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Derek Underwood, England’s greatest spin bowler, dies aged 78
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Derek Underwood, England’s greatest spin bowler, dies aged 78

For so long the benchmark by which English spinners are judged, Derek Underwood, the great Kent left-armer who was affectionately nicknamed “Deadly”, has died at the age of 78.

Announced on Monday afternoon by Kent, for whom Underwood played the entirety of his 24-year first-class career, making over 900 appearances, the news prompted Richard Thompson, chair of the England and Wales Cricket Board, to pay tribute to “one of the finest spin bowlers this country has ever produced”.

Underwood remains the most prolific spinner to represent England in history, claiming 297 wickets at an average of 25.8 from 86 Tests between 1966 and 1982 to sit sixth in the country’s all-time charts. The retrospective International Cricket Council (ICC) rankings show that, for a four-year period starting in 1969, Underwood was the No 1 Test bowler in the world.

The first-class figures are similarly remarkable, Underwood claiming 2,465 wickets (plus 572 in List A cricket) after breaching the 1,000 mark at the age of 25. He also took 100 wickets in a county season 10 times, the first of these feats coming in his debut summer, aged 17. Overall, at Kent, he won three County Championships, three John Player League titles, two Gillette Cups and three Benson & Hedges Cups.

The numbers – which include 153 five-wicket hauls in first-class cricket – tell only part of the story, however. It wasn’t just volume but the methods by which Underwood shone. His left-arm finger spin, delivered from a lengthy run-up and at a brisk, almost medium pace, was based on metronomic accuracy and an ability to exploit the merest hint of assistance.

Underwood’s stamina, bowling maiden after maiden, was clearly immense, likewise his desire to asphyxiate his opponents. “He hated it when a batsman pinched a single because a fielder was nodding off,” Geoffrey Boycott wrote in 2017. “He would glare at you. Derek had such a strong mind, he could bowl to win matches or tie up an end.”

Derek Underwood pictured in 1966View image in fullscreen

The challenge of Underwood was amped up to 11 when, in the era of uncovered pitches, rain was followed by sunshine and the topsoil became akin to plasticine. The most famous instance came on the final day of the fifth Ashes Test in 1968 when, following a storm at the Oval, and with spectators involved in a hurried mop-up operation, Underwood wiped out Australia’s last four wickets to draw the series with just six minutes to spare.

“He received just enough help to be well-nigh unplayable,” read the report in the following year’s Wisden, regarding his fourth innings analysis of seven for 50. “The ball almost stopped on pitching and lifted to the consternation of the helpless Australians … no praise could be too high for the way he seized his opportunity on this unforgettable day.”

It was a scene that was famously repeated in Hastings in 1973 when the Kent players whipped off their boots and socks to assist the local fire brigade in drying a saturated outfield and Underwood went on to rip through Sussex with match-winning figures of eight for nine. The following summer, when rain leaked through the covers during the second Test against Pakistan at Lord’s, he conjured up a spell of six for two.

Not that Underwood was solely reliant on soggy conditions for his most potent spells. “This thing about uncovered pitches was a fallacy in lots of ways,” he said in an interview with ESPNCricinfo in 2015. “We might get on one or two during the course of a season, maximum. There were wet summers, but you couldn’t get on the bloody pitch at all then!”

This was evidenced by his work overseas, not least 54 Test wickets in India. That is some 26 more than the next highest English spinners, Monty Panesar and Graeme Swann, and was only recently overtaken by Nathan Lyon (56) among visitors from any country. In Australia, where the lack of turn caused him to vary his flight, he took 50 wickets, including 16 as Ray Illingworth’s side regained the Ashes in 1970-71.

In the era before the Decision Review System, one that allowed opposition batters to prop forward with their pad in defence, just 24 of his 297 Test victims were snared leg before wicket. As Underwood himself noted, the ball “really had to be knocking over middle halfway up” for the umpire to raise his finger in agreement.

Regardless, Underwood’s place in the pantheon was assured and, in the 2004 edition of Wisden, a panel featuring six former captains named him in England’s greatest post-war XI. Fittingly, the side’s wicketkeeper was the silken-gloved Alan Knott, with whom Underwood had formed an almost telepathic partnership for both club and country.

A gentle character by all accounts, much in contrast to the nickname, Underwood’s England returns might have been greater still but for bans that followed his late-career appearances in World Series Cricket and a rebel tour of South Africa – opportunities that proved too lucrative to turn down at a time when players were hugely underpaid.

Awarded an MBE for services to cricket in 1981, Underwood went on to serve as president of Kent in 2006 and Marylebone Cricket Club in 2009 (the same year he was inducted into the ICC’s Hall of Fame) before withdrawing from public life in recent years after being diagnosed with dementia. He leaves behind his wife, Dawn, and two daughters.

Source: theguardian.com