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picture of book cover 'I Declare' by Mike Denness

PDCC Book of the Year Award 2008

We have thanklessly read all of the cricket books published in 2008 to decide which should win the coveted PDCC Cricket Book of the Year Award. The winner is an old favourite that sent shock waves through the sport. Read on ...

'I Declare' by Mike Denness (Hogg Press £16.99 hardback)

PDCC talks to Mike Denness and other tour members about this updated warts and all account of the notorious 1974/75 MCC tour to Australia.

"I think Led Zeppelin were playing some very big stadiums in America at the same time as we were in Australia. Their on-tour activities are well documented. Thank God we had no journalists following us around. We made Zep look like Boy Scouts." - Chris Old

"I remember walking into the hotel room I was sharing with Brian Luckhurst. We called him 'Lucky' because he was an ugly bastard but could still pull any bird he wanted. Anyway, I walk in and Lucky is in the bath with these two chicks all totally naked drinking Moet et Chandon. Meanwhile Mike Hendricks is sprawled across the bed playing a synthesiser with one hand and feeding bananas to a chimpanzee dressed as Barbie with the other. All I can remember thinking was - bloody hell we're batting to save a test in four hours and I haven't slept for two weeks." - Derek Underwood

"Hendricks had this weird idea that we should all give up cricket and form a space rock collective. He was very into Hawkwind and Gong at the time. During the course of the tour he neglected his bowling and starting writing a concept album about how an evil group of puppets take over the world. He was going to call it The Puppet Masters. Tony Grieg took him to one side after nets and there was a bit of fisticuffs. Not that Grieg was in any position to lay down the law to anyone. He was ripped to the tits on Quaaludes most of the time. To be honest I was quite taken with Hendrick's ideas. I was just about to change my name to Lord Gnomski and learn the sitar." - Keith Fletcher

"Alan Knott was very interested in black magic - not the chocolates - but all the devil worshipping stuff. One night we had a seance at the hotel and he summoned up the Devil himself. The genuine Prince of Darkness, Lucifer, whatever you want to call him. It was terrifying. Knotty asked the Devil to put a curse on Lillee and Thompson. Well the next day they bowled faster and better than ever and so we thought no more about it. About a week later I saw something in a newspaper in Perth. It said that a woman in her thirties had been walking down the street and suddenly a big bolt of lightening had come from nowhere and struck her down. Dead instantly. I nearly died myself when I saw her name. I still get shivers now when I think about it ... her name was Lillian Thompson." - Dennis Amiss

picture of Mike Denness
MCC Captain Mike Denness in reflective mood. "Our preparation could have been better."

The 1974/75 MCC tour to Australia was not to go down as English cricket's finest hour. England (or the MCC as it was still quaintly known then) lost the six match series 4-1, often by embarrassing margins. Only in the final test at Melbourne did they redeem themselves with an innings victory inspired by centuries by Mike Denness and Keith Fletcher. For the most part the new ball partnership of Lillee and Thompson proved too much for the English batsmen. Ably assisted by the likes of Max Walker and Geoff Dymock and with world-class batsman such as the Chappell brothers and Doug Walters Australia were too strong in every department.

Yet this new book suggests that the outcome might have been very different. Unbeknown to the selectors the MCC squad chosen for the tour contained at least three drug addicts, two certified lunatics, nine alcoholics, a cross-dresser and assorted devil worshippers, pederasts and wife beaters.

"On paper it was a solid enough team." Captain Mike Denness is rueful these days about his charges twenty four years on. "Sometimes it's only when you get on the plane that you realise what people are really like. You know them from the county circuit but only to have a quick beer with at the close of play. I had played against Geoff Arnold many times and had always thought him to be a decent, straightforward sort of bloke, I had no idea that he wore a dress and lived on a diet of speed and Wilson Of Sharrow's Jockey Club snuff."

The warm-up games went reasonably well and it was with some optimism that Denness lined up with his team for the first test at Brisbane. However things were to take a turn for the worse when Denness received a phone call in his hotel room at 4am.

"I was woken up by a call from the hotel manager who told me that Peter Lever and John Edrich had been kicked out of the hotel. Lever had thrown a TV set out of the window into the swimming pool. He was frustrated because he couldn't get Emmerdale Farm on it and had therefore missed the episode where Mr Wilkes confronted Dolly Skilbeck over the missing petty cash. Edrich was just a born trouble-maker and had tried to get in on the act by nailing Keith Fletcher to the ceiling. It was not really the ideal preparation."

picture of Alan Knott
Alan Knott (centre) leads the team in contacting the spirit world. They summon up the ghost of Arthur Pickwicket who entertains them with his song Vampire Umpire before stealing all the nuts from the mini bar.

Subsequently lack of sleep contributed to England's massive 188 run defeat. And worse was to follow.

Preparations for the Second Test were interrupted by further trouble in the squad. Lever had become increasingly frustrated by Australian TV scheduling and had gone on hunger strike. He had not been prepared for the fact that not only Emmerdale Farm but Coronation Street, Crossroads and It's A Knockout had yet to make it over the water. In addition, Bob Willis became distraught when told he couldn't wear lederhosen to an official dinner in Perth and locked himself into a wardrobe for four days. He later claimed that he had been looking for Narnia because there was a better chance of buying Bob Dylan bootlegs there.

Colin Cowdrey was called up from home to shore up the batting. He was 43 and had not held a bat for months. Against the sleek and toned athletic physiques of the Australians, Cowdrey's rotund appearance was widely mocked. In the local press he was dubbed Captain Mainwearing after the bumptious Home Guard leader.

"Cowdrey was well respected by the players but was rather out of condition. He'd spent the previous four months at home eating a lot of cake. He also had these rather odd ideas about things. For a start he believed that all animals were lazy freeloaders who lived on the earth rent free and advocated finding jobs for them all. He said he only really respected seaside donkeys and guide dogs because they had got off their backsides to find work. He once missed a catch at mid on because he was too busy berating a pigeon for living off the state." - Chris Old

"We had to bring in the likes of Colin Cowdrey, David Lloyd and Fred Titmus for the Second Test. Lloydy was, and remains, an idiot, and as for Fred Titmus; if there was a 'who has the most toes' competition between him and a three toed sloth then there would only be one winner and it wouldn't be Fred. It was impossible for him to bowl without falling over" remembers Denness.

picture of Mike Hendrick
Mike Hendrick - Rainbow Dome Musick

Defeat by 9 wickets was the result. Cowdrey stiffened up the batting a little but the Dad's Army comparisons were embarrassingly accurate.

Off the field the stories of excess and debauchery were legion. Lever ended up in prison after running amok with a dirty mop at a Sydney shopping mall. He had been unable to watch the Basil Brush Show on Australian TV - the one where Basil tells Mr Derek about his ambition to be a Lollipop Man ("You don't have to start work until your'e 65") - and had snapped. Cowdrey had flown back to Blighty to renew his bus pass and replenish his cake supplies. Worse was to follow when one of Knotty's regular seances had summoned up the spirits of WG Grace and Lord Hawke in physical form, who had then taken residence in the hotel bar demanding fine mead and venison and charging it to Denness's room tab. Eventually the MCC had to sanction the use of a local exorcist to rid the hotel of the unwanted pair causing the ghostly figure of Grace to remark "they have come to see me haunt, not you bowl."

Miraculously England managed to salvage a draw from the third test in Melbourne, thanks mainly to stout bowling from a post-Narnia Bob Willis and hardy batting from Amiss, Grieg and Knott. Yet if England thought that this was the start of an upturn in fortunes then they were mistaken.

Preparations for the all-important fourth test in Sydney did not go as planned. "We were in a pickle of our own making" writes Denness. "For Brian 'Lucky' Luckhurst problems were just around the corner. It seems that he had established one special female friend in each city that he had visited and by an unfortunate accident of fate his Brisbane, Perth, Melbourne and Sydney girlfriends all descended on his hotel room at the same time the night before the fourth test to see him - blissfully unaware of each others' existence. The resulting bitch fight left all four hospitalised. Not that 'Lucky' was too bothered. He took the opportunity to bed a pre-Grease Olivia Newton John." Lucky indeed.

"Groupies tended to follow us around. These were the days before WAGs were allowed on tour and some players couldn't resist the temptations on offer. The girls tended to particularly like 'Lucky' Luckhurst, Knotty and, perhaps surprisingly, Colin Cowdrey. Cowdrey used to like to portray himself as a sort of English upper-class gentleman but in reality he was the worst offender. He used to phone Lady Cowdrey back home, tell her how 'beastly' everything was, how kangaroos were all bone-idle layabouts and then toddle off in his slippers with a Battenburg under his arm to a room full of teenage slappers." - Keith Fletcher

picture of Colin Cowdrey
Colin Cowdrey prepares to unfurl a trademark cover drive before splitting his trousers. Eschewing thigh pads for being 'queer', Cowdrey has tucked several Victoria sponges under his vest as protection and as a tasty mid-innings snack.

Meanwhile Mike Hendricks's mental frailties had caused conflict with tour veteran Fred Titmus. Hendricks had developed a serious paranoia about puppets taking over the world whilst in contrast Titmus had a collection of soft toys that were a gift from his children. One day whilst randomly rooming together Hendricks's drug-induced psychosis led him to decapitate all of Titmus's furry friends just as Fred was returning from the nets. "Fred came to me distraught" Denness recalls "he said that Hendo had massacred all his teddies, there was Kapok everywhere. I found Mike Hendricks and I had to explain to him that there was a difference between cuddly toys and puppets. I told him that technically if you can put you hand up its arse it's a puppet. Hendricks said ‘what if it's on string? That's got to be a puppet as well?’ I said ‘Mike, that's a marionette, now get into the nets and stop worrying.’ I was always proud of my man management skills."

After the encouraging draw in Melbourne England went back to their own ways at Sydney: losing by 171 runs. The dispirited squad stumbled on to Adelaide for the fifth test and a 163 run defeat. With the series long lost Denness tried to rally his troops for one last effort at Melbourne. A strict curfew was imposed and all squad members were required to spend hours practicing in the nets.

"I had to use the Dad's Army thing to our advantage." recalls Denness today. "I assigned the senior players specific roles from the series. I said to them that even though the Dad's Army blokes were old and doddery they had pride and passion in abundance and they would never take a beating. Despite what the Aussie press said Cowdrey was clearly our Sergeant Wilson - upper class and urbane. Poor Freddie Titmus was Godfrey. Mind you Titmus was incontinent by that stage anyway. Dennis Amiss was Jones. Already when he went out to face Lillee he was shouting ‘don't panic’ and getting himself into a tizzy. He always referred to the West Indian pace attack as 'fuzzy wuzzies'. 'Lucky' Luckhurst became Walker the Spiv. He claimed that he'd done Wendy Richard in real life so it wasn't much of a leap of imagination. I thought that Keith Fletcher was very much like Frazer naturally. He would sit in the dressing room moaning ‘we're doomed’ to anyone who would listen. David Lloyd was Pike. Stupid boy and all that. I'll never forget Dennis Amiss as Jones giving an emotional speech before the start of play, ending with a rousing ‘they don't like it up 'em’. Sadly he was out for nothing as usual."

I wont spoil it for potential readers of this thoroughly entertaining book by revealing what happened next. But this classic tale of greed, excess and sporting incompetence is already a contender for PDCC's cricket book of the year.

PDCC books extra ...

... what happened after the tour?

Denness resigned the captaincy in January 1975 and was replaced by Tony Grieg. The MCC tour moved on to New Zealand for two tests in February 1975. They were successful in the first with Denness scoring a career best 181 and drew the next. However the squad returned home to widespread criticism for their performances in Australia. Australia returned during 1975 domestic season and won a four match series 1-0. 1975 also saw the inaugural World Cup in which England lost to Australia at the semi-final stage after being bowled out for 93 (Denness top scoring with 27).

And as for some of the main protagonists.

Mike Denness - Denness played the last of his 28 tests against Australia at Edgbaston in 1975. He retired from playing in 1980 and became a respected match referee.

Colin Cowdrey - Cowdrey retired in 1976 to spend more time with his cakes. He was knighted for services to cricket in 1992 and died in 2000. Cowdrey remained involved with the game but spent increasing amounts of time supporting initiatives for teaching cats how to type. Cowdrey viewed cats as natural secretaries as they would sit on your knee without complaint, could be house-trained and kept older offices free from vermin. He also claimed that he got more pleasure from teaching his Alsatian 'Rolf' how to drive his Rolls Royce than he did from any test century. Sadly Rolf later took Sir Colin to an industrial tribunal after being sacked from his chauffeuring job for licking his own 'gear box' in front of Lady Cowdrey.

picture of "The Laughing Gnome" cover by David Bowie
"If it hadn't have been for me Bowie would still be playing pubs and selling his arse to sailors" - Keith Fletcher recalls his brush with pop stardom.

Chris Old - Yorkshire all-rounder Old remained an essential member of the England squad until 1981, where he starred in the famous Ashes victory now known the world over as 'Old's Ashes'.

Keith Fletcher - Fletcher had a long and illustrious career as captain of Essex. He was appointed England manager from 1993 to 1995 when he became manager of Essex until 2001. Fletcher was known as the 'Gnome' because of his vocals on David Bowie's early recording The Laughing Gnome which became a belated hit in 1973. Fletcher claims never to have received any royalties from the record despite its worldwide popularity. Bowie's artistic reputation suffered when the record resurfaced and crowds, especially in Yorkshire, never forgave Fletcher. Fletcher has recently attempted to cash in on his Bowie connections by releasing several CDs on his own Gnome Of The Hits label such as Gnomeward Bound , The Return of Metro-Gnome and Gnome Man Is An Island. Sales have been poor.

Peter Lever - Lever remained a stalwart fast bowler for Lancashire throughout the seventies. His stint as England bowling coach was terminated due to Lever's reluctance to go on tour. As he wrote in his as-yet unpublished biography "I didn't like to miss a lot of television and in the late eighties I was on six soaps a day. I had to turn down a job on the first South Africa tour because ITV started showing Take The High Road in the afternoons. I was already doing The Sullivans and Sons and Daughters before I could get out of bed. People say I wasted my talents but I always point out that I am one of the few who can honestly say that they were watching when Hans and Lottie Kaufman got interred."

Mike Hendricks - Joined Gong on 'space whistle' in 1982 for their Radio Gnome Invisible Tour of Eastern Russia and hasn't been seen since.

Publish Date: Thursday, 1 January 2009