Derek Underwood was the quiet assassin of English cricket – I loved him to bits

England cricketers Mike Hendrick (left), Geoffrey Boycott (centre) and Derek Underwood wearing promotional T-shirts during a photocall before the 2nd Test match between England and West Indies at Lord's Cricket Ground, London, 18th June 1980. The T-shirts bear the title of the calypso 'Cricket, Lovely Cricket', written in 1950 by Lord Beginner to celebrate West Indies' first Test win in England
Geoffrey Boycott (centre) and Derek Underwood (right) were mainstays of England's side during the 1960s and 70s - Getty Images/Patrick Eagar

Until 1979, we played cricket on uncovered pitches – we did not cover them when it rained. We called them sticky dogs. Derek Underwood was absolutely deadly on a sticky dog, hence his nickname Deadly!

I don’t know anybody that could play him or hit him after it had rained on those pitches. Once it had rained he was unbelievable because he bowled at a slightly quicker pace than the orthodox left-armer. Derek did not spin the ball so much as cut it and because he was faster and flatter than most slow bowlers he was on to you and making you hurry any stroke.

Deadly cut the ball using the seam – just like fast bowlers bowl an off-cutter. He did not have to wait for the pitch to start drying or become tacky like a normal spinner his  left-arm cutters would grip, turn, jump and sometimes take a piece out of the pitch. Try playing that. The Australians at the Oval in 1968 couldn’t. Derek took seven for 50 on the last afternoon, bowling brilliantly on an uncovered pitch, to help England secure a drawn series. That was one of his greatest performances but there were so many it is hard to pick out the best.

Modern players would try to whack Derek with their big bats  but trust me they would have no chance. No way. He would be too clever and too good for them. And if they tried all those sweeps and reverse sweeps they would definitely need a helmet with a grill otherwise they may get a smack in the mouth.

Nobody ever bashed him. Derek was a one-off, brilliant, extraordinary bowler – unique. There was nobody else like him in English cricket. The nearest was Bob Appleyard in the 1950s, who bowled right-arm off-cutters on uncovered pitches and took 200 wickets in his first full season. Deadly was left-arm, so he turned the ball the other way – away from the right-handers, which was much more dangerous because of the number of right-handers to bowl to.

Geoff Boycott and Derek Underwood celebrate victory England v Australia Trent Bridge
Geoff Boycott and Derek Underwood celebrate victory after England beat Australia at Trent Bridge in 1977 - Colorsport/Shutterstock

We did not have speed guns in those days but Derek was too quick to get down the pitch to.

Sometimes spin bowlers do not relish the pressure when all eyes are on them and they are expected to win the match for their team. But when Derek was expected to bowl a team out and win the match he was quietly confident he could do the job.

Everybody is under pressure – average players, good players and great players. It is how you handle the pressure that counts. Derek could handle it, no problem whatsoever. That is why he was a great bowler.

One year, Yorkshire were at Canterbury playing Kent. It rained and I went in the dressing room to have a chat with him because I played a lot with him for England.

I said ‘I bet you’re pleased about this rain, you’ll take six for 40 when we’re back on’. He said ‘yeah, but if it rains for a couple more hours, I’ll take eight for 20.’ That’s how he thought.

He was not a bombastic guy. He was a little bit quiet and did not say a lot but Deadly was the quiet assassin.

In the dressing room with England, he knew exactly what he wanted to do at practice. He would come in, change and then he would just like to sit quietly before he went out for 20 or 25 minutes with a cup of tea in his right hand and a fag in his other hand contemplating .

People always talk about him on wet pitches because he was so lethal on those. But he could bowl you out on dry ones because he was so accurate, he did not give you anything. Derek built pressure on batsmen and did not give them loose balls. You could not score easily off his bowling and once the pitch helped him, he was very, very difficult to play.

Derek Underwood and Geoffrey Boycott (front row left and second from left) ahead of fifth Test against Australia at the Oval in 1977
Derek Underwood and Geoffrey Boycott (front row left and second from left) ahead of fifth Test against Australia at the Oval in 1977 - Getty Images/Bob Thomas

He did not really have to change his style, even when he was bowling on good batting pitches. If he needed to he could bowl a little slower and  20 or 30 overs was never a problem. He was metronomic and had great concentration.

Derek loved bowling with four people around the bat – just like a spider weaving its web to catch a fly. And he did not want you to escape to the other end to get a single. If you were a fielder and not on your toes, maybe nodding off a bit and you allowed the batsman to sneak a quick single, he would glare at you. He would never say anything but you could tell that he was cross.

You could only get on top of Derek when he was batting. When he went out to bat we all got ready to field – he was not going to last long. He could not bat for toffee. We would have been better off declaring before he went in and saving the time! He got sent in as nightwatchman for a time against some very, very fast bowlers and his nerve got shredded.

Derek was one of the greatest bowlers I played with, without a shadow of a doubt. He had a rare gift and was a magic bowler. There has not been anything like him since.

I loved him to bits. He was one of my favourite cricketers.


Derek Underwood, great England and Kent bowler, dies aged 78

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