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Derek Underwood: a huge-hearted free thinker who always gave his all
Cricket Sport

Derek Underwood: a huge-hearted free thinker who always gave his all

Derek Underwood once described himself as a “low-mentality bowler”. It was a typically self-effacing remark from England’s most prolific spinner in Test cricket (with 297 victims). Underwood was a hero from another age but you would never have guessed so when wandering into the bar after playing against Kent. He would be there with a beer in one hand and a fag in the other and that self-deprecating smile on his lips. He would happily talk cricket – and spin bowling – often seeking the opinion of others as if they knew better than him (which was ridiculous). Here was the antithesis of the international superstar sportsman until, with his feet splayed at 1o to two, he set off on his run-up.

That reference to his “low mentality” partially explains his success. Underwood was, in fact, a free thinker. It was natural for him to bowl quicker than his peers but crucially he had the nous not to change his style. Generally he shunned the fancy variations that the armchair pundits and a few old coaches craved. Instead the human metronome trundled up to the crease and landed the ball on a length around off-stump at his pace time and time again. And so the strangulation process began.

He admitted that he shunned too much experimentation. Mike Brearley has described how he occasionally tried to encourage Underwood to bowl slower in certain conditions and maybe over the wicket to right-handers. But Underwood, he acknowledges, was reluctant to do so – though he may have dutifully followed his captain’s advice for a while. Such plans rarely bore fruit.

On true surfaces you wondered where the next run was coming from when facing Underwood; on drying pitches in the age of uncovered wickets, you knew your days were numbered. Down fizzed the ball, which might bounce and turn and it was only a matter of time before the inevitable. The amiable Alan Knott was behind the stumps and he smiled knowingly since he knew it was only a matter of time as well. There was no escape.

Knott went with Underwood as Marsh did with Lillee. The wicketkeeper relished the opportunity to display his sublime skills with the ball leaping off the pitch. Once I asked Knott to pick his finest session behind the stumps. He went for one in Lahore in searing heat, on a flat pitch with Underwood bowling unchanged from one end. “I didn’t take a ball from Deadly,” he said, “but I was ready for every one”, a response which was a measure of Underwood’s accuracy and Knott’s quirkiness.

I enjoyed facing him – in the same way you might “enjoy” running a marathon (I’m guessing a bit here). It was an experience, a very challenging one, but he was unlikely to hit you on the head. Once in 1976 I impishly late cut him for four. Underwood said nothing. He never did. He was far too decent to contemplate sledging a batsman. But my batting partner, Brian Rose, spoke up. “Whatever you do, don’t try that again against him,” he said. I may have nodded but a couple overs later I was tempted to try another cut; this time the ball was his deadly swinger, which was about 10mph quicker and the stumps were splattered before my cut shot was complete. The bails flew high like Rose’s eyebrows.

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All Underwood’s captains loved having him in their side. He would bowl for hour after hour without complaint, always offering control of the game as well as the prospect of wickets. Towards the end of his first-class career, when he was well into his 40s, he was as mean and committed as ever. He was still bowling his heart out, sweating profusely in his dusty flannels, exasperated if he gave away any easy runs and eager to grab another wicket for his beloved Kent. He always gave everything, whatever the game.

An even better example of his commitment came from his batting. He was not that gifted in this department – though to the delight of everyone he registered a first-class century against Sussex in 1984. But he was incredibly brave. In the era before helmets he always seemed to be the nightwatchman for England against the West Indies (with Andy Roberts and Michael Holding charging in) and against Australia (with Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson on the rampage). Lesser men hid in a cupboard around 5.30pm when the captain was casting around for a “volunteer”. But not Deadly, a man with a huge heart and no ego.

Source: theguardian.com