Derek Underwood: The spinner who struck terror in Indian batters

‘Deadly’ Derek, who passed away at 78 years, still walks tall in the annals of English bowlers

Derek Underwood, England's legendary spinner, passed away on 15 April 2024, leaving behind a legacy of remarkable skill and sportsmanship (photo: @ECB_cricket/X)
Derek Underwood, England's legendary spinner, passed away on 15 April 2024, leaving behind a legacy of remarkable skill and sportsmanship (photo: @ECB_cricket/X)

Gautam Bhattacharyya

When a spin bowler is named ‘Deadly’ by his teammates, there must be good reason behind it. Derek Underwood, still the highest wicket-taker among England's spinners, passed away on Monday, 15 April—this was him.

News of Underwood’s demise at 78, bang in the middle of the IPL, did not get enough newsprint real estate. However, anyone with a sense of history will vouch for the fact that the legendary left-arm spinner — who claimed 297 wickets in 86 Tests in the 1970s and 1980s — had cast a big enough spell on Indian batters during his time, despite several of them being master players of slow bowling.

Here's what Sunil Gavaskar — for whom Underwood turned into a kind of nemesis, dismissing him as many as 12 times during their duels — told the Times of India:

What a bowler! And above all, what a lovely guy. RIP Deadly.
Sunil Gavaskar on the late 'Deadly' Derek Underwood

‘’Among spinners, Underwood was one of the toughest I faced. He was a quicker bowler who flighted the ball occasionally. One had to be extremely watchful. He was the toughest bowler I faced, along with Andy Roberts,’’ the Little Master said, remembering how lethal Underwood was on rain-affected wickets.  

In the 1972-73 series in India — Gavaskar’s first series at home after a sensational debut in the Caribbean in 1971 — Underwood bagged the legendary opener’s wicket four times in 10 innings.

Then, in the 1976–77 series in India, he stood out with 29 wickets in five Tests to help Tony Greig’s team coast to a 3–1 series win. Underwood's whippy action, which made him quicker through the air, saw him extract turn and fizz out of the uncovered wickets (which were in vogue till 1975) — which saw him earn wickets by the bagful in the County circuit too.

A Kent loyalist, Underwood made his first-team debut for the county at the age of 17 and went on to make over 900 appearances across three decades, from 1963 to 1987, taking 2,523 wickets at an average of just 19.04.

Despite hanging up his boots four decades ago, Underwood remains the sixth-highest wicket-taker in England’s history and their leading spin bowler, ahead of Graeme Swann (255) and Moen Ali (253). With his economy rate and decent abilities with the bat, Underwood was someone ahead of his time, as he could only make 26 ODI appearances between 1973 and 1982, including a pair of appearances in the inaugural 1975 World Cup, claiming 32 wickets at 22.93.

According to the retrospective ICC Men’s Test Bowler rankings, Underwood was ranked as the World No.1 bowler from September 1969 to August 1973. His most startling figures came at Hastings in 1973, where he claimed 8 wickets for 9 runs to rout Sussex on another rain-affected pitch.

He would have overhauled Fred Trueman's all-England record at the time, of 307 wickets, had he not made two significant career choices. First, he accepted Kerry Packer's invitation to join World Series cricket in 1977. Then, in 1981–82, he joined the first rebel tour of South Africa, a decision that led to a three-year ban from international cricket and the effective end of his career.

In 2008, Underwood was named president of Marylebone Cricket Club, after serving as Kent Cricket's Club president in 2006, and was inducted into the ICC's Hall of Fame in 2009.

Tributes poured in from all over the cricket world on Monday. ICC chief executive Geoff Allardyce said: “It’s sad to hear of the passing of Derek. I would like to extend heartfelt condolences from everyone at the ICC to one of the all-time greats of the game.

“Derek has been one of England’s most successful spin bowlers in Test cricket and his record in first class cricket is legendary. He was most dangerous on drying wickets with his fastish spin bowling but showed during his long career that he could vary his pace when required.”

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