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England's 'Deadly' weapon

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Roar Guru
20th November, 2020

My love for the game of cricket reached its peak during the early 1980s.

Thanks to different radio stations like Akashbani, BBC and ABC, I followed international cricket with keen interest. As a school cricketer myself, I hoped to one day become a great left-arm orthodox spinner. While I failed in my mission, my love for this classical form of bowling hasn’t diminished a little bit. I still greatly enjoy reading and writing about the slow left armers. And of course, I enjoy watching them in action.

Back in 1977, when I first learnt this game, Bishen Singh Bedi (India) and Derek Underwood (England) were universally acknowledged as the two best left-arm spinners of the era. Bedi was a classical left-arm slow bowler. With an almost perfect bowling action, he would vary his flight and pace with ease, much to the discomfort of the opposition batsmen. In 1967, in his first tour to England, he received rich plaudits from the pundits, reminding the old timers of Hedley Verity at his brilliant best.

Underwood had a much faster run up to the wicket and was pretty quick in the air. In fact, some pundits argue against calling him a left-arm spinner as at times he could be quicker than few left-arm medium pacers.

His bowling can be summarised in two sentences. He would be deadly accurate on good batting tracks and would make run scoring extremely difficult. And he would be unplayable on wet turning pitches.

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Here, I will be recalling some of ‘Deadly’ Underwood’s memorable efforts in both international as well as in county cricket.

A born winner
Derek Underwood was born in Bronley, Kent on June 8, 1945, just weeks after the horrors of WWII had finally ended in Europe. Maybe this timing somewhat influenced his career success, as he became a great winner on and off the cricket field.

Also, just as peace was returning, England found a deadly weapon. Thankfully, this weapon only worked in the field of cricket, especially on damp and wet pitches.

Hero at the Oval
So much has been written about the final evening at the Oval in 1968, that I will only mention the key facts here and I won’t bother to go in to the details.

Chasing 352, Australia were struggling in their fourth innings, losing the top half for only 65 runs. But then a storm in the afternoon gave them a chance to survive and win the Ashes series.

After a massive mopping up operation with the crowd helping the ground staff, England needed five wickets in 75 minutes. They completed their task with five minutes to spare and the young left-arm spinner from Kent was their hero, taking the last four wickets in 27 balls. Earlier in the day, Underwood had dismissed Ian Chappell and Doug Walters, and his 7-50 has found its place in the pages of Ashes history.

Derek Underwood

Derek Underwood. (Photo by S&G/PA Images via Getty Images)


This win helped England level the series. More importantly for the long term future of their cricket, this heralded the emergence of a truly match-winning left-arm spinner among their ranks. While he was previously known for his nagging accuracy – for example, he had taken 2-89 from 54 and a half overs in the first innings at the Oval – there were people who questioned his ability to win Test matches. The answer from Underwood was emphatic.

The Fusarium Test (Headingley 1972)
The match was over on the third day with England winning by nine wickets. Underwood was the bowling hero with ten wickets in the match. Of course, the Aussies were not happy about the pitch and Richie Benaud described the pitch as a disgrace to the game of Test cricket.

However, there were a few points worth mentioning. Firstly, the Australians had the advantage of batting first on this wicket. And while England had Underwood and Ray Illingworth, the Aussies had Ashley Mallett and John Inverarity themselves. The fact is, Underwood was the best spinner in either side.

Another interesting thing was that although they were badly beaten in the end, the Aussies were very much in the game on the second afternoon of the match. After being bowled out for only 146 on the final day, the Aussies at one stage restricted the home side to 7-128. But then a century stand between the skipper Illingworth and John Snow gave the home side a 117-run lead. ‘Deadly’ then did the rest, taking 6-45 on the third day.

1977 Ashes
In the summer 1977, Greg Chappell’s Australia came to England with the tag of being the unofficial world champions. But with the rumors of WSC rife in the media, the off-field activities often got greater attention, and at the end the Aussies badly under-performed, losing the series 3-0.

There were many memorable moments for Mike Brearley’s team during the summer, including Ian Botham making his Test debut and Geoffrey Boycott completing his 100th first-class hundred.

Geoff Boycott.

Geoffrey Boycott. (S&G/PA Images via Getty Images)

But it was Underwood’s 6-66 in the second innings of the second Test at the Old Trafford that gave the home side the early initiative. At the end of the summer Underwood became a part of WSC and although he returned to official Test cricket two years later, he was not the same bowler again. The accuracy was still there, but he was missing his zip.


Against the subcontinent teams
In both Australia and in England, the Ashes record plays a big part in judging the success of an international cricketer. But when it comes to spinners, people always attach special value to their record against India and Pakistan.

Back in 1967, Underwood took 5-52 in the second innings to set up a ten-wicket win against Pakistanis at Trent Bridge. This was his first five-wicket haul in Test cricket. But even more impressive was his Lord’s effort of 1974. He appeared unplayable to the Pakistan batsmen and took 13 wickets for only 71 runs in the match. Sadly, weather on the final day denied England a well deserved success.

‘The Passage to India’ in 1976-77 season under Tony Greig proved an interesting experience for Underwood. The Indian batting at the time was overly dependent on Sunil Gavaskar and Gundappa Viswanath. The rest of the batting was very fragile and susceptible to genuine pace. So Greig’s game plan was Underwood to have to a go at the two best Indian batsmen and the pacers would then clean up the lower order.

The plan worked brilliantly as England won the five-match series 3-1. Underwood dismissed Gavaskar six times, and Vishy on three occasions. Overall he had a highly successful series taking 29 wickets at 17.55 each. Interestingly, there was only one five-wicket haul for him in the series: 5-84 in the second innings of the final Test at Mumbai. He was consistently chipping away with three or four wickets throughout the tour.

Sunil Gavaskar (PA Images via Getty Images)

The role somewhat reversed on the first day of the Centenary Test at the MCG that followed the India tour. Then Underwood picked up the last three Australian wickets (including Greg Chappell for 40) as Australia was restricted to only 138 all out.

Given his great success in India under Greig, much was expected of him during the 1981-82 tour under Keith Fletcher. But, as I said earlier, he was struggling for success in Test arena after his return from WSC. And also the pitches during that series were very slow, and it didn’t help him.

But there was greater joy for Underwood in the one-off Test in Colombo (PSS) – a Test that marked the entrance of Sri Lanka as a Test-playing nation. The home side batted first on the slow track, and after the seamers did the early damage, Underwood with his old fingers ran through the lower order, finishing with 5-28. Remarkably, this was his first (and only) five-wicket haul in Test cricket after Manchester in 1977. He took three more wickets in the second innings as England won the historic Test by seven wickets.


The end
His eight-wicket haul wickets haul at PSS meant that his tally of Test wickets stood at 297 at the time and it was expected that in the summer, he would become the second Englishman (and only fourth overall) after Fred Trueman to take 300 wickets in Tests.

But then came the rebel tour to South Africa and for the second time, Underwood was banned from international cricket. This time, there was no comeback and Sri Lanka’s first ever Test match remained the last for England’s deadly spin bowler.

ODI cricket
Back in the 1970s, as the limited-overs arena was gradually developing, most teams considered the spinners a liability. In this context, Underwood’s record of 32 wickets in 26 matches – at an average of 23 and economy rate of 3.44 – is most impressive.

His best ODI figures, 4-44, came for a winning cause at the SCG in November 1979. Set a revised target of 199 from 47 overs in the weather-affected match, the West Indies team was cruising along at 2-133 with Lawrence Rowe and Alvin Kallicharran in total control. But then came a deadly spell from Underwood.

There was a dramatic finish to the match. With the West Indies needing three runs form the final ball, Brearley sent all his men including the keeper David Bairstow to the fence. It was allowed at the time. At the end Botham bowled Colin Croft to seal the victory.


County cricket
He had a highly successful first-class career lasting for almost 25 years. Overall he took almost 2500 wickets in first-class cricket at 20.3 apiece. Along with the likes of Collin Cowdrey, his great buddy Allan Knott, Asif Iqbal, Bob Woolmer, Chris Tavare and a few others, he played a big part in Kent being a dominant force in English cricket in the 1970s.

There were plenty of memorable efforts from him in domestic cricket as well. Hastings in 1973 was pretty much a repetition of the Oval five years earlier. He destroyed Sussex with 8-9 after another frantic mopping-up operation.

Quite interestingly, two of his most memorable county success came in 1984, in the twilight of his career. The first took place at Canterbury towards the end of May in the match between Kent and Hampshire. The home side was 4-179 on the opening day when the rain intervened. Persistent rain meant that no play was possible until the middle of the third and final day. Also, despite the covering, the wicket had become wet.

At this stage the two captains met to fix a formula. Chris Tavare agreed to declare the first innings immediately and with couple of forfeits the Hampshire target was 180 from 59 overs. As he walked back towards the dressing room, Nick Pocock, the Hampshire captain, believed that he had just got the bargain of the year. He was completely unaware that he had fallen in to a deadly trap.

Generic cricket ball

(Steven Paston – EMPICS / Getty Images)

It was the senior pros in the Hampshire dressing room who reminded Pocock that it would be more about surviving against Underwood than actually chasing the runs. But the younger guys seemed more optimistic, and at the end the plan was to block against Underwood at one end and score freely against the seamers Terry Alderman and Richard Ellison from the other end. Everyone was expecting an exciting finish to the match.

Out there in the middle, it became a no contest. Hampshire were bowled out for 56 with ‘Deadly’ taking 7-21. He came to the bowling crease in the fifth over. And after bowling a maiden first up, he then bowled a triple wicket maiden in the next. And they were top batsmen as well: Chris Smith, Mark Nicholas and Trevor Jesty. Pocock top scored with 17, although most of his runs came by luck more than any design.

The second came at Hastings in an exciting tied match at one his favourite venues. The wicket was poorly prepared, and on June 30, the opening day, 21 wickets fell. Kent was bowled out for only 92, but then their pace bowlers fought back. After an early loss of wicket in the Kent second innings, Underwood came as the night-watchman.

And on a wicket where almost every batsmen struggled, he produced a career-best effort to score 111 – his only first-class hundred in his 618th first-class innings. The cricket writer Colin Bateman noted, “there was no more popular century that summer”.

His hundred gave his side the edge, but at the end it was a tie. Derek Underwood ended his first-class career in 1987. Since then England has failed to find one left-arm spinner remotely close to his class.