In Mike Denness, who has died aged 72, cricket has lost a fine former player and England captain, and one of the most genial and courteous men you could meet.
I first encountered the ex-Kent and Essex batsman at Heathrow airport at about 6am on a cold November morning in 2001. He was the match referee in charge of the second Test between South Africa and India at Port Elizabeth. He had incurred the wrath of a nation by imposing a suspended one-match ban on Sachin Tendulkar for tampering with the ball, and also penalised five other tourists for their behaviour on the field. The Indians had threatened to call off the tour. The South African administrators agreed to India's request to ask Denness to step down for the third Test, and the International Cricket Council removed the match's Test status as a result.
Denness, 60 at the time, flew home early, and must have groaned when he saw me waiting for him after a long flight, but he was courtesy personified as he agreed to be interviewed in a coffee shop. He told me, "It [had been] easier facing Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson" than being at the centre of such a controversy.
Our next meeting was in happier climes. We sat down for an hour – in another coffee shop – and when he could make himself heard amid the spurts and blub-blubs of the percolators, he told me the story of leading England in Australia on the Ashes tour of 1974-75 for my book, The Toughest Tour: The Ashes Away Series Since the War.
During that tour, after making only 65 runs in six innings in the first three Tests in Australia, and with his side 2-0 down, the Scot became the only England captain to drop himself because of form during an Ashes series. Lillee and Thomson were leaving a trail of destruction in their wake. Tony Greig said the decision by Denness "showed a courage that demanded admiration"; other team-mates were far more critical. It made little difference – England lost again, this time under John Edrich at Sydney.
Denness told me: "Keith Fletcher had scored heavily against the states, so if we were going to change the side at 2-0 down and win the fourth Test at Sydney, I had to be the one to make way. I didn’t feel in form at all. If you get off to a good start in a series you’re all right, but the state games were totally different to the Tests, and facing Lillee and Thomson. I had mainly been caught behind. I was never bowled, because they didn’t pitch the ball up enough. It was a lack of proper technique. I didn’t have time to go to my room and mope about. No one’s really dropped themselves before or since, and the media were saying it was the end of my career. But we still had a lot of time left in Australia and New Zealand; I just saw it as a match we had to win. As it was they thrashed us."
Denness showed his character to make a half-century in the fifth Test at Adelaide when he returned as captain, but England lost again.
But there was another drama for him. "I had pain in my back," he said. "Doctors thought I might have three kidneys. I heard people say they might have to operate; well I’m sorry, but if anybody’s going to open me up then I’ll have it done in this country, not when I’m on a cricket tour! Actually, a kidney develops at the end of a tube, and I had an extra tube. The warmer we got, the more severe the pain became. They concluded this tube was infected so they gave me some antibiotics. A couple of weeks later it got better."
Recovered, he made his highest first-class score, 188, as England won the sixth Test, back at Sydney, by an innings against a side by now without the injured deadly fast-bowling duo.
"As the plane left Australia for New Zealand, some of the lads said they were glad to get out alive," he told me. "That was difficult to take. I was upset I hadn’t picked up on it earlier. They were thinking about their livelihoods, and whether they were going to get hit on the head. It was why helmets came in soon after.
"They were eight-ball overs, and against Lillee and Thomson you weren’t getting too many opportunities for runs. It was never going to be easy, with the uneven bounce. They were never pitching the ball up, and there was no control by the umpires as to what was acceptable and what was not. You might, if you were lucky, get two balls that were possible to score off. You could bat for an hour and look at the board and you were four not out."
Denness had not been allowed to pick John Snow, who had been out of favour since colliding with India’s Sunil Gavaskar in the Lord’s Test in 1971. "It was very sad. We could have done with some Snow firepower to combat Lillee and Thomson."
I saw Mike just over two years ago when he very kindly came to the launch of the book and he seemed well and on fine form. He was a real gentleman and I am very sad that I will never be able to ring him again to talk about cricket.