Saturday, June 13, 2015

Derek Underwood at 70

If, under threat of some kind of cruel and unusual punishment, such as death or having the cricket writing of Piers Morgan read to me, I was compelled to name one cricketer as my favourite, a few names would pass through my mind.

Early heroes, such as Colin Cowdrey and Asif Iqbal. Great players who I have seen do magnificent things, like Viv Richards and Kumar Sangakkara.

CJ Tavaré, obviously.

The case for Brendon McCullum is compelling, at a time when measured writers say that he is changing test cricket (a few days ago, he hit his first ball in a test match for six over extra cover).

But two names stand above the rest, always have, always will: Alan Knott and Derek Underwood, Kent and England’s greatest wicket-keeper and spin bowler (though there is strong local competition in both categories). Today, l’ll choose Underwood, if only because last week he celebrated his 70th birthday.

Not that you could tell by looking at him. There were a couple of glimpses of Underwood in the crowd at the Lord’s test, looking much as he has always done, barring a case of creeping sideburns in the early seventies. He looked quite capable of taking off the jacket and tie, rolling up the sleeves and delivering a perplexing ten overs or so.

The run-up would have changed no more than it did from 1963 to 1987. Fifteen steps culminating in an elegant uncoiling, buttoned shirt billowing in the breeze.

For years Playfair persisted in describing him as LM rather than SLA, which was true but missed the point, just as foie gras might be accurately described as meat paste. Underwood took the spinner’s role, to bowl long, constricting spells on good pitches and to attack when the ball turned. No commonplace spinner though, being quicker, Swiss-clock accurate and, at least early in his career, bowling cutters as much as conventional spin. The fact is that if he was injured, a spinner, not a seamer, took his place.

But there’s the thing. In 25 years when was he injured? I don’t recall him missing a test, or a county game of any significance. Yet the thought persists that if the young Underwood were to turn up for a county trial today, round-shouldered, slightly stooping, cigarette on and lacking in enthusiasm for weights and shuttle runs, he would be sent to the gym, or obscurity.

The first thing people say about Derek Underwood is that he was lethal on drying pitches, and so he was, perhaps the best ever at this now-lost art. Underwood ball-in-hand with a damp patch on a length made the Christians v the lions look a fair fight.

The most unplayable over I ever saw was bowled by Underwood against Hampshire at St Lawrence in 1984. The era of uncovered pitches had ended, but water seeped past the protection and the pitch was wet.

Kent declared their first innings at 179 for four when play resumed late on the third afternoon. Both teams forfeited an innings and Hampshire were left with 180 to win in more than two hours, an offer that they took with the eagerness of a man who, given the chance to purchase Tower Bridge for a thousand pounds, does not stop to consider that it must be a scam.

Fifty-six all out in 27 overs, Underwood seven for 21, the ball defying physics and geometry as it leapt and spat. In that single, magnificent, over Chris Smith, Mark Nicholas and Trevor Jesty all demonstrated that they were good batsman by managing to get an edge to one of these conundrums. I would have defied anybody—Bradman, Hammond, Tendulkar, anybody—to have touched any of the other three deliveries.

But don’t think that Underwood was just a wet-pitch bowler. Some did, even then. “That’ll sort Underwood out” they said around the counties when fully covered pitches came in for the 1981 season. Over the next two years only Malcolm Marshall and Richard Hadlee took more first-class wickets than Underwood, then in his mid-thirties and playing for a team in decline.

Then look at his record overseas, where he took 152 of his 297 test wickets. In Australia he took 50 wickets at 31 (plus 16 at 27 in the WSC “supertests”), in India 54 at 26. In New Zealand he fed like a whale at a plankton convention with 24 wickets at 13 in just four tests; all those soft pitches and inadequate techniques.

He was also one of the finest one-day bowlers of his time, his mid-innings spells as inhibiting to acceleration as a line of sleeping policeman along a straight road. Underwood's parsimony was a major factor in Kent’s one-day triumphs of the seventies.

As I write I am watching a replay of the second in the current ODI series between England and New Zealand in which 400 has become the new 260. How would Underwood have coped in the era of big bats and fielding restrictions?

Well, batsmen would have been forced out of respectful prudence, and he would have gone for more runs, certainly. But that William Tell accuracy, and the change of pace, would still be there; get it slightly wrong and the ball goes straight up in the air. He would win as many matches now as then.

World Series Cricket effectively ended his test career; there was a reluctance to pick WSC players for England even when they became available once more, and Underwood was picked only for a single test against the West Indies in 1980 and the tour of India and Sri Lanka in 1981/2, so played little in his peak years. Earlier, as England captain, Ray Illingworth often preferred Norman Gifford to Underwood, passing over a painter of subtle portraits in oils in favour of an efficient whitewasher of walls and ceilings.

Had Underwood’s England career not been interrupted, Jimmy Anderson would still be chasing the England test wicket record.  

Offer me a ticket on a time machine to go back to watch just one innings of any in cricket history, and I wouldn’t choose Bradman’s 300 in a day at Leeds in 1930, or even WG’s 344 at the St Lawrence for MCC in 1876. I’d go to Hastings on 2 July 1984, to see Derek Underwood, in his 618th first-class innings, score his only century.

I recall the day clearly, and the memory is a reminder of how far the information revolution has taken us. I had not caught any of the radio sports bulletins during the afternoon, and got home late, so it was only when I picked up a copy of the Bristol Evening Post that I had an inkling of the drama on the Sussex coast.

There it was in the stop press: Underwood 84*. It will astonish anybody under 30 that only after two hours of mental torment was I able to establish that Underwood had indeed secured his century (nobody I knew even had teletext). But it was before the pubs shut, and my non-cricketing flatmates were happy to repair to the Alma Tavern in Clifton to raise a glass that they hadn’t paid for to a man they had barely heard of for an achievement that they didn’t understand.

The relationship between Derek Underwood and the Central Recreation Ground, Hastings—scene of the triumph—was to akin to that of Henry VIII and the monasteries: an infinite source of easy pickings. Twenty years before the century, it was there that Underwood achieved his career-best bowling figures: nine for 28. In 1967 he took seven in both innings and in 1973 took eight wickets for nine runs. In just nine first-class appearances there, he took 61 wickets.

On the day before the hundred I enjoyed watching TV coverage of Underwood taking six for 12 at Hastings in the Sunday League, the best one-day figures of his career barring an eight-wicket skittling of Scotland in his final season, so he has the best one-day bowling performance on the ground as well as the best first-class performance. These records are frozen in eternity; under the frozen foods, in fact: the ground is now buried under a supermarket.


So, again I raise a glass to you and your achievements, Derek Underwood. You are my favourite cricketer. At least until 9 April next year, when Knotty turns 70.

6 comments:

  1. I thought this was wonderful, Peter. I'm a little younger than you, but I remember Underwood well (mostly, in my case from Kent's regular appearances on television, although I did see him play live for England).

    It's always seemed to me as though he's been forgotten somewhat, possibly because he's kept quite a low profile since he retired and has never really got involved with the media, but, as anyone who saw him will know, he is unquestionably one of England's greatest post-war bowlers, and, in fact, a very persuasive case can be made for him as one of the finest bowlers England has ever produced.

    The aspect of Underwood's bowling which I recall most strongly is his phenomenal accuracy. In the age of short attention spans and obsessive experimentation, bowlers like that simply don't exist anymore. I hate to sound like an old fart, but some of the younger people who one comes across on Twitter (whose love for, and knowledge of, the game, is deep and genuine) simply wouldn't believe the accuracy and artistry of Underwood. He was unique.

    I, too, remember the 6 for 12 and the next day's century. I can also remember the fact that he was interviewed on TV on the Sunday and asked what the prospects were for his innings the next morning (he was not out on the Saturday evening), and he specifically dismissed the idea that he might score a century. Without checking, I'm sure he's very near to the top (if not at the top) of the list of players who batted the most times in first-class cricket before scoring a century.

    One of the very best.

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    1. Thanks Brian. He was a one-off. For some years Swanton et al said that he was bowling too quickly, not realising that though he took the spinner's role, he wasn't a conventional spinner. There was more respect for the simple virtues of accuracy then; batsmen were much less inclined than they are now to try to attack a bowler off his length. It was not impossible to do this to Underwood. The unlikely figure of Keith Pont of Essex did it one day. There was a wonderful contest in a Sunday Leagur game between Underwood and Mike Gatting, which Gatting won. But I remain convinced that he would be clever enough to remain in charge inn today's game..

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  2. Thanks for a vivid description of an unsung hero ,Underwood. I had an occasion to watch him at nets in Chennai, when he was a member of England Test team. I can stilll remember his phenomenal accuracy as he landed all his deliveries with pin point accuracy with a stump to aim at.Who can forget his Oval masterclass as England raced against time to achieve a famous win in 1968 Ashes test.In 1972 also he was devastating in Headingly.But he was too unconventional to be a spinner in the traditional sense of the term .India's Chandra is a bowler of similar mould but he was mercurial. The consistency and the subtle variations Unders brought to his art is admirable.Perhaps ,I can only think of Frank Wright of England in the Bradman era ,who can bracketed along with these two gentle souls

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  3. I was never a great cricket fan, but had the honour of working with his wife Dawn in the early 70's in Kent. I often wonder what happened to her as I can find no reference to her anywhere. She was a lovely person and spent a lot of time promoting his career. I particularly remember her working tirelessly on his benefit year.. If anyone has news of her would be grateful to hear on: rick.avern@sky.com

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  4. I was never that interested in cricket, but I did work with Derek's wife Dawn in the early 70's. She gave us all in the office a big insight into their world which was fascinating. She was a lovely lady and worked tirelessly on his behalf particularly during his benefit year. If anyone knows what she's up to now I would be thrilled to hear from them at: rick.avern@sky.com. Thanks Rick Avern

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