Home » Celebrating Derek Underwood, respected opponent and an exemplary bloke

Celebrating Derek Underwood, respected opponent and an exemplary bloke

There are some humorous and often appropriate nicknames in cricket but none more suitable than “Deadly” for Derek Underwood.

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

He employed an extraordinarily long run-up for a spinner and operated nearer medium pace than the typical speed 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 who I played against.

Right-hand batters 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 batters had one thing in their favour. Underwood wore his heart on his sleeve: you knew when he was pissed off. And he was most aggrieved by the sweep shot.

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

Underwood knew exactly what I meant and 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, as I said, 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.”

Batters had one thing in their favour. Underwood wore his heart on his sleeve: you knew when he was pissed off. And he was most aggrieved by the sweep shot

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

As a batter he 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 1974-75 before I turned to our golden arm, Doug Walters.

Walters dismissed Underwood with his first ball, and when we gleefully congratulated the bowler, Underwood 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 the difficult task of gathering those deliveries easily.

It was on such a pitch at Adelaide Oval in 1975 that he took the first seven Australian wickets. 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. The mirth of that moment did not detract from the fact that it had been 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 my 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”.

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 his single-mindedness but also of 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.

Former Australia captain Ian Chappell is a columnist