Lethal Derek Underwood: a very English talent

Lethal Derek Underwood

The news came to light around lunchtime on Monday, the last day of the second round of the championship. At the Oval, where I was, the Union flag, fluttering madly in the April storm, hung at half mast over the pavilion. Similar to Chelmsford, where Kent were scraping to avoid defeat.

Soon the messages started coming in, from a former co-worker who reminded me of the time he interviewed her in her living room, removing Darjeeling from the Underwoods’ best china and poring over old family albums. Was. Mournful official statements began arriving in inboxes. Grainy clips of lightness and brightness began to appear on media sites. Everywhere, the feeling of a community of souls sighing, pausing and breathing. England’s greatest slow-spinner-cum-cutter bowler – our schoolteacher-shirted, bright-eyed, left-handed Chaplin-footed ballet dancer – had died. Fatal, out on 78 runs.

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It felt right and good to be there at that moment, on that field, where the final chapters are buried in the soil. The mind inevitably turned to Underwood’s match, the final Ashes Test of 1968 and one of the game’s great cinematic moments. Make a movie of it and call it The Last Hour.

Arrogant? Perhaps. But this was more than just another game, and much more than last season’s finale after heavy rain. Consider Basil D’Oliveira, the South African adopted by England who was recalled to the team, scored 158 and inadvertently changed the world. Dear old M.C. On the order of, think about the post-war symbolism of the local audience. Cowdrey is running around the house looking for cloths and wipes to help soak up the puddles in the rain-affected outfield.

And think about a 22-year-old player from Bromley who, unable to play, is running it up the pitch more and more as the minutes go by. Derek Underwood had played seven Test matches to that point, taking five wickets against Pakistan, but on that final evening, in outrageous sunshine, he was given almost an hour to take five more wickets to halve the Ashes, They had the best time of their lives. The last wicket fell with six minutes remaining. The boy got seven points in return for spitting. Optimism of the will, indeed.

There were others too. Took 10 wickets at Leeds in 1975, conceding 82 runs in 52 overs, suffocating the Chappell brothers and Dougie Walters. Seven wickets in the first innings at Adelaide amid a grueling series in which, as a perpetual nightwatchman, he always seemed to be saving Jeff Thomson’s bumper from his unprotected skull, as fearlessly as it was brave. And that was just Australia. He took 297 Test wickets in total.

Duty was his thing. It was not an easy decision, convincing Deadly to go over the wicket, or bowl a little slower on some pitches. Mike Brearley, who captained him in Test cricket, found him to be a reluctant tinkerer, noting that for such a great bowler, Underwood was often unsure about straying too far from orthodoxy. Only once, on the eve of the Old Trafford Ashes Test in 1977, did Brearley successfully twist Underwood’s arm by showing him hand-drawn drawings of field placings, which the England captain had insisted should be shown at the angle of attack. Should consider changing. By game time, after some convincing, Deadly was on board. He took 6-66, the old devil.

Run a line through the top echelon of English cricketers of Underwood’s era and you’ll find just a few of the various categories labeled confrontational, irascible, aloof, challenging, aloof… or any other euphemism for ‘tricky bastard’ Will meet. Underwood didn’t fall into any of them. You won’t want to find a more popular pilgrim than this. This made him a natural choice for MCC President, and for the same role at Kent, his first and true love, the club for which he played more than 900 times, taking 2,523 wickets.

Cricket is about forging bonds, forming and maintaining loyalties. In 2011, two years after Underwood’s induction into the ICC Hall of Fame, the Annexe Stand at the St Lawrence Ground in Kent was renamed the Underwood & Knott Stand in recognition of one of the great quintessential partnerships of the English game. Deadly and Naughty were made for each other.


It’s not so much fun to ask whether Derek Underwood would have succeeded in the modern era – in this time of DRS and trigger-finger umpires, daredevil shotmaking and white-ball riches – but rather to wonder how huge he would have been. Just think. That style. That zip and fizz. He was so ahead of his time that it took four decades for the sport to advance. It was almost as if, like all true greats, the boy bound to the sawdust-stained crease on wet clay in London – in perfect harmony with the design of life – must have known the secret truths of the game all along. .

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