The curse of Mike Denness

It was very sad to read of the untimely death of Mike Denness, the former England captain, but his passing reminded me of the one and only time our lives intersected. I sincerely hope the relating of this incident doesn’t appear to trivialise his demise, but I can only tell the truth. Mike Denness, inadvertently and through no fault of his own, was responsible for the most sorrowful occurrence in my pub quiz career.

It took place around eight years ago, during the quiz night at the Sun Inn, Barnes, south west London. Even before the quiz-master had finished reading this particular question, I instinctively sensed two things: not only did I definitely know the correct answer, without a shadow of a doubt – but almost certainly, no one else in the pub would. This was a nailed down point, a point none of our rivals would score – and the credit was all mine. It was a good question, with a satisfyingly specific answer, and I was already mentally high-fiving my team-mates.

The question was:

“Who was the only Scotsman to captain the England cricket team?”

The answer of course, as we’ve been reminded over the last few days, is Mike Denness. Douglas Jardine is just about an acceptable answer (his parents were Scottish, as were Tony Greig’s), but Denness was entirely, unambiguously, Scottish. And skippered England.

With a blend of humility and confidence, I told my team-mates the answer. They recognised the glint of certainty in my eyes. No doubts did they harbour about the accuracy of my assertion, and the words ‘MIKE DENNESS’ were duly etched on to the answer sheet.

It was a good feeling. That point was on its way.

Such was my hubris that I was barely listening when the quiz-master later read out the answers for the round. As far as I was concerned, there was no need. So you can imagine my surprise when I heard him say:

“Question six. The only Scotsman to captain the England cricket team was…Mike Brearley”.

You bloody what? I simply could not believe it.

As you might guess, I then instigated a full and frank exchange of views with the quiz-master. “In what remote way is Mike Brearley Scottish?”, I beseeched him, to no avail. Should he really be known as Mike McBrearley? And by what logic is Mike Denness not Scottish.

Sadly, the quiz-master gave no quarter. He’d somehow convinced himself that Harrow-born Mike Brearley was the true Caledonian, and Denness (born in Lanarkshire, grew up in Ayr, spoke with a Scottish accent) a mere Sassenach.

What a waste of a vital quiz point. How cruel a blow to my sense of justice and fair-play.  And how regrettable that this was the only occasion on which Mike Denness had a bearing on my own life. In reality he was a cricketer, captain and referee of great integrity, and a much-loved friend, father and husband. But for me, Denness embodied my greatest humiliation.


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