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Deadly by name, daring by nature

Updated on: 18 April,2024 06:52 AM IST  |  Mumbai
Clayton Murzello |

One look at the below image will tell you that England spinner Derek Underwood, who died on Monday, could face up to the most dangerous of fast bowlers apart from weaving his magic with the turning ball

Deadly by name, daring by nature

England’s Derek Underwood reacts to a bouncer from West Indies pacer Michael Holding during the third Test at Old Trafford, Manchester, on July 9, 1976. Pic/Getty Images

Clayton MurzelloDerek ‘Deadly’ Underwood, the English left-arm spinner, who passed away on Monday at the age of 78, possessed a beautiful action, akin to a medium pacer. It made for fine pictures which cricket followers of the 1970s marvelled at in various magazines.

Underwood unsurprisingly features in the book, 100 Greatest Bowlers by Phil Edmonds (yes, the erstwhile England left-arm spinner, who wrote it in collaboration with Scyld Berry). The caption to the photograph accompanying Underwood’s profile reads, “How could anybody have possibly thought that a fellow with such a run to the wicket could ever be turned into a spinner?” Robin Marlar, the celebrated English cricket writer described Underwood’s action in The Cricketer magazine as, “It is a fine action. Rhythmic. Controlled. Plenty of body. It lends itself to accuracy. He also has stamina. He can bowl for hours.”

Other Underwood exploits lent themselves to memorable photographs. Two years before the 1970s kicked in, Underwood won England the Oval Test of the 1968 Ashes. The hosts had the best ammunition in Underwood to exploit a wet pitch.

The image of opening batsman John Inverarity (56) being adjudged leg before wicket to Underwood, with all fielders around the bat became a famous one. Inverarity was the last wicket to fall after he faced 253 balls in a quest to deny England (led by Underwood’s Kent senior Colin Cowdrey), six minutes away from the scheduled end to the Test.

This, after rain threatened to mar the final day of the Test. Australia, 13-2 overnight in pursuit of 352, were bowled out for 125, with Underwood claiming 7-50. The loss squared the series 1-1.

Several great images concerning Underwood were captured by that ace cricket photographer Patrick Eagar. In his masterpiece, Test Decade 1972-82, there is a photograph of Mike Brearley taking a one-handed catch to his left at first slip off Underwood to dismiss Gundappa Vishwanath in the Chennai Test of 1976-77. The Underwood-Brearley combination came to the fore again on the very next page, with the future England skipper diving to his left at first slip to pouch a catch offered by tailender Kerry O’Keeffe. Eagar chose this particular photograph for the cover of Test Decade.

While those catches made for pleasing sights, the one where an airborne Underwood taking evasive action while dealing with a Michael Holding bouncer at Old Trafford in 1976 makes one realise how Underwood was only inches away from a serious injury. And while he heaved a sigh of relief in 1976, he did get hit on his Test debut in 1966—at Trent Bridge by West Indian pace terror Charlie Griffith—whose bouncer hit the rookie in the face.

Underwood wrote in Beating the Bat: “I never saw the ball until a fraction of a second before I was hit. One second Griffith was holding it as he went into his delivery stride. The next it was rearing towards my face.”

On another note, Underwood was often sent out as nightwatchman by his captains. Tony Greig, who led him in 14 Tests from 1975 to 1976-77, called him one of the bravest tail-end batsmen he had ever seen.

Indian cricket fans had the good fortune of watching Underwood on these shoes in three series—1972-73, 1976-77 and 1981-82—apart from the Jubilee Test in 1980. He made the best impression on his second tour, claiming 29 wickets in Tony Greig & Co’s 3-1 series win over BS Bedi’s team. That said, Underwood had his share of critics. He was criticised for not doing enough to prevent Indi a’s famous victory at the Oval in 1971, as well as at the same venue the following year, when Australia squared the series 2-2.

Underwood ended up with 297 wickets before he joined a rebel England team to South Africa. He had also been part of Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket in 1977; returning to the England fold when peace was restored in 1979-80.

Ravi Shastri, who played against Underwood in the 1981-82 home series, told me on Monday how the nickname Deadly was an apt one for the wily spinner. He pointed to the fact how often Underwood caused the departure of Sunil Gavaskar and Gundappa Vishwanath in the 1976-77 series, and how the silly point position which Greig occupied was made for Underwood. “You could not cut him and Greig was stationed there. Deadly was born early. Yes, he came here in the 1970s and bowled on turning tracks. But there were no such turners in the 1980s. Had he been around in the 1990s—the [Ajit] Wadekar era [of coaching India]—he would have been devastating,” said Shastri.

Gavaskar had Underwood among his 31 ‘Idols’ in his 1983 bestselling book and mentioned how he got out to him “many times.” Like all who bowled against India in Test cricket from March 1971 to March 1987, Underwood rated Gavaskar highly. “Gavaskar was such a complete, compact player—so calm with such great technique,” Underwood told me when I interviewed him in 1995.

Interestingly, Gavaskar revealed in Idols that he first acquainted himself with the name Underwood when a firm released “a miniature set of photographs of top cricketers in the world sometime in 1966.” Derek Leslie Underwood had always been in the picture. 

RIP Deadly.

mid-day’s group sports editor Clayton Murzello is a purist with an open stance.
He tweets @ClaytonMurzello. Send your feedback to
The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.

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