Was Scotland’s greatest batsman a Dundee Kiwi?

20 Aug

Ayr Academy 1st XI 1958 Mike Denness (captain) is centre of front row, with Ian Ure standing immediately behind himThe passing of Mike Denness last year generated some interesting mainstream media and internet discussion around Scots who had played Test cricket, which inevitably evolved into a debate about who was the greatest Scottish batsman.

This is where the matter becomes problematic, however. Hitherto, candidates for consideration usually fell into two categories: those whose cricketing skills were honed in Scotland; or those who were born in Scotland, but developed as cricketers elsewhere. Thus world-class batsmen like Gordon Greenidge, Desmond Haynes and Rahul Dravid are excluded from this subjective process because, although recipients of Scottish ‘caps’, they were drafted in to bolster Scotland’s chances in UK domestic one-day competitions but would have been ineligible to wear the thistle on an international stage. 

In each category, my humble opinion has been steadfastly unchanged for nigh-on 40 years: Mike Denness is the best Scottish-developed batsman of all time, while Archie Jackson is the greatest Scottish-born batsman ever. 

Bellshill-born and Ayr-raised, Denness developed as a right-handed batsman at Ayr Academy and Ayr CC, where he blossomed in the mid-1950s under the tutelage of then club pro Charlie Oakes, the former Sussex batsman. Established as a batsman in the Scotland XI during 1959, aged only 18, he went on to develop a professional career with Kent, and then Essex, that lasted until 1980, peaking with his captaincy of England during 1974/75. He played 28 Tests for England, making his début against New Zealand at The Oval in 1969, scoring 1,667 runs at an average just a fraction shy of 40, hitting four centuries and seven fifties, with a top Test score of 188 against Australia at Melbourne in 1975. 

I should admit that my perspective on Denness might not be an entirely objective one. I started playing cricket as a 13-year-old in 1973, the year Denness succeeded Ray Illingworth as England captain. Being Ayr born and bred, I displayed the pride vicariously shared by all local cricket enthusiasts at the unique achievement of ‘one of our own.’ My own connection was strengthened in that my mother had attended Ayr Academy as a contemporary of Mike Denness, and related to me how the school had also produced two other international sportsmen at the same time, in Ian Ure and Iain McLauchlan. 

As my interest in sporting and social history developed over subsequent years, my curiosity increased at the circumstances that had contrived to allow a state school in a 1950s Scottish town to produce a triumvirate of contemporary internationalists who would each captain their country in a different sport, with all three having being teammates in the cricket XI and rugby XV of Ayr Academy. 

It was thought that all three would go on to represent Scotland on the rugby field, as they were members of the school’s legendary undefeated rugby side of 1957/58. Denness played at centre or fly-half, Ure was stand-off, while McLauchlan was a loose head prop. Only Ian ‘Mighty Mouse’ McLauchlan, however, would achieve sporting fame in rugby union, captaining Scotland on a record number of occasions and becoming a legendary British Lion. Ian Ure left Ayr Academy in 1958 and signed for Dundee Football Club as a centre-half, helping them to win the league title in 1962 and to the semi-final of the European Cup the following year, before being transferred to Arsenal and thence to Manchester United. He earned 11 caps for Scotland between 1961 and 1967, captaining a Scotland XI in an unofficial international victory over Israel in Tel Aviv in May 1967. Ure’s football talents had been developed at Newton Park Primary School, then in youth football with Ayr Albion and at junior level with Dalry Thistle, but he could play only rugby union and cricket while at Ayr Academy in the 1950s, as the school would not allow football, and only the coming of comprehensive education in the early 1970s forced a change. 

Such an elitist discriminatory practice now seems bizarre, denying youngsters the opportunity of participating in what was by far the most popular sport in the country, with the spurious justification being that the ‘muscular Christianity’ of amateur rugby union somehow built character, or revealed character, in a way that the predominantly working-class game of association football, tainted by professionalism, could not. 

Although rugby was primarily an activity for Scotland’s middle-class, with the working-class preferring football, cricket was the summer sport that could be embraced by both, and such was the case at Ayr Academy. Denness (1940), Ure (1939) and McLauchlan (1942) had all been born in the early part of World War Two and had endured years of rationing and post-war austerity when growing-up. Their years at Ayr Academy spanning the mid to late 1950s saw them emerge as members of a new social phenomenon – the ‘teenager’ – with rock and roll and ‘youth culture’. It was an age of full employment epitomised by Prime Minister MacMillan’s “never had it so good” comment, as rationing gave way to consumerism. Denness, Ure and MacLauchlan are also exemplars of how the class stratification of British society was beginning to break-up in the 1950s: Ure was a mainstay of the Academy’s cricket 1st XI and grew up in one of Ayr’s post-war peripheral housing schemes, the son of a stamping works drop forger; MacLauchlan came from the nearby village of Tarbolton where his father was a coalminer; Denness’s background was more affluent, his father was a sales manager with tobacco company W D & H O Wills. 

Archie Jackson, too, was a product of working-class Scotland, being born in 1909 in a long since-demolished Rutherglen tenement, the son of a foreman in the Belvidere Brickworks on Glasgow’s London Road. The family emigrated to Australia in 1913, and Jackson was raised in the Sydney suburb of Balmain, with his batting abilities being recognised early, as he made his first-grade début for Balmain aged just 15. 

Although a year younger than Don Bradman, Jackson made his first-class début for New South Wales, at the age of only 17 in 1926/27, a full 12 months before ‘The Don’. A right-handed batsman like Bradman, Archie first played for Australia as a 19-year-old at Adelaide in the fourth Ashes Test of 1928/29, elegantly soring 164, bringing up his ton with a cover drive to the fence off Harold Larwood. Sadly, this outstanding talent would shine brightly for a painfully short period, and he succumbed to tuberculosis on 16 February 1933 at the tragically early age of 23. 

Jackson played 70 first-class matches, compiling 4,383 stylish runs at an average of 45.65; he played in only 8 Tests, scoring 474 runs at 47.40 (although in his 4 Tests against England he averaged 58.33). His fourth-wicket partnership of 243 with Don Bradman at The Oval in 1930 still stands as an Australian Test record for that ground. He remains the youngest batsman to have scored a century in his first Test in Australia-England matches. 

An all-round sportsman, Jackson had represented New South Wales Schools at football (soccer) as well as cricket, reflecting his family football connections: his uncle, Jimmy Jackson, played for Rangers, Newcastle United, Arsenal, West Ham United and Morton; his cousin James Jackson junior was captain of Liverpool during Archie’s cricket career; another cousin, also named Archie Jackson, played for Sunderland and Tranmere Rovers. 

So, best Scottish batsmen: Denness and Jackson; with the prodigiously talented Archie Jackson the nonpareil.

However, the 2012 ICC decision, under their exceptional circumstances guidelines, allowed players born outside Scotland to be designated as eligible to represent Scotland through Scottish parentage. This levelling of the eligibility playing field redresses Scotland’s cricketing disadvantage compared to countries such as Ireland who have the ability to grant nationality by issuing ancestral passports. Interestingly, however, it adds another ‘category’ when hypothesising on the greatest Scottish batsman, allowing us to retrospectively examine past Test cricketers who had Scottish parentage. 

Until now, three candidates have stood out: Douglas Jardine, Graeme Pollock and Bobby Simpson. The patrician Jardine, Winchester and Oxford, he of the Harlequins cap, was vilified for the 1932/33 ‘Bodyline’ tour when he ruthlessly captained England to an Ashes triumph in Australia, thankfully a revisionist view now places him as one of England’s greatest captains. Indian-born, of Scottish parents (although his father, too, had been born in India) Jardine has a stronger Scottish cricketing connection than Pollock or Simpson, in that his Fettes-educated father M R Jardine represented Scotland against Ireland at Raeburn Place in 1890. Both Jardine’s father and paternal grandfather had successful legal careers in British India, and the young Douglas Jardine spent his school holidays with an aunt at St Andrews in Fife. 

A right-handed batsman, Douglas Jardine scored 1,296 runs in 22 Test matches (averaging 48.00) scoring one century and ten 50’s. In all first-class cricket he scored 14,848 runs for a career average of 46.83, including 35 hundreds.

South Africa’s Graeme Pollock, like Archie Jackson, was another prodigious talent, scoring his maiden first-class century when he was only 16 (102 for Eastern Province v Transvaal ‘B’ at Johannesburg in January 1961), recording his first Test hundred aged just 19, scoring 122 for South Africa against Australia at Sydney in January 1964. Combining extreme power with wonderful timing, he was considered by many as the best left-handed batsman in the history of the game, no less an authority than Sir Donald Bradman classed Pollock and Garry Sobers as equals. South Africa’s ostracism from the international stage due to apartheid meant that Pollock played in only 23 Tests, in which he accumulated 2,256 runs for the phenomenal average of 60.97. His highest score of 274, against Australia in the 2nd Test at Durban in February 1970, was for many years the South African Test record. 

He scored 20,940 runs in all first-class cricket (average 54.67) including 64 centuries. 

His elder brother, Peter, and nephew Shaun, also played Test cricket for South Africa. 

Pollock’s father, Andrew Maclean Pollock, was born in Edinburgh in 1914, but emigrated to South Africa at the age of 5, becoming editor of the Port Elizabeth Herald newspaper as well as playing first-class cricket with Orange Free State. 

Born to Scottish immigrants, Bobby Simpson grew up in the western Sydney suburb of Marrickville. His parents – William ‘Jock’ Simpson, a compositor, and Sarah Stobbie Duncan, a domestic servant – both hailed from Falkirk, emigrated in 1926 and married in New South Wales in 1928. 

Simpson had strong football connections on his paternal side: his father played for Stenhousemuir in the Scottish League, his grandfather, Harry Simpson, had been a left winger with East Stirlingshire and Stoke City, and his father’s cousin, ‘Jock’ Simpson, had played for Falkirk, Blackburn Rovers and eight times for England. 

Douglas Jardine

As a youngster, Bobby Simpson excelled at soccer, golf and baseball, as well as cricket, and he was still only 16 when he made his first-class début for New South Wales against Victoria during 1952/53, making his Test début for Australia as a 20-year-old on tour in New Zealand during 1956/57. Surprisingly, it took him almost 8 years to register his first Test century, but he made up for lost time by scoring 311 in 13 hours against England at Old Trafford in 1964. Simpson scored 4,869 runs in his 62 Tests (averaging 46.81) including 10 centuries. He scored 21,029 runs in all first-class cricket (average 56.22) including 60 centuries. 

He possessed a full range of shots, being particularly strong off the back-foot and forged one of Australia’s finest opening partnerships with Bill Lawry. 

He firstly retired from Test cricket in 1968, but came out of retirement nine years later at the age of 41 to captain an inexperienced Australian side decimated by defections to Kerry Packer’s breakaway World Series Cricket. His son-in-law is former Australia captain Andrew Hilditch, who had a spell in Scottish cricket as professional with Forfarshire. 

Jardine, Pollock and Simpson are three outstanding batsmen of Scottish parentage. There is, however, another Test batsman with a Scottish father who thus meets our retrospective eligibility criterion, and your correspondent respectfully suggests that ‘Stewie’ Dempster, a Dundee Kiwi if you will, is Scotland’s greatest batsman.

Stewie Dempster

Charles Stewart Dempster was born in Wellington, New Zealand on 15 November 1903. He only played 10 Tests, but made two centuries and passed 50 in seven of his 15 innings, scoring 723 runs and averaging 65.72. Dempster has the distinction of having the second highest all-time Test batting average for completed careers of 10 or more innings, only behind the immortal Sir Donald Bradman. 

He scored 12,145 runs in all first-class cricket (average 44.98) including 35 centuries. 

‘Stewie’ Dempster grew up close to Wellington’s Basin Reserve (and is now commemorated by the ‘C S Dempster Gates’ at that cricket ground.) Educated at Wellington Boys’ Institute, he made his first-class début for Wellington aged 17. John Arlott judged that he was "an exceptionally gifted cricketer...undoubtedly one of the most complete batsmen of any country in his time."

Wisden commented: “Oddly enough he used to emphasise that he had never received any coaching and it was not until he came to England in 1927 that he really learned to play cricket. A neat and compact player, he ranked amongst the first six batsmen in the world; his admirable footwork made him probably the best player of slow bowling during his career, being particularly strong on the off side.” 

He headed the batting averages during the New Zealanders first visit to the UK in 1927, but no Tests were played. He first played Test cricket against England during the 1929/30 MCC tour, scoring 136 and 80 not out in the 2nd Test. Along with with J W E Mills he put on 276 for the first wicket, a New Zealand record first-wicket stand that wasn’t beaten for over 40 years. In 1931 he scored 120 against England at Lord's and his average for the tour was 59.26. He captained New Zealand against South Africa in 1931/32, as well as in two Tests against England in 1932/33. 

The cricket authorities in Scotland became aware of Dempster’s Scottish parentage when the New Zealand side visited Scotland in June 1927, playing Scotland at Hamilton Crescent and against a ‘Scottish Counties’ XI” at Forthill. 

The Courier, of Friday 24 June 1927, revealed Dempster’s Dundee connection:

“Thirty-five years ago his father left his Dundee home and his many friends in Scotland to carve out a career in New Zealand. During his pioneering activities Mr Dempster naturally lost touch with his friends, but he never forgot them, and he has always cherished memories of his Dundee days. He and his Dominion-reared family have ever been imbued with the desire to renew personal contact with Dundee and its citizens, and so, though young C. Stewart Dempster has come over here to play representative cricket for New Zealand, he is also engaged on a personal mission… 

“He is very keen to meet every relative and friend of his father possible during the unfortunately very short stay of the New Zealanders in Scotland, and, his time being restricted by cricket engagements, and the whereabouts of many friends being unknown, he hopes the latter will meet him at the Queen’s Hotel, or Broughty Ferry cricket ground. 

“…A first-class soccer player, he has excelled at cricket. English experts have already singled him out for his excellent fielding.” 

The sensibilities of the 1920’s readership allowed for only a somewhat abridged version of his Dundee background, however. His father, Charles Dempster, had been born at 143 Nethergate, Dundee in January 1885, the illegitimate son of Charles Dempster, a jute merchant, and Alice Sharkey, of Newry, County Down. 

Dempster senior had went to sea as a youngster, moving through the ranks to able seaman and then master mariner. When ‘Stewie’ Dempster was growing up, his father worked on Wellington’s docks, near the family home (although Dempster’s parents had divorced while he was still at primary school.) 

‘Stewie’ Dempster certainly made his mark back in his father’s home city, with only 500 spectators present at Forthill on Monday 27 June 1927 to see the New Zealanders face a Scottish Counties’ XI. Coming in first wicket down, with only 8 runs on the board, Dempster made 154 out of a New Zealand total of 304 all out, being caught by Perthshire pro Marshall off the bowling of Horsley, the Aberdeenshire pro. 

His innings was described thus in the next day’s Courier:

“Dempster, who received a great ovation on his return to the pavilion, was at the crease for 4 hours and 29 minutes. He hit all round the wicket, but was particularly strong in his driving to the off. He had a great 6 over the bowling screen off Sievwright, and hit sixteen 4’s, reaching 50 in 100 minutes, 100 in 185 minutes, and 150 in 245 minutes.” 

A Lady Spectator, writing in Dundee’s Evening Telegraph on Tuesday 28 June 1927 noted that: 

“Dempster was undoubtedly the hero of the encounter. Of him at the beginning of the match it was merely said in an interested tone of voice that his father was a Dundonian. By the end of the match Dundee had claimed him as its own and on all sides he was proclaimed with voices of pride as ‘a young Dundonian.’ Even when his score was mounting with uncanny rapidity the spectators consoled themselves with the thought that it was a ‘young Dundonian’ who was scoring at the expense of their side.” 

The Lady Spectator also provided a fascinating glimpse of a bygone age with her description of those in attendance on what was a normal working day: 

“There was also the crowd of spectators – business men off for the day in holiday garb of plus-four suits and tweed caps; business men who had just taken an hour or two off in lounge suits and bowler hats; ministers in their ‘Monday golf’ attire, and ministers who had just come from their ministerial duties in solemn black suits and ‘dog collars’; and small boys who were obviously office boys and had tripped down to see the match for a spell when they were supposed to be out delivering letters and who kept looking furtively round for fear that the ‘boss’ might be taking an afternoon off also. 

“There was also the unofficial audience in the rear, consisting of workmen engaged on the new houses, who had occasional peeps through the windows at the game, although there can be no mention of such latitude in Trade Union rules.” 

Dempster returned to the UK in 1933, playing as an amateur for Blackpool in the Ribblesdale League, intending to gain a residency qualification for Lancashire, and he set up a hairdressing business in the seaside holiday resort. 

He remained in Blackpool during the winter of 1933/34, keeping fit by playing at full-back for Fylde Rugby Club, and was in prolific form for Blackpool CC in the summer of 1934. He was picked to play for Scotland in a first-class match against Australia at Raeburn Place, Edinburgh, which commenced on Friday 27 July 1934 and ended in a draw. In front of 4,000 spectators he opened the Scottish batting, staying throughout the innings, being last man out after two hours and 20 minutes, contributing 69 out of Scotland’s 107 all out. He hit only five boundaries. 

The following month he represented Scotland against MCC at Lord’s. He made 85 in the second innings to earn the Scots a draw. He had been hit on the face when attempting to hook a delivery from Bill Edrich, and had to leave the field with a cut cheek. He returned to the fray after the fall of the fifth Scottish wicket, batting an hour and 20 minutes for his 85 runs. 

In March 1935 he was appointed ‘Financial Secretary’ of Leicestershire County Cricket Club, and played as an amateur for the county side until the outbreak of World War Two. He became manager of the Leicester branch of the furniture store chain owned by the cricket-loving Sir Julien Cahn, and was a regular member of Sir Julien’s cricket XI. 

Dempster was selected to make a final appearance for Scotland, against Yorkshire at Harrogate in August 1938, but had to withdraw, with his replacement being Kelburne batsman Willie Knox, who earned his solitary Scottish cap. 

‘Stewie’ Dempster died in his native Wellington on 14 February 1974, aged 70. He is the only one of the four great Test batsmen of Scottish parentage to have actually played cricket for Scotland; and is that fact, combined with his incredible Test batting average of 65.72, not enough to make him Scotland’s greatest ever batsman? 

Interestingly, if eligibility for a Scottish cricket ‘cap’ extended to grand-parentage – as it does in sports such as football and both rugby codes – then Scotland could lay claim to another New Zealander in the shape of Scott Styris, who has become something of a T20 specialist in recent years, starring in the IPL and assisting the likes of Essex, Sussex and currently Leicestershire. 

My wife, Julie, and Scott Styris are third cousins; his mother, Heather Styris (née Patterson) is a first cousin of my wife’s mother, Sheena, and the families had a get together last summer in Alloway, appropriately just a cover drive away from Ayr’s Cambusdoon ground, which recently hosted the Scotland against New Zealand ‘A’ fixture. 

Although Scott’s ancestry on his late father’s side is Finnish, his maternal heritage is decidedly Scottish, with his great-grandmother being a Steel from the Ayrshire village of Dalrymple, barely four miles south of the Cambusdoon ground, where his former New Zealand team-mates such as Matt Horne and Michael Papps have been successful professionals with Ayr CC in recent years. (A few seasons ago my eldest daughter, Emma, when at Alloway Primary School, used to take part in weekly kwik-cricket sessions run by Michael Papps, blissfully unaware at the time that she was a cousin of a New Zealand test cricketer – such are the wonders of the internet and ancestry.com!) 

Curiously, in a serendipitous coincidence with ‘Stewie’ Dempster, Scott’s maternal grandfather, James Patterson, was born in…Dundee!

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