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Deadly Derek

Updated on: 24 April,2024 07:25 AM IST  |  Mumbai
Ian Chappell |

On dampish pitches, the late Underwood was nigh unplayable and his ally Alan Knott was a master ’keeper, especially on treacherous pitches. Underwood specialised in the superman ball—up, up and away—but Knott, in typically expert fashion, handled a difficult task easily

Deadly Derek

England wicketkeeper Alan Knott and slip fielder John Edrich watch as Richard Hutton moves to catch India’s Ashok Mankad off Derek Underwood at the Oval in London in 1971; (right) The writer plays a leg-side shot off England’s Derek Underwood during the fourth Test at the Oval in 1975. Pics/Getty Images

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Deadly Derek

Ian ChappellThere are some humourous and often applicable nicknames in cricket but none more appropriate than ‘Deadly’ Derek Underwood

Derek was a deadly accurate bowler and a fierce competitor who sadly died recently from dementia complications. Despite being a feared competitor, Underwood was a respected opponent. 

Always—and I mean every night—Underwood was available for an after-play drink in the dressing room. When it came to cricket, two of his main loves were bowling and beer. 

Hardest spinner to tackle

He employed an extraordinarily long run-up for a spinner and operated nearer medium-pace than that of a slow bowler, but boy he was accurate. Too speedy to use your feet to and difficult to drive, he was the hardest spinner to score off that I played against. 

Right-handed batsmen had to scrounge for every run. The highly skilled West Indian Viv Richards was one of the few right-handers who had the courage and the skill to loft him over cover. 

Nevertheless, batsmen had one thing in their favour—Underwood wore his heart on his sleeve. You knew when Underwood was pissed off and he was most aggrieved by the sweep shot

Derek, the smart one

Having retired from first-class cricket, I shared a London cab with ‘Deadly’ in 1977 when only the players knew about the existence of the highly secretive World Series Cricket [WSC]. Without divulging much, I said to Derek, “It’s on again mate.”  

Underwood knew exactly what I meant and forthrightly replied; “That bloody broom—I thought I’d seen the last of it.” 

The broom was a reference to my penchant for sweeping Underwood. I discovered that was one of the few ways to score off him and it annoyed ‘Deadly’.  

He was deservedly pissed off at the Oval in 1972, but for an entirely different reason. A West Indies supporter of Australia in that game constantly called out when Underwood was operating, “Bad wicket bowler. Don’t let him get you out.” 

In his self-deprecating manner, Underwood described spin bowling as, “Low mentality profession. Plug away, line and length, until there’s a mistake”. 

As a batsman ‘Deadly’ was not the most gifted, but he was determined. He and England’s Tony Greig had a useful partnership at the Gabba in the first Test of the 1974-75 Ashes before I turned to our ‘Golden Arm’ Doug Walters. 

Walters dismissed Underwood first ball, but when we gleefully congratulated the bowler, he produced a typically smart aleck retort; “A lesser batsman wouldn’t have got a bat on it.” 

However, it was Underwood’s bowling that deservedly gained him a glowing reputation. On dampish pitches he was nigh unplayable and his ally Alan Knott was a master wicketkeeper, especially on treacherous pitches. Underwood specialised in the superman ball—up, up and away—but Knott, in typically expert fashion, handled a difficult task easily. 

It was on such a pitch that he took the first seven Australian wickets at the Adelaide Oval in 1975. Gritty opener Ian Redpath battled his backside off, but eventually was incorrectly given out in the final over before lunch. Sitting in the dressing room an exasperated Redpath spat on his bat, but despite the mirth of the moment it was an engaging sight to watch two highly competitive players involved in such a herculean struggle. 

In 1975-76, a mixed team of Australians and cricketers from other countries played in an International Wanderers tour to South Africa captained by brother Greg Chappell and managed by the revered Richie Benaud. A dignitary at a cocktail function in Soweto welcomed the “Australian” team to the city, so I went to Underwood and said: “Congratulations on finally representing a good team.” 

His answer was unprintable, but it definitely included “piss off”. 

World Series Cricket days

Underwood later signed for WSC and also represented England on the 1981-82 rebel tour of South Africa. His defiant decisions were a mark of Underwood’s single-mindedness, but also his belief that a professional cricketer should be paid his worth. 

In a distinctive life after retiring from cricket, the universally popular Underwood was appointed President of the MCC in 2008. It was a privilege to compete against such a tough, but exemplary opponent.

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