Derek Underwood was an unconventional left-arm spinner: he bowled almost medium-pace © Getty Images
Derek Underwood was an unconventional left-arm spinner: he bowled almost medium-pace © Getty Images

Derek Underwood, born June 8, 1945, was one of the greatest spinners of all time, unplayable on damp wickets. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the career of the Kent legend who was the most successful spinner of his generation in spite of his career coinciding with the great Indian spin quartet.

Crowdsourcing the Ashes

August 27, 1968. England captain Colin Cowdrey walked out to the middle of the swampy Oval, trousers pulled high over his boots, a look of consternation on his face, urging the groundstaff to get the field dry. The wicket had taken appreciable turn from the fourth evening. Derek Underwood, who had removed Ian Redpath in the final session of the fourth day, came on to bowl on the fifth morning to dismiss Ian Chappell and Doug Walters on the fifth morning of the fifth Test to leave Australia tottering at 29 for four with plenty of time left in the game. England had looked on the verge of squaring the series, but then the heavens had opened up.

Now, as the reflection of the stands stared ominously back at the England captain from the huge pond like water-body stretching across the outfield, it seemed that the Ashes had been swept away by the rains. By lunchtime, the Australians were celebrating. None of them imagined play could resume. Neither did any of the Englishmen have any hopes of getting back on the field, but for their captain. Soon, aided by a public address system, Cowdrey requested the spectators to help out.

And they swarmed on to the ground, lending hands, brooms, blankets, handkerchiefs and even parts of their clothing. At 2.15 pm, they started their mopping operations under the astute guidance of the groundsman Ted Warn. And by 4.45 pm, the miracle had been achieved. The English fielders trotted out and so did the rather disbelieving Australian batsmen, Barry Jarman and John Inverarity. Only 75 minutes remained to be played and there were 5 wickets still standing.

Even on the damp pitch nothing seemed to happen. Inverarity and Jarman batted on for 40 minutes, without any sign of trouble. Ray Illingworth and Underwood came in again and again, John Snow ran up and bowled fast, but they were thwarted by resolute batting.

A desperate Cowdrey threw the ball to Basil D’Oliveira, whose 158 in the first innings would soon prove to be the most politically explosive innings in history.  The last ball of his second over moved slightly and hit the top of Jarman’s off-stump.

Cowdrey immediately motioned Underwood to run in again. The skipper stood at slip with Tom Graveney, D’Oliveira, Colin Milburn, John Edrich, Ted Dexter, John Snow, Allan Knott, Illingworth — all crouched within touching distance of each other. At short-leg, with his six foot four inch frame lurked David Brown, almost breathing down the neck of the batsman. Twice in an over, Ashley Mallett and Garth McKenzie lunged forward and did not quite smother the ball. And twice Brown swooped up the catch from practically the batsman’s boot.

John Gleeson hit out boldly in an attempt to scatter the fielders, swinging his bat several times, connecting just once. And after 13 minutes of heroic resistance, he was bowled by an Underwood ball that went straight through to hit the middle stump.

Allan Connolly was one of nature’s charming unadulterated No. 11 batsmen, and Inverarity knew he had to hog the strike. And he was doing an extremely good job. There were just 6 minutes left in the game when Underwood bowled the third ball of his 32nd over. The opening batsman, who had battled for more than four hours, now padded up. The ball came in with Underwood’s arm that famed arm-ball with a hint of inswing, and rapped him on the pad in front of off-stump. There was a huge appeal and Charlie Elliott’s finger went up. England had won, against Australia, rains and the clock.

Underwood had taken 7 for 50. The last 4 wickets had fallen to him for just 6 runs, off 27 deliveries.

Charlie Elliott raises his finger to give John Inverarity out to Derek Underwood, ending Australia's second innings and signalling victory for England in the final Test at The Oval, 1968. The Englishmen (from left) in the Carmody field are Ray Illingworth, Tom Graveney, John Edrich, Ted Dexter, Colin Cowdrey, Derek Underwood (bowler), Allan Knott, John Snow, David Brown, Colin Milburn, Basil D'Oliveira. Non-striker is Allan Connolly © Getty Images
Charlie Elliott raises his finger to give John Inverarity out to Derek Underwood, signalling victory for England in the final Test at The Oval, 1968. The Englishmen (from left) in the Carmody field are Ray Illingworth, Tom Graveney, John Edrich, Ted Dexter, Colin Cowdrey, Derek Underwood (bowler), Allan Knott (wk), John Snow, David Brown, Colin Milburn, Basil D’Oliveira. Non-striker is Allan Connolly © Getty Images

It was perhaps the best moment of Underwood’s career. And yet, the memories remained tinged with a pinch of dissent. So impactful was the triumph in public imagination that Underwood would for ever be known as a wet pitch demon.

The medium-paced spinner

From then on, whenever there was dampness in the wicket, he was expected to bowl England to victory. It was almost taken for granted that he would live up to his nickname ‘Deadly’. He often did. At Hastings in 1973, he demolished Sussex with figures of eight for nine after the entire Kent team had taken off their shoes and helped the Fire Brigade mop up another flooded ground. But, his feats were often drowned in the perception about helpful conditions.

In his autobiography Beating the Bat, he writes that most often his mastery in using the conditions was ignored and credit was given to rain and dampness.  In 1975 he took 13 at Lord’s — 5 wickets in the first innings and 8 in the second. He brought England to the brink of victory against those proficient Pakistani players of spin. Yet, there was more criticism of the ground conditions and inadequate pitch cover than appreciation for this classy left-arm spinner.

And whenever he bowled on those beautiful batting tracks around the world, there were the carping complaints about his bowling style. Throughout his career Underwood had to battle against criticism of his bowling too fast, not giving it enough air, being more intent on containing runs than picking up wickets. There were genuine concerns among the most knowledgeable of the cricket world. Cowdrey set up nets at the back of his own house to help him with his action and line. Alec Bedser wanted him to modify his style and bowl slower. There were plenty of other significant and insignificant voices who wanted to see a different Underwood.

As for the man himself, he had already tried everything. In his own words, unless he switched to right-arm, there was hardly anything left to experiment.

Underwood bowled at a steady medium-pace, off a run up of 10 yards. On turning tracks he did give the ball air and a rip, and often got turn. But more often than not, his line was painstakingly accurate, the speed brisk, and the length unhittable.  Torturing batsmen into a state of run-less frustration was his way of getting them out on good wickets, and he did achieve spectacular success with his methods. His arm ball, often laced with in-swing, was one of the major weapons that led him to be known as ‘Deadly’. A lot of the movement he generated was not limited to spin. There was a fair amount of cut in his deliveries as well. He rarely ever bowled a bad ball; and if he did, the mortification remained etched on his face for long.

There was a degree of rigidity to his approach as well. For Kent and England he bowled with Allan Knott crouched as ’keeper, and was known to be unhappy if there was a different face behind the stumps. And he was so used to his straight run up from round the wicket, he often refused to bowl otherwise — even when his captains demanded it. It took all of Mike Brearley’s celebrated ‘degree in people’ to persuade him to come over the wicket and bowl England to victory in an Ashes Test.

It was difficult for the cricketing fraternity to accept that Underwood was no conventional spinner. And in the end, 297 Test wickets at 25.83 vindicated his methods. The figures were the best among spinners of his era — a period when the Indian quartet were busy spinning their magical web around the world. The tally could have been much larger had he not courted disapproval by joining World Series Cricket in 1977 and then touring South Africa in 1982.  Additionally, many a times the English team management preferred more traditional spinners and greater turners of the ball such as Norman Gifford. It is strange to reflect that a bowler of Underwood’s success was often left out from the England team. There were very few series in which he played all the Tests.

Arriving in a Rolls-Royce

Born in Bromley, Kent, Underwood grew up practicing cricket with brother Keith. Both of them turned out for the club their father played in.

The virtues of accuracy were soon etched into his psyche. Being the elder brother and a size or so larger than him, Keith naturally had first choice when it came to batting. This left Derek Underwood to do the bowling. As he was often the only fielder as well, the tighter and more accurately he bowled, the less running he had to do.

During the winters he travelled to Allders Store in Croydon for coaching under Ken Barrington, John Edrich, Tony Lock and other Surrey players. It was Lock who recommended him to Les Todd at Kent — but strangely, for his batting. To Lock, whose role Underwood would go on to play in the England side, his bowling could be considered a bonus! That was the start of the young Underwood’s trials at Kent. In 1961 he came under the close scrutiny of Colin Page, Les Ames and Claude Lewis. While he was bowling out in the open at Canterbury they must have spotted something that Lock had missed in the confined quarters of indoor nets. Claude advised him to stick to bowling.

Chosen as 12th man for Kent against Somerset at Taunton at the age of 17, Underwood arrived at the ground in style. He was driven there in a Rolls-Royce, chauffeured by Stuart Chiesman, father-in-law of Colin Cowdrey.

He got his first chance to play for Kent later that year when Dave Halfyard had an accident. It was not an auspicious start. Underwood was put in charge of the team baggage and found one piece missing — the kit of the acting captain Peter Richardson. However, he overcame these teething problems and went on to become the youngest player to take 100 First-Class wickets in his first season.  Five of those 101 wickets were captured against the touring West Indians. The scalps included Frank Worrell, Seymour Nurse and Basil Butcher.

Soon, his exploits on the wet wickets started to assume legendary proportions. Yet, before his bowling was associated with the sinister adjectives, a teenaged Underwood with his boyish face and blonde hair looked like a child who had lost his way to end up in a game played by men. In 1964, when he bowled Kent to a close 14-run victory over Yorkshire with a second innings analysis of 7 for 97, the newspaper headlines of the next day screamed ‘Angel Babe tames Yorkshire’.

It was in 1964 that he was awarded his county cap. Kent skipper Colin Cowdrey planned this event with characteristic thoughtfulness. He chose the important tour game against the visiting Australians, and quietly called Underwood’s parents asking them to be present at the ground for the occasion. During the match, he halted play and as the rest of the side clapped, he called Underwood over and awarded him the cap with a grand gesture. The genuinely touched 19-year-old picked up 5 for 100 against the strong Australian batting line up.

Called up for England duty during the summer of 1966, Underwood made his debut at Nottingham against the West Indies. He did not pick up any wicket in the match, but proved to be a dour No. 11 batsman. In the first innings he stuck around for an hour and 23 minutes to remain unbeaten on 12 against Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith. In the second innings, with the result all but decided in favour of West Indies, Underwood walked in as the last man. And Griffith floored him with a bouncer that struck him in the mouth. Given the situation of the match, it was deemed unnecessary. And although all the other West Indian fielders including skipper Garry Sobers looked concerned and rushed to his aid, there was no apology from the bowler.

Much later in the tour, while in the toilet behind the dressing room, Underwood was confronted by Jeff Stollmeyer, the manager of the West Indian side, who handed him an envelope containing a written apology from Griffith. It remained a puzzle to Underwood why Griffith had not apologised on the field and why such a curious location was chosen to finally hand over the apology note.

The Kent legend

In spite of the interruptions in his career, Underwood managed to play 86 Tests and was successful in every land — except in the West Indies where he played one solitary series on superb batting wickets in 1974. While he bowled appreciably quicker than traditional spinners on the wickets of England and Australia, he achieved considerable success in India and Pakistan with tossed up slower deliveries.

An year after being awarded an MBE), and after a controversial tour of South Africa, Underwood signed off with figures of 5 for 28 and 3 for 67 in the inaugural Test match against Sri Lanka at Colombo, helping England achieve a strangely hard fought 7-wicket win. His departure to play in South Africa ensured that his tally of Test wickets would remain tantalisingly 3 short of 300. It did not seem to bother him. Even at the end of his long career, he remained as affable and easygoing as the young teenager who had arrived to the ground in a Rolls-Royce.

In 1984, two years after his last Test, Underwood went in to bat as a night-watchman against Sussex at Hastings and scored his first ever First-Class century. He was 39 and it was his 591st First-Class match and 618th innings. Cricket writer Colin Bateman remarked: “There was no more popular century that summer.”

The Kent legend retired from all cricket in 1987, with a haul of 2,465 wickets at 20.28 apiece.

In the October 2004 edition of The Wisden Cricketer magazine, Underwood  was voted as one of the members of “England’s Greatest Post-War XI”.

In 2011, at Kent’s St Lawrence Ground, Canterbury, the Underwood-Knott Stand was established in honour of the two supreme exponents of their respective arts — who famously combined in the downfall of a colossal number of opposition batsmen.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)