Derek Underwood bowls

Rattle and hum: on bad pitches, Derek Underwood's deliveries would slither past you before you had a chance to put on a proper defence

© PA Photos/Getty Images

The Greats I've Known

Deadly venom: the terror of Derek Underwood

Beneath the gentle facade lay a spinner whose weapons were accuracy and fear

Mark Nicholas  |  

Ah, the British summer rain! Months of sunshine, talk of heatwaves, and all during lockdown. Come the rebirth of cricket and linseed oil upon new willow, unspoilt emerald greenswards, and warriors ready in out-of-wrapper whites, come the rain. England and West Indies set to at the Ageas, as we must call it, but not for long on the first day, and in the home team's case, not very well on the second. The rain drizzled in a way that dampens spirit. Hard as everyone tried to stay jolly, the truth was there was nothing very jolly about it at all. Unless you were a West Indian bowler, in which case you were on the Jolly Roger, making England walk the plank.

Which got me to thinking about the days when the pitch would have remained uncovered throughout and the England team sheet would have included the name DL Underwood. In 86 Test matches, 21,862 balls bowled, 297 wickets at 25 each. First-class cricket - 2465 wickets at 20!

I'm here to tell you this fellow was some bowler. Left-arm spin was his gift, delivered with extraordinary accuracy at a lively pace; a gift with which he tormented opponents on surfaces that offered him just the slightest encouragement. If those surfaces were wet, all hell broke loose.

Here's a story.

In 1984, Hampshire played Kent in Canterbury. The match was badly affected by weather and not much more than half of the last day remained when the captains got together in the hope of agreeing a formula for a conclusion. Kent had been 179 for 4 on the first day when the rain came. Over the ensuing 36 hours or so, it crept under the covers and now the pitch was wet, which made the equation difficult. The Hampshire captain of the moment was Nick Pocock, who returned to his dressing room chirpy as the morning's lark. He had persuaded the Kent captain, Chris Tavaré, to declare the Kent first innings and forfeit the second. In turn, he would forfeit Hampshire's first innings and agree to chase the 179 already on the board in the 59 overs that remained. Easy, he said, unaware that the poker-faced Kent captain had needed no persuading.

Underwood on his way to 6 for 45, and a ten-wicket match haul, against Australia at Headingley in 1972

Underwood on his way to 6 for 45, and a ten-wicket match haul, against Australia at Headingley in 1972 © PA Photos/Getty Images

David Turner, a stocky left-hand batsman with more experience than most of the rest of us put together, asked Pocock if he had ever faced Underwood on a wet pitch. "No," replied the captain, "but the plan is simple: we block him and score off Alderman and Ellison at the other end." Trevor Jesty, a wonderfully natural batsman with the same long-learned experience as Turner, asked Pocock if he knew why Underwood was otherwise known as "Deadly", to which Nick answered that he did, so Trevor then asked if he had ever tried blocking this Deadly on a turning pitch. "No," he answered, "but it can't be so difficult that we don't make 180 off the others. I mean, come on, lads!" Good job, skip, thought us young 'uns, we've got a shot here. Err, no, the end of innocence was close by.

Underwood was in the blocks for the fifth over. Our score was 13 for no wicket. He bowled a maiden in which Paul Terry played every ball safely off the middle of the bat. The next over, bowled by Terry Alderman, was also a maiden. At the end of the next over, bowled by Underwood, the score was 13 for 3.

Chris Smith played forward to the first ball, which ripped a piece of the sodden pitch from its roots and caught the shoulder of his bat on the way through to Alderman at first slip. I took guard after Smith and replaced the divot. The close field was five-strong: two slips, gully, silly point and forward short leg. The best idea seemed to be to play back. The ball went past my chest and was taken by Alan Knott at shoulder height. Knott rode the alarming bounce of this ball as if he had done it all his life, which he had. There was no sound from the ball hitting Knott's gloves. It was as if it had melted. Awesome. "Well bowled, Dell," said the great stumper. "Thanks matey," said the great bowler, the two of them in perfect harmony. Knott and Underwood, Underwood and Knott: it occurred to me that I was the piggy-in-the-middle of a collaboration in genius.

The third ball of the over spat at the splice of my bat, heavy and hard. That was the thing about Deadly, the speed and weight of the ball - almost medium pace and spinning like a top. People said he cut the ball, but he didn't really; he spun it at cutter's pace. The fourth ball of this second over was really quite evil. The only way I can think to describe it is that it attacked the thumb of my right glove, tearing it away from the handle of the bat before the ball looped in an inevitable path to old poker face at second slip. He threw it up like a child flicks a Smartie to its lips, so nearly a gloat.

Underwood, first from left, plays cards with Tony Greig and Derek Randall during World Series Cricket in Sydney, 1978

Underwood, first from left, plays cards with Tony Greig and Derek Randall during World Series Cricket in Sydney, 1978 © Fairfax Media/Getty Images

I had just made it back to the dressing room when I looked out from the balcony and saw Jesty inch forward to another of these absurd deliveries only to find his gloves in the way of a cricket ball that was programmed to travel from hand to pitch, to bat or glove, and into the mitts of a close fielder. It was a kind of magic, beautiful in its performance, brutal in its effect, irresistible in its result. The first over to Terry had been a rangefinder, all six delivered with the seam up. After that, well, he took aim and fired. His second over killed off the match. Thus the name Deadly.

The Hampshire captain took guard and proceeded to reverse-sweep his way to 17 until Underwood rumbled him with the famous quicker ball, an inswinger that zeroed in on its target like a missile. Pocock's 17 was the top score by plenty. We made 56 - a miracle. Underwood had 7 for 21; Richard Ellison 3 for 9. You had to laugh. What an experience. I remembered Barry Richards, the best batsman in the world at the time, saying that Underwood had once bowled them out for next to nothing on a bone-dry and dusting pitch at Gillingham. Seven for 20, or something like it that day, and then Barry added, "God knows how we got the 20!"

It was extraordinary to bat against. You could hear the ball fizz and therefore sense its danger. On a dodgy pitch, the expectation was overwhelming. From left arm round the wicket he would bowl balls that pitched outside leg stump and occasionally flew past slip at head height. If you don't believe me, watch him on YouTube in Adelaide in 1974-75, bowling at the Chappells and Doug Walters on a damp pitch. It's x-rated.

The best bet was to stay leg side and cut, or to pick length and sweep, but he was quickly wise to those options and would spear in that fast inswinger. Just occasionally, as a tease, he would lob one up and the eager batsman would swipe in the hope of momentary release. This got him wickets, of course, even though flight was not his thing. His "thing" was accuracy and the creation of fear. Remarkable really for such a gentle man.

Truth be told, Deadly was a freak. No other was like him and, probably, he was the best slow bowler on a bad pitch ever. It was almost comical to see this unremarkable-looking man, with his ten-to-two feet and complete absence of athleticism, bamboozle everyone. He was a brave cricketer, as witnessed when he acted as nightwatchman in the days before the helmet, and was frequently photographed in mid-air avoiding another 90mph missile. Deadly never said a bad word to, or about, anyone but boy did they bomb him. Revenge, I suppose, for previous humiliations.

I'm on your side: Knott and Underwood (front row, second and third from left) in the 1970 Kent squad

I'm on your side: Knott and Underwood (front row, second and third from left) in the 1970 Kent squad © Getty Images

Knotty says he was the best England bowler he kept to. They had started together, playing schools cricket, Underwood's father driving them around the county. The affection and appreciation was mutual. Deadly reckoned "Knotty" could read his mind, and loved his mate's input. For all the innate skill and the repeated action, there was an insecurity about Underwood that surprised even Knott. He didn't, for example, set his own fields and neither did he mind the captain fiddling about with them.

There is an apocryphal story about Brian "Tonker" Taylor, the Essex keeper, baffled by the young Underwood when they played together for TN Pearce's XI at Scarborough. The first ball of Underwood's first over spun past the bat and kept going past Tonker's gloves. The next ball did exactly the same. The third ball was the quick one that missed leg stump by a fraction and Tonker, by now utterly confused and still floundering around off stump, waved goodbye to the third consecutive four byes.

"Deadly," exclaimed Tonker, "they tell me you're a world beater, you see these gloves of mine... you effin' hit 'em." Underwood saw the funny side of Tonker's limited skills but later confessed that he had wished Knotty had been around to tidy up for him on a day of first impressions. Back then, a game for TN Pearce's XI really meant something.

Kent have been fortunate with stumpers. Fred Huish, Jack Hubble, Les Ames, Hopper Levett, Godfrey Evans, Knott, Paul Downton, Geraint Jones to name most in the line.

Nothing gets past me: Alan Knott intercepts a ball after Rohan Kanhai swings and misses at Lord's in 1973

Nothing gets past me: Alan Knott intercepts a ball after Rohan Kanhai swings and misses at Lord's in 1973 © PA Photos/Getty Images

William "Hopper" Levett was a tremendous character, who mainly stood in for Ames when he was away with England. Hopper was in the pub one night, hard on the hops he farmed, when the landlord whispered that a wireless report suggested Ames was sick and that Hopper might be called up the next day. Hopper had heard such stories turn to dust before and decided to drink on. Come the morning, come the call up.

Worse for wear, Hopper moved not a muscle when the first ball of the day was left alone by the batsman, and by Hopper, as it flew over his head. The slip fielders looked rather shocked that the match had begun with a stationary keeper and four byes. Next ball, the batsman played and missed, and again, Hopper, still in the crouch position, remained motionless as the ball whistled between him and the first-slip fielder for four more. The third ball was down the leg side and the batsman played the meatiest of leg glances. From the face of the bat, the ball flew towards fine leg for a certain boundary only to be intercepted by the flying Hopper, who, with body horizontal and left arm at full stretch, pulled off a blinding catch. He came up with the ball to find himself surrounded by astonished team-mates dying to hear an explanation. "Not bad for the first ball of the morning," said Hopper. It's a hackneyed story but has stood the test of time. Most cricket stories do.

Knotty barely had a drink in his life, save a small celebratory glass of white wine. His idiosyncrasies were the stuff of legend, as was his adherence to health, well-being and practice. On tours he tended to room with Geoff Boycott - teetotals as one - but even Boycott was startled by the meticulous dawn routine. To us outsiders, Knott was just the nicest man and the most generously spirited opponent.

Above everything, though, were the hints of genius. Boycott says that in Australia in 1970-71, they didn't see Knott drop a single ball until the first morning of the seventh Test, and that the moment was greeted with shock by all and sundry, not least the Australians. To this day Jeff Thomson talks about Knott's guts against the fastest bowling and about the innovative and infuriating shots he played - notably the upper cut - in 1974-75. As the others were being mown down by Lillian Thomson, Knott and Tony Greig did all they could to stitch the wounds. Knotty "drove us nuts," says Thommo. He drove us Hampshire players nuts too. At Bournemouth, we watched in awe as he went down on one knee to sweep Malcolm Marshall for six. Not before or since had we, or did we, see such madness make for such brilliance. Marshall applauded.

The Oval, 1968: Underwood gets the final wicket, John Inverarity, to win the Test and square the Ashes

The Oval, 1968: Underwood gets the final wicket, John Inverarity, to win the Test and square the Ashes © Getty Images

Dark, neat, lithe, fast-eyed and fleet-footed, Knott was as engaging as Evans before him and no less extrovert, though in a very different way. Evans was showy and immense fun; Knott was discreet and kind, which is not to say he was soft - far from it. His love of cricket overrode the cynicism of the professional game and his modesty was a lesson to us all.

He had a buoyancy that lifted the team through testing sessions and an air of optimism that made the impossible seem probable. His glovework was economical, his footwork accurate. He taught himself the art of diving safely, so that the ball stayed in the gloves, and on occasion, his acrobatics were heart-stopping in their brilliance. But it was when he was up to the stumps for Underwood that he shone above all others, and that day at Canterbury he took a truly magnificent catch when another Deadly special kicked violently out of the leg-stump rough and brushed the glove of a batsman looking to turn the ball to midwicket. Lightning reflexes and the whip of his right hand made it appear, for a split second, as if the ball had vanished. Then he tossed it in the air with an improbable serenity and the brightest smile.

His relationship with Underwood is the stuff of another age, as is the photograph in which they appear together at The Oval in 1968. After a freak storm that flooded the field on the final afternoon, hundreds of excited spectators helped the ground staff's mopping-up operation and with five minutes to spare, Underwood trapped John Inverarity lbw to win the game and level the series. All 11 England players are in the picture appealing - Knott has both arms aloft, Underwood has spun to face the umpire and plead for a match-winning judgement. He was just 23 that day and took 7 for 50 against a good Australian team. It should be noted that he held the Australians at bay in the first innings when the pitch was flat, wheeling away for 54 overs and three balls - 21 of which were maidens - to record figures of 2 for 89. The meanest of mean when he had to be.

What if Deadly had not forfeited two years of his Test career by signing for World Series Cricket in 1977? And what if he had not been banned from international cricket, having toured South Africa with a rebel England team in 1981? Certainly, had pitches stayed uncovered for the entirety of his career, he would be thought of alongside the very greatest spinners of them all. On reflection, he probably is anyway. Suffice to say he was a master of his craft, a fierce competitor and an honourable opponent. There have been few more popular cricketers and no better men, certainly none so Deadly.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, is a TV and radio presenter and commentator