Denness the Menace - India's problems with match referee Mike Denness

Arunabha Sengupta looks at some of the most famous feuds of cricket. In this episode he reflects on the chasm created by the rift between match referree Mike Denness and  the Indian cricket team

On the afternoon of the third day of the second Test match between India and South Africa at Port Elizabeth, 2001-02, Jacques Kallis was building on the huge first innings lead, while at the other end Indians were chipping away at the wickets. It was during this phase of the game that some stirring, although by no means extraordinary, events took place and eventually brought the cricket world on the brink of fragmentation.

First, Kallis defended a ball on the leg and middle from Harbhajan Singh and it was taken on the bounce by Virender Sehwag at the forward short-leg. Believing that the ball had bounced off the 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, Mike 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 Shiv Sunder Das, for excessive appealing – one Test match suspended ban.

Sourav Ganguly, for not being able to control his players – one Test match and two ODI matches suspended ban.

Additionally, all the six were docked 75% of their match fees.

The shell-shocked and infuriated Indian players leaked the news to the media. Immediately there were complains 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.”

The 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 the 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 the ICC, while most other boards, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, sided with the 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, however, pointed out 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 Hinduremarking, 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, the 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 match, Mike 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 match 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. India’s home series against England immediately after the South African tour, seemed to be under threat when the selectors included the Najafgarh youngster in the squad. Dalmiya started out by standing his ground, but eventually compromised – Sehwag missed the opening Test against England at Mohali.

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.

Plans for a hearing of the case in front of the ICC Disputes Resolution Committee in June 2002 were cancelled because Denness had to undergo a heart surgery.