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Lethal British spin bowler on a wet pitch, called 'Deadly' by team mates

By Harsh Thakor* 

No spin bowler was more lethal or tormented batsmen more on rain-affected pitches than Derek Underwood. Sadly, he left for his heavenly abode, aged 78, on April 15th. “Deadly”, as he was known, he took more test wickets – 297 – than any other English spin bowler, and stands sixth on the all-time list of England wicket takers. He has carved a permanent niche amongst the all-time greats of cricket.
Kent team-mates labelled Derek Underwood as “deadly” for the devastation he caused on rain-affected pitches. His accuracy was so razor sharp and, that when conditions favoured him, a huge bounty of wickets was virtually inevitable. Underwood's phenomenal accuracy, intelligence and patience meant he was always a potential match-winner. 
Performing on pitches left uncovered outside play, he was master on “sticky dog” surfaces. For Kent and England he took five wickets or more in an innings 153 times, 17 of them in Test matches.
His most famous or impactful big hauls came against Australia in 1968 at the Oval, where a match-winning seven wickets for 50 runs enabled  England to draw the series with six minutes to spare in the final Test, and in 1972 at Headingley, where his six victims enabled England to secure the Ashes on a pitch infested with fungus.
Few bowlers were ever more rhythmical, possessing almost metronomical control.  Possessing an unorthodox slow left-arm bowler, Underwood had a long, flat-footed run-up and delivered the ball morally at medium pace from wide of the crease, depending much less than the average spinner on flight and guile and more on deceptive variations of pace. 
He could prodigiously turn the ball, but what propelled him was his immaculately tight line and length, which wore down batsmen to the limit. For fear of over pitching, he rarely gave the ball much air. His bowling generated the effect of a left-arm cutter of slow medium pace. Few bowlers ever better personified accuracy.
Underwood could also be lethal on very placid surfaces, and was extremely hard to negotiate even on pitches in conducive to spin. When uncovered pitches were terminated in 1981, he was equally effective. On benign tracks his penetration was spell bounding. Underwood would vary his pace, try over-spin to create an effect of dipping the ball, or produce the electrifying quicker ball, with the arm. Wicket-keeper Alan Knott operated in perfect tandem with Derek to effect a stumping.
Underwood’s weakness was that he needed a pitch to be wet, like those in England early on in his career. When pitches dried he was not equally penetrative, and now tried to transform from a cutter into a genuine spinner. However his slow arm rendered him ineffective, in this regard.
Underwood lived for the spirit of Cricket and maintained immaculate record of all his performances, he groaned every run that was scored off him, maintaining that bowling was “a low mentality profession: plug away, line and length, until there’s a mistake”. 
Of English left-arm spinners there have been only two who exceeded him in talent – Wilfred Rhodes and Hedley Verity.
Born in Bromley, then in Kent, Derek was the son of Evelyn (nee Wells) and Leslie Underwood, and was a product of Beckenham and Penge grammar school. He played for Farnborough and then Beckenham before signing for Kent in 1961. He made his debut two years later against Yorkshire at Hull as a 17-year-old, bagging Ray Illingworth as his first victim and taking 100 wickets in his first campaign, the youngest player to do so in a debut season.
He surpassed 100 wickets for a second time in 1964, when he had his best figures of 9 for 28, against Sussex at Hastings on a dry, dusty wicket, and again in 1966, when he topped the national averages with 157 wickets at 13.80 apiece and was called up for two home Tests against the West Indies at the age of 21.
 From 1968 he became a central member of the England side, displaying his remarkable skill that year during the fifth and final Ashes Test against Australia at the Oval.
With England 1-0 down in the series, Australia was tottering 85 for five on the last day when a thunderstorm intervened. After play resumed, in the concluding half-hour Underwood ripped through the opponents, capturing the last four wickets for just six runs in 27 deliveries, capturing his final scalp with only six minutes left and ending up with 7 for 50.
Although the win was not enough to prevent Australia from retaining the Ashes, it squared the series 1-1 and restored great pride for England. Underwood later called it “the outstanding memory of my cricket career”, and Wisden named him as one of its Cricketers of the Year.
He took his 100th test wicket and 1,000th first-class wicket in 1971, aged only 25.In 1972 in the “‘Fusarium Test” at Leeds, where a fungus of that name stuck into the pitch, creating havoc for the batsmen. Having taken four wickets in Australia’s first innings, Underwood ripped through their flesh in the manner of a combing operation through their second with 6 for 45 to give England a 2-1 series lead that allowed them to retain the Ashes. 
Two years later, on a more benign pitch at Lord’s against Pakistan, he took his best Test figures of 13 for 71, comprising of five for 20 in the first innings and eight for 51 in the second. Underwood literally took spin bowling prowess or wizardry to heights rarely scaled, with his bowling having mysterious effect.
On the tour of India in 1976-77 Underwood reaped a huge haul of 29 scalps at a mere cost of 17.55 runs. It enabled England to secure a 3-1 series win. In 1977, at the age of 32, Underwood tied up with Kerry Packer’s unauthorised World Series Cricket circus in Australia, and as a result was dropped from the Test side. 
Underwood in World Series Cricket (WSC) supertests captured 16 wicket in 5 matches, at an average of 27, 56, comparing favourably with the best in terms of bowling average.
When the WSC storm came to an abrupt end two years later, he was chosen for the 1979-80 series in Australia, playing 12 Tests after his recall and being appointed MBE for services to cricket in 1981.
In Australia in 1979-80 when England faced a 3-0 drubbing, Underwood was consistency personified; capturing 13 scalps at an average of 31.15.In Perth, Sydney and Melbourne he created the occasional jitters against the best Australian batsmen, being unlucky not to get a crucial decision against Greg Chappell at Sydney, which could have turned the course of the game.
On the 1981-82 tour of India he captured 10 wickets at an expensive average of 43 while in his final test in Sri Lanka, bade farewell with a match-winning 8-95, including a five wicket haul in the 1st innings.
In March the following year, in 1982   however, he finally cooked the goose of his international career by signing on   a rebel tour of apartheid South Africa, after which he was banned by England for three years and jettisoned for good.
Underwood was also a right-handed batsman with awkward style at the tail end with unorthodox shovel shot as his trademark
He continued until 1987 at Kent for whom he had been propelled in a glorious period from 1967 to 1978, winning three County Championships, three John Player League titles, three Benson and Hedges Cups and two Gillette.
Underwood appeared as a comical right-handed batsman with an awkward style at the tail end with an unorthodox shovel shot as his trademark .He was terrified against bouncers but for many years he was played the role of England’s gritty nightwatchman, effective in that role even if he seldom looked at ease at the crease. In 1984, towards the twilight of his career, he registered 111 for Kent against Sussex, the most unexpected century of the season.
He appeared in 86 Tests, taking his 297 wickets at an average of 25.83, with 17 5 wicket hauls and 6,10 wicket hauls. He would have possibly had another 50 victims but for his involvement with WSC and the rebel tour. In all first class cricket he amassed 2,465 wickets – putting him 14th in the all-time list – at 20.28.
Statistically he was the best spin bowler of his era, after retirement of Lance Gibbs, overshadowing likes of Bishen Bedi. Impressive that in tests won Underwood averaged 15.18 and took 123 scalps. He was almost as effective home and away, averaging 24.24 and 27.36, respectively.On Australian tracks he averaged 31.48 and took 50 wickets. In India overall he captured 54 scalps at 26.51.
 Cricket experts like late Cristopher Martin Jenkins and Geoff Armstrong have excluded Derek Underwood from their best 100 selection, in spite of choosing Bishen Bedi. I feel this is justifiable as Bedi was more diverse, being more effective on unhelpful tracks, with a better action. 
John Woodcock, placed Underwood at 88th place, in his all-time 100.The likes of Sunil Gavaskar and Ian Chappell rank Underwood the hardest proposition amongst spin bowlers they ever faced. I would place Underwood amongst the top dozen spinners of all time, atleast statistically.
I would have chosen Underwood in my world test XI in the 1970s and in an all-time left handed cricketers team on a wet, turning or wearing track.Graeme Pollock and Tom Graveney selected Underwood in their all time XI.
Underwood was very fine connoisseur of cricket selecting the likes of  Barry Richards,Viv Richards, Gary Sobers ,Zaheer Abbas , Dennis Lillee, Ian Botham, Malcolm Marshall, Shane Warne, Alan Knott, Graeme Pollock and Gordon Greenidge in his all-time XI.I n my view, he unfairly excluded Sunil Gavaskar,the only aberration .
Underwood wrote a very fine account of the 1979-80 summer in Australia and India, which enlivened any cricket lover.
*Freelance journalist



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