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DEADLY

PERSONAL MEMORIES OF DEREK UNDERWOOD

 


One of the pleasures – well, it was not always a pleasure – and privileges of my cricket career was playing with and against many of the world’s top players. In our Hampshire team, we had three of the best, Barry Richards, Gordon Greenidge and Andy Roberts. As I go round the counties, the names of a veritable who’s who of great players swim into my mind. Asif Iqbal, Colin Cowdrey, Alan Knott (Kent), Tony Greig, John Snow (Sussex), Mike Procter, Sadiq Mohammed, Zaheer Abbas, (Gloucs), Brian Close, Viv Richards, Ian Botham (Somerset), Majid Khan (Glamorgan), Basil D’Oliveira, Vanburn Holder (Worcs), Bishan Bedi, Mushtaq Mohammed, Michael Holding (Derbyshire), Clive Lloyd, Farokh Engineer, Lance Gibbs (Lancashire), Ray Illingworth, Roger Tolchard, Graham McKenzie (Leics), Geoffrey Boycott, Chris Old (Yorks), Keith Fletcher, Graham Gooch (Essex), John Edrich, Intikhab Alam (Surrey), Mike Brearley, Phil Edmonds, John Emburey, Fred Titmus and the young Mike Gatting (Middx). Funnily enough, I never played against Nottinghamshire. I think you will agree that these were halcyon days of the County Championship.

One name from the illustrious list is missing, you will have noticed. That is because he has recently died and thus is the subject of this piece – Derek Underwood, known throughout the county circuit and abroad as ‘Deadly’. Why? Because on a helpful pitch he was nothing but deadly. Even on a flat pitch, he could bowl with such accuracy and control that he would strangle batsmen to death. Just as deadly but in a different way. Much newsprint has been spilt in recent days as fulsome obituaries have appeared in the newspapers, all of them fully deserved, so I shall just record my personal memories of the man, on and off the pitch.

We were playing Kent at Tunbridge Wells. The famous rhododendron collar that circled the ground was looking a bit forlorn. It had rained in the night and a prompt start of play at 11.00am looked unlikely.

“Good morning. The name’s Colin Cowdrey. I don’t think we’ve met. Is this your first time in this neck of the woods?”

Stumblingly, I admitted it was. Cowdrey was already dressed in his whites with a Kent blazer. Oddly, he always seemed to get changed into his whites before he left home and returned to his home still in his whites. A touch of the old amateur ethos, they reckoned. Having wished me well for the forthcoming encounter – his courtesies were legendary – he made his way across the pavilion to engage in conversation with the Kent coach, Colin Page.

We, the Hampshire team, were drinking coffee, watching the umpires making their way to the middle for a pitch inspection. The next Kent player to arrive was Derek Underwood.

“Morning, Deadly.”

This was Mike Taylor my team-mate and roomie speaking. He had been around in the game for many years and knew the ins and outs of every player on the circuit, even what they had for breakfast.

“Bit of pleasure ‘n’ pain this morning, eh?”

Mike spoke a lot of Cockney Rhyming Slang. As a Londoner myself, I usually caught his drift. ‘Pleasure and pain’ had nothing to do with deviant sexual behaviour; he was not casting aspersions on Underwood’s nocturnal activities. Underwood actually resembled a choirboy and not a hint of scandal had ever attached itself to him. All he ever got up to was bowling. ‘Pleasure and pain’  – rain.

“So, Deadly, how many wickets for you today then?”

“Er, five,” was the answer.

Mike sipped at his coffee and resumed his scrutiny of the previous day’s scores in the paper.

Not long later, Underwood reappeared, his face split into a grin.

“Hey, Tay, I’ve just been out to look at the wicket. I’ve changed my mind. Make that eight!”

He was as good as his word. He did take eight wickets that day, and not for many runs either as I recall. One of his victims was me. Of course it was.

By no stretch of the imagination could Underwood be called an athlete. He was flat-footed and his toes pointed at ten to two when he ran. He wasn’t the fastest fielder in the deep, but he had good hands and dropped little. He was no more than a tail-end Charlie with the bat but when the situation demanded, he was press-ganged into the role of nightwatchman, a very brave one too. He had a longish run-up, about ten yards and he would usually bowl left-arm over when most left-arm spinners bowled round the wicket. If the pitch was taking spin, devilish spin, he would go round the wicket but for the most part he would fire it in at your leg stump, waiting for the turn and the outside edge, and with Knott behind the stumps and Cowdrey and Asif at slip, very little went begging. And if you thought about picking him up over the legside field, you had to be wary of his arm ball, which brought LBW into play. He had an easy, economical action and he could bowl all day, either chipping away with wickets or sealing one end watertight. If the wicket took spin, he was virtually unplayable.

I certainly found him unplayable. I survived a few overs but after a while I was at a loss how to figure out where my next run was coming from. He was too quick to run down the wicket at him and to play late and off the back foot was more than I dared, for the ball seemed to hurry onto me. A couple of times, I went down on one knee in an attempt to lap him, but the ball variously hit me on the chest or the shoulder. I was barely able to lay a bat on him. In some exasperation, I turned to Knotty and enquired how on earth anybody scored runs off him.

“Don’t worry,” Knotty cheerfully pointed out, “He’s made better batsmen than you look foolish.”

Now Alan Knott was a perfect gentleman on the pitch. Not for him the disruptive sledges, the muttered curses, the disagreeable comments, the personal insults, the unpleasant put-downs. This was in no way intended to make me feel small and inadequate. In fact, I thought he was trying to be kind, to reassure me that indeed it was difficult and sometimes even the best struggled. Besides, I could hardly cavil; he was speaking no less than the truth. Shortly afterwards, there was one a little wider, on off stump perhaps. I went on a big drive and the ball landed in the capacious hands of second slip.

AJ Murtagh  c Asif  b Underwood   not very many

Some years later, long after I had retired, he came to Malvern College, where I was teaching, to try to persuade us to invest in some new nets. Together with his brother, he owned Club Turf Cricket Ltd, and he was touring the clubs and schools touting for business. Naturally enough, he knew Roger Tolchard, our cricket professional, because they had crossed swords regularly over the years and had been on tour together for England in India in 1976-77. Me? He said he remembered but I wasn’t sure. After all, I was only one of his of his 2,465 first-class victims.

The next time our paths crossed was at my instigation. It must have been ten years ago, when I was writing my book about Colin Cowdrey. I wanted to interview him and probe him for his memories of the great man. Accordingly, I made my way down to Tonbridge in Kent where he lived. He was as friendly and obliging as I remembered but as I drove away from his home, I was filled with a certain uneasiness, bafflement really. He had given me nothing of interest whatsoever. The few anecdotes, the few observations, the few memories were all in the public domain anyway and hardly shed any light on the personality of his captain and team-mate of long standing. I found myself asking questions and all I was getting in reply were commonplaces. He can’t be that boring, surely.

Some months later, I was recounting my experience to Chris Cowdrey, son of Colin, a contemporary of mine and a goodfriend. His face fell. “You do know that Deadly’s got early symptoms of dementia.” I was horrified but it did explain everything. The illness was gradual but relentless, and harrowing to witness, but at least, thank goodness, well away from the public eye. On our WhatsApp chat (a group of former professional cricketers), the reports were that his death was a welcome release, so horrendous had been the decline.

To a man – there are over 100 of us – the tributes flowed. County cricketers can be a cynical lot, ever ready to recall past disasters and cock-ups of others, but the affection for Deadly was heartfelt, unmistakeable and entirely genuine. There was naturally full recognition of his prowess as a bowler, one of a kind, like none other, but it would seem that he had not a single enemy in the game. The only time that choirboy grin left his face, I was told, was when he was hit for four. That grin very rarely left his face.

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