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.

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