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Derek Underwood: Wisden Cricketer of the Year, 1969

Derek Underwood
by Norman Preston 3 minute read

Derek Underwood, who passed away at 78, was named a Wisden Cricketer of the Year in 1969, after six memorable seasons at Kent, also playing a starring role in the final Test of the 1968 Ashes.

Few young cricketers have made such a direct impact on their entry to first-class cricket as Derek Leslie Underwood, hero of England’s victory over Australia in the final Test at The Oval last season. At the age of 23 this left-arm slow-medium paced bowler of Kent may be said to be on the threshold of a great career in world cricket.

In six years he has taken 744 wickets, no doubt a record for one so young, and he bids fair to follow in the wake of such renowned England left-arm slow bowlers as Bobby Peel, John Briggs, Wilfred Rhodes, Hedley Verity and Tony Lock. His England and county captain, Colin Cowdrey, believes he will beat them all.

From the lean youth who first played for Kent, Underwood has developed physically, having grown to nearly six feet and having also acquired quite broad shoulders. His fastest ball is as fast as was Doug Wright’s and given the slightest help from the pitch he can be truly devastating.

He always bowls at the stumps; he has natural orthodox leg spin, not too much, and after rain he can make the ball stand up. In fact, in that Oval Test the ball seemed to stop and check on pitching, leaving the Australians helpless — they were committed too soon to play their strokes.

Born at Bromley in north-west Kent, on June 8, 1945, Underwood developed naturally as a cricketer. He owes much to his father, Leslie Underwood, a capable right-arm medium-fast bowler who played village cricket for Farnborough, Kent and was so keen for his two sons to play the game that he set up a net in his garden with concrete pitch and matting on top. That was where Derek and his elder brother, Keith, learned the vital essentials of accurate length and direction.

From a local school, Derek went to Dulwich College Preparatory School. He remembers taking nine wickets for 10 runs for the Dulwich Under 10’s at Corshorn. One of the masters, Mr TF Merritt, used to take the boys to The Oval in the halcyon days of Peter May, Laker and Lock and so whetted Underwood’s interest in county cricket.

At 13, he moved to Beckenham and Penge Grammar School where he announced his batting ability by hitting 96 against the Staff. In June 1961 he took all ten wickets against Bromley Grammar School and later ten for 16 as well as scoring 45 against Bromley Town for the local village side, Farnborough.

About this time Underwood received help at a Cricket School in Croydon from Ken Barrington and Tony Lock. He must have made a favourable impression because Lock recommended him through the late Leslie Todd to Kent who gave him a trial at Canterbury. Under the auspices of the English Schools Cricket Association he played for Kent Schools and also South of England Schools. Against the Midlands at Cranleigh Common, along with Alan Knott, he took four wickets for six runs.

Underwood pays tribute to the advice and encouragement he received from George Pope who runs the Kent Schools team, and from Colin Page, captain of Kent 2nd XI and Colin Cowdrey. Like so many youngsters he had always bowled as fast as he could, but when he played for Beckenham CC in 1961 he realised he was not really fast and would have to evolve something different. He tried reducing his pace and the spin came naturally.

Underwood during England’s tour to India in 1981

Underwood never saw Kent play until he played for the county. He spent one summer with the 2nd XI when he was 16. In his first match he took five for 45 and four for 15 against Hampshire 2nd XI at Beckenham and finished the season with 42 wickets for less than 20 each.

Kent could not have chosen a more difficult assignment for his introduction to first-class cricket in 1963. They took him to Hull to face the Champions and on a drying pitch he demonstrated his possibilities by taking four for 40 in the Yorkshire first innings, his victims being Taylor, Illingworth, Trueman and Wilson.

He stayed in the Kent team for the remainder of the season and he has been there ever since. Indeed, that year he headed the county averages and at 17 he was the youngest player ever to take 100 wickets, a feat he has repeated regularly, except in 1965.

Until 1964 Underwood says he had always bowled round the wicket. It was necessary to learn to bowl over the wicket. This did not come easily, but the effort proved its worth, for in 1966 he claimed 68 more victims compared with the previous season at nearly half the cost.

That year he became the first Kent cricketer to head the national bowling averages since Colin Blythe in 1914. His 144 wickets for Kent was their highest for twenty-one years in the days of Tich Freeman.

At his home in Keston where he lives with his parents, Derek has plenty of souvenirs. Among the silver mounted cricket balls are three for his best performances in first-class cricket: nine for 28 against Sussex at Hastings, 1964; nine for 37 against Essex at West Cliff, 1966 and eight for 10 against the Ceylon President’s XI at Colombo, 1968. In that match his full tally was fifteen for 43.

Among his silver salvers is one given by The Cricket Writers’ Club for The Best Young Cricketer of The Year in 1966. He gained his county cap during the Australian match at Canterbury, 1964, being the second youngest Kent player to receive it.

Of quiet, pleasant disposition, Underwood lives for cricket. He has a file of all his performances, carefully pasted in books at the end of each season besides albums of press photographs in which those of the Final Test of 1968 figure prominently. He hoped to get the ball with which he took seven for 50 and brought England victory, but it was swallowed up when the crowd engulfed the arena.

Derek Underwood retired in 1987 as one of the greatest spinners ever, claiming 297 Test wickets and 2,465 first-class wickets. He went on to become MCC president in 2008, and entered the ICC Hall of Fame the following year. He passed away on April 15, 2024, aged 78.

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