ever county championship. He called it a day in 1980.

Denness worked in insurance, finance and public relations after his retirement, before being appointed Match Referee by ICC.

The Port Elizabeth affair

On the afternoon of the third day of the second Test match between India and South Africa at Port Elizabeth, 2001-02, Jacques Kallis defended a ball on the leg and middle from Harbhajan Singh. It was taken on the bounce by Virender Sehwag at the forward short-leg. Believing that the ball had come off the bat and boot, the appeal was spontaneous and loud, with Sehwag running towards the umpire in excitement. When the decision was negative, Sehwag, playing the second Test match of his career, uttered that one monosyllable that is acknowledged worldwide as the most common expletive for frustration.

Next, Tendulkar came on to bowl his medium-pacers and started swinging the ball more than anyone else had done so far. When the local television producer instructed his cameramen to zoom in on his hand to check which grip he was using, he was seen to be moving his thumb and forefinger over the seam.

The next day, Denness, the match referee, handed down fines and bans on six Indian players:

– Tendulkar for alleged interference with the match ball — one Test match suspended ban.
– Sehwag, for showing dissent at the umpire’s decision and charging at the umpire — one Test match immediate ban.
– Harbhajan Singh, Deep Dasgupta and SS Das, for excessive appealing — one Test match suspended ban.
– Finally captain Sourav Ganguly, for not being able to control his players — one Test match and two ODI matches suspended ban.
– Additionally, all six were docked 75 per cent of their match fees.

The shocked and infuriated Indian players leaked the news to the media. Immediately there were allegations of racial discrimination, along with a huge public outcry, especially given that the national icon of Tendulkar had been accused of cheating. Effigies of Denness were burnt on the Indian streets, and television channels went on overdrive.

Denness made matters worse by turning up at a press conference and refusing to utter a word, leading Ravi Shastri to remark, “If Mike Denness is not going to say anything, why is he here? We all know what he looks like.” He was under supposed gag orders by the ICC, but one wonders why he turned up at all.

ICC Chief Executive Malcolm Speed in the forefront, decided to back Denness, but that only served in making the Indian press brand the parent body as biased. India board president Jagmohan Dalmiya demanded the removal of Denness from the final Test. Niranjan Shah, honorary secretary of BCCI, said: “We are unhappy with his inconsistency and the India team have no confidence in him. We feel that all the decisions are against India. The South Africans committed the same excessive appealing.”

Predictably, opinions seemed to be polarised on grounds of skin colour. The English, Australian and New Zealand boards supported ICC, while most other boards, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, sided with BCCI.

The press was also divided, and there too ethnic fissures were apparent. Scyld Berry described Dalmiya as “the control freak, the player of political games, the man who destabilises and then poses as the saviour of the Indian tour by telling his players to play on”.

Harsha Bhogle opined that Dalmiya was “a reflection of the Indian mood”.

The situation threatened to split the cricket world into two. The Indian press went full throttle, with an editorial in The Hindu remarking, “Denness’ sense of fairness dates back to the Victorian era when Britannia ruled the waves. In the event, Denness truly believes — in the manner of his forefathers who ruled this land with such cunning for so long — that there are always two sets of rules. Nothing has changed since the days when the sun never set on the British Empire.”

When Dalmiya threatened to scrap the third Test match leading to possible financial losses, Gerald Majola, CEO of United Cricket Board of South Africa (UCBSA), declared: “Although the crisis is not of our making, we have received reports of protests at South African embassies in India and our country has been caught up in this issue. South African cricket cannot afford a cancellation of the final Test of a series that is still open.”

On the eve of the third Test, Denness observed, “It was easier facing Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson than waiting to hear whether the third Test is going to take place.”

After discussions, the boards snubbed ICC and Malcolm Speed, and decided to replace Denness with former South African wicket keeper Denis Lindsay. It was further decided that Denness would not be allowed inside the stadium.

A smarting Speed remarked, “No cricket board has the authority to remove Denness … The ICC cannot accede to (such) demands… To remove him under this kind of pressure would be to disregard the rules agreed by all member countries and set an unacceptable precedent. It has been suggested in South Africa that a replacement match could be staged if the Test does not go ahead. If this were to happen it would not be recognised by the ICC as a Test match. It would not be officiated by an ICC referee or umpire and neither the result nor statistics would be included in Test match records.”

The unofficial third Test was played out with Lindsay officiating, and was easily won by the South Africans. The players did not really treat it as an international match. There were logos on the flannels and batsmen signalled for the third umpire — to mention two striking departures from the decorum of a Test match.

ICC upheld the ban on Sehwag for the subsequent Test match but overturned those on Tendulkar and Ganguly.

Denness served as match referee in only two more Tests and three ODIs and was not reappointed by the ICC the following year. “There was a reduction from the part-time referees, of which I was one, to the full-time referees. I wasn’t included in that full-time list, but I don’t think it was anything to do with the Tendulkar thing,” he remarked after he was relieved of his duties.

At the last New Year Honours, Denness was made an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE).

He passed away on April 19, 2013, at the age of 72 after waging a long battle with cancer.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)