On Derek Underwood

The name has it.

Derek Leslie Underwood.

Cricketers aren’t called Derek anymore. Or Leslie. The name speaks of forgotten times. When Derek Underwood was born, in the anticipatory months between VE Day and the war’s ultimate end, people were called names like Derek and Leslie. Some of them even went on to be cricketers.

To me, the association of Derek Underwood, who died this week, with a time that all the world mythologises but increasingly few actually remember, is significant. Because, over the long years since he left the first-class game in 1987, he himself seemed a player who increasingly few remembered, but others, like me – who did recall the accuracy, oh yes, the accuracy – spoke of with a reverence and an admiration which could lead others to believe that the man was a myth. The figures helped; 101 wickets in his first season at barely 18 years old, 500 before the age of 22, a thousand at 25. To modern eyes these numbers are imbued with a strong sense of unreality.

But he wasn’t a myth. He could bowl like nobody else.

In cricket there are also mythologised times. As the game which people of my generation fell in love with hits the rocks and struggles for air, we reach for what we can. We reach for memories.

I am too young (How nice it is to say that. It is rare now.) to remember The Oval in 1968, which is what people older than me always talk about, but to me Underwood is symbiotically linked to the time cricket hooked me. It is the early to mid-1970s; the John Player League is on the television every Sunday afternoon in summer, presented by Peter Walker or Peter West. Kent, with their unique scoreboard, and a tree inside the Canterbury boundary, with Bob Woolmer when he bowled, and Graham Johnson, and the peerless cover work of Alan Ealham, and Norman Graham, and Asif, and of course Knott and Underwood, are always on and are usually winning. And Underwood is always there, splay-footed, tugging at his sleeve as he plods back and considers his options, before jogging in and bowling and hitting the spot with the rhythm and regularity of a metronome. In batting these are pre-evolutionary times: ramps are what you sometimes drive over, scoops are used to serve ice cream or what passed for mashed potato in school dinners. As Underwood bowled, batsmen defended then vainly attacked because their overs were limited and they had to; any amount of cut, or swing or swerve, or change of pace, and he would have them.

This also happened in Championship or Test cricket, where he had more time, more overs and more assistance from weather and turf, but I saw less of that. Championship games weren’t on TV and Tests often happened on schooldays.

But there are vignettes. Vignettes which speak of skill, and shrewdness and the competitiveness of the great bowler. In one such it is The Oval, it is August 1976 and the ground is brown. Viv Richards has a lot of runs – maybe 150, or 170, or even 230 – just a lot. Underwood has been toiling in the heat and dirt and sweat for hours. He is not renowned for variation or experiment or guile, but he knows what to do. So he holds one back and gives it a little air; Richards is fooled and drives it straight to mid off, where Chris Balderstone, who is having a nightmare match, drops it. Underwood looks daggers at him and then returns to his mark. People who met him talk of Underwood’s humility, but at that moment, with a momentary flash of dissatisfaction, you saw an element of the underlying steel which went with all the technical skill and layers of experience to make him the bowler he was.

In an era when innovation in batting demands innovation in bowling, and the worth of a seamer is judged on how well they can meet originality with their own sense of difference, the thought of a bowler doing what Underwood did, dropping it on a length year after year and letting the (often rain affected) pitch do its worst, seems alien. In a world addicted to mystery, to slower balls, yorkers and slower ball yorkers, Underwood’s image in the mind is of the conservatism of the post-war cricket that he was born into; the era of Derek Shackleton bowling maiden upon maiden at Northlands Road, or Ken Barrington blocking for England. A monochrome game in a monochrome era.

It is a truism to say that – sometimes for good and others for ill – the game is not what it was, and it is also a truism to say that nowadays nobody bowls like Derek Underwood.

But then nobody ever did.

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