'There is a pace to bowl for every pitch'

Former England left-arm spinner Derek Underwood on having a supportive captain, sticking to his long-run up, and the modern tendency to over-analyse the game

Interview by Scott Oliver

April 3, 2014

Comments: 22 | Text size: A | A

Derek Underwood looks at photographs of his ten wickets, England v Australia, 4th Test, Headingley, 3rd day, July 29, 1972
A special moment after bowling England to victory over Australia at Headingley in 1972 © PA Photos
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Players/Officials: Colin Cowdrey | Derek Underwood | Alan Knott
Teams: England

You had an unusually long run-up and were above average pace for a spinner. How did that style evolve?
Well, it started really when I was at school and, as all youngsters do, I wanted to be a fast bowler. I suppose when it came to the transition between youth cricket and adult cricket I was no longer quick anymore and one had to adapt to a different set of circumstances.

Did you try and cut the run-up down?
I didn't, really, no. The rhythm in the approach to the wicket is very, very important, even for a spinner. You need that rhythm, and I stuck to my guns. A lot of people in my early days were very keen for me to bowl slower.

Did you ever find yourself arriving at the crease too quickly?
I don't think so. I mean, in those early days, I think I was more a cutter of the ball than a genuine spinner. And then I gradually learned more and more about it. I think the best piece of advice I was ever given was that for every pitch you bowl on there is a pace to bowl. In other words, there are times when you really need to fire the ball in and there are other times when a little bit more flight is necessary to get whatever's in the pitch out of it.

Was there a rule of thumb about the pace you bowled: i.e. sticky dog, push it through; quick pitch, take pace off it?
Depends. I suppose that the quicker one can bowl at and make the ball turn, the more dangerous you're going to be. But it depends. On a lot of wet wickets, if it was very wet, then the pitch didn't do anything. The ball would skid on. Whereas if, for instance, there was a bit of direct heat on the wicket or it was just beginning to dry out then obviously there was a greater response and the ball turned more.

I had a captain in Colin Cowdrey who was very strict with me. He wanted me to bowl maidens. If it's a good wicket, if you can hold a player, eventually he'll make the mistake. Colin was a little bit that way inclined, rather than sort of looking to fiddle a wicket.

And which way inclined were you? In your heart were you more aggressive than that?
Well, I mean, I just did as I was told. If I suddenly bowled a slower ball and the batsman leant back and hit it for four, Colin would walk down the wicket with his hands on his hips as if to say, "Oh God, what did you do that for?" And you very quickly learned to, you know, be mean. Keep it tight. And if you've got another bowler at the other end who could keep it tight, someone like Illy [Ray Illingworth], then you might bowl ten overs and only give away 12 runs, and then the batsman's getting a little bit frustrated.

I read that Shane Warne didn't think about where to pitch it, what amount of spin, or anything like that. He simply visualised the type of shot he wanted the batsman to play. How about you?
I suppose I was sort of a bit of a traditionalist in that I didn't like change. I like my field set the way it usually was. I got to Kent level, then England level, bowling the way that I have with the fields that I have. I was too accepting - and I was wrong - to allow the captains to change fields and that sort of thing. Once or twice with Illy - he was pretty shrewd as a captain with field placings and so on, but I liked my field the way I'd always had it. But when you're playing cricket at that level you've still got to say, "Well, this batsman's got this weakness or that weakness", and you've got to avoid bowling to their strengths. If you're bowling to Gordon Greenidge you didn't drop the ball short outside his off stump because that's four penn'orth every time. So you try and make him hit you through mid-on, perhaps, which I suppose is the Shane Warne theory. At least if he scores runs off you in areas that he doesn't particularly like playing in then you're on the road there, aren't you?

 
 
"I had a captain in Colin Cowdrey who was very strict with me. He wanted me to bowl maidens. On a good wicket, if you can hold a player, eventually he'll make the mistake"
 

So you said you liked your field as you always had it; would that be a 6-3 generally?
Yes, or 5-4 if I was going to bowl straighter. To someone like Gordon, you'd go with a 5-4.

Was there a particular area of the field that it pained you to go for runs in?
Oh, god - if I dropped the ball short. I suppose I always erred on the side of overpitching rather than underpitching. I always thought I'd be better off bowling a half-volley rather than something short where the batter can pick and choose where he fancies hitting it.

I suppose, bowling relatively quickly, there'd be a danger of being run down through third man. What do you think a speed gun would have shown for you?
Gosh, I've no idea. I think it would vary. As I say, for every match you play in there was a pace to bowl. So in the first three overs that I would bowl I'd be looking just to see if the ball held up, or stopped, or did something. Or bounced. And if that happened then you'd look for that again, and get that pace right.

What about grip - did you ever experiment with different grips?
Well, obviously I'd hold the ball across the seam, standard fashion, for when I was bowling on a turning pitch and then obviously you'd change for the one that runs on or the very, very occasional offcutter that I would bowl. But basically I think I was an orthodox spinner.

I suppose it would have been quite rare, but did you enjoy it when batsmen came down the wicket at you?
Put it this way: I'd much prefer to see a batsman do that than play back. I liked to see a batsman play forward to me all the time. I liked to see them come down the wicket, yes, because it meant they were showing frustration. But then if it was one-day cricket then that was fair enough.

I guess it didn't happen much, because only eight of your 297 Test wickets were stumped. The batsmen mustn't have fancied it. Then again, you had a couple of half-decent wicketkeepers…
Knotty and I had something going at one stage, although I suppose it didn't apply to Test cricket quite so much. I used to bowl over the wicket to left-handers, then come round the wicket and fire one just outside leg stump. And we had some success with that one year. We got six or seven stumpings that way for Kent: the batsman falling over.

Was there a signal involved?
Never with Knotty. He was just so exceptional. The last one I ever got out was Graeme Fowler, who said, "I'm going to tell the world about you two bastards" and looked at Knotty and myself, smiling. He was the last one, and after that we didn't use the idea so much.

Out of those 297 wickets, there were 24 lbws. How do you think your stats would have changed with DRS?
Oh, when I see some of the decisions that go in favour of the bowlers compared to our days - it really had to be knocking over middle halfway up. You see how Swanny's got so many left-handers' wickets with the one that's just held up.

Is it swings and roundabouts, though, because Swanny wouldn't have bowled on uncovered pitches?
This thing about uncovered pitches was a fallacy in lots of ways. We might get on one or two during the course of a season, maximum. There were wet summers, but you couldn't get on the bloody pitch at all then!

The famous game at The Oval in 1968, when you bowled Australia out after a mopping up operation - was the ball that got John Inverarity genuinely an arm-ball or did it just not grip the wicket?
It was an arm-ball. The ball didn't turn at all, really, that day. That was an example, as I said earlier, of a wicket being saturated. The ball pitched and skidded. It didn't bounce. David Brown was at short leg, and he got two or three catches there, off inside edges, which shows that it wasn't turning away from the bat that much. I don't think I beat the bat more than two or three times in that spell of bowling. It was just the pressure that had built up with everyone around the bat that led to the wickets falling.


Derek Underwood traps John Inverarity lbw to secure a dramatic win, England v Australia, 5th Test, The Oval, August 27, 1968
The wicket that sealed a dramatic win: Underwood nails Inverarity at The Oval in 1968 © Getty Images
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In general, English players haven't been renowned as particularly good players of spin. They often find themselves crease-bound, or find it hard to rotate the strike. Do you agree with that, and if so, what do you put it down to?
Well, spinners don't seem to play a major part in four-day cricket. I don't know why. I think it's a great shame. I think groundsmen much prefer to leave a little bit of extra grass on for the first day and you rarely see the ball turn much on the fourth day.

Sydney Cricket Ground in my opinion was the best cricket wicket in the world. There was pace in it for the seamers at the beginning, a little bit of turn on the fourth, fifth day. Somehow or other they've got the formula correct, and it would be nice to see that formula applied to the County Championship.

Turning to some of the technical aspects of your art, I often see people talk about a spinner's "loop". Is that a slightly bogus idea, pointing towards artificially throwing the ball up, and might "drop" be a better description? Is "drop" more important than side-spin?
Yes, as I was saying about paces to bowl. But if we're talking about Test cricket and one-day cricket, we're talking about two vastly different concepts. In a five-day Test match, perhaps your spinner is in a situation where he can use his variations more. With "drop", as you call it, it's about maintaining your arm action and letting the ball come out of your fingers that fraction of a second earlier. And I always used to have a bigger stride when I bowled my slower ball, just to help pull it back before I bowled that delivery so that the batsman took the split second longer to see it, to recognise or identify the slower ball. Most players in one-day cricket nowadays largely predetermine what they're going to do. And they target bowlers.

What about varying your release point on the crease?
I used to bowl wide of the crease. The old adage of sitting on the stumps when you bowl wasn't for me because of the pace that I bowled. So I bowled from wide of the crease, which meant that I showed my right shoulder to the batsman, which gave me the opportunity to pull down on the ball - cut the ball, spin the ball - more. The wider I went, the more I could spin it. See, the key person for me on a turning wicket is the guy in the gully, not the slip.

Particularly if it was bouncing, I imagine.
Well, exactly. I might have two gullies in there then.

Who was your gully man?
Brian Luckhurst was very much key. And then there was someone like Tony Greig, who was right up there. Covered a lot of ground. We had some really good fielders close to the wicket, both with Kent and England.

And Knotty with both teams, of course. We've mentioned him a couple of times - your stumping routine, him spotting technical glitches - but I was wondering whether you were inclined to break your action down all that much: hip rotation, shoulder rotation, all that sort of thing?
We never had televisions and videos and this sort of thing. It's got so technical these days. I'd love to sit in on some of the meetings when they discuss what they see on video. Probably eight times out of a ten as a bowler it's a batsman error that's got them out, not your bowling, to be absolutely honest. There are times when you do bowl a real gem and perhaps get a wicket for it, so the bowler obviously takes credit for that but overall it's the batsman who gets himself out rather than brilliant bowling.

What do you think you'd have seen if you had access to a slow-motion replay of your deliveries travelling down the wicket?
I have no idea. It's… I'd probably be very disappointed. [Laughs.]

Research into brain function suggests that, when you start breaking complex body movements down into parts, they can be difficult to put back together, which is presumably why spinners, left-arm spinners in particular, can fall prey to the dreaded yips: thinking about a part of their action rather than feeling the whole thing. You think about poor Simon Kerrigan last summer at The Oval. Any theories there?
It's obviously partly a confidence thing, isn't it. I know that when you come on to bowl, you want to get that first over through and if you can get a maiden under your belt, get started, you know, that's great. And he never did, did he. I've seen it happen to one or two. I think Phil Edmonds had it at one stage. Thank god it never happened to me.

 
 
"What's desperately sad to me is that a spinner doesn't seem to get the opportunity in club cricket and junior cricket to bowl long spells anymore"
 

Terry Jenner said something interesting about trying to get into and out of an over with a dot ball, and perhaps using the middle four deliveries to probe the batsman. Was that something you ever thought about, constructing an over in that way?
Bowling these days is all about economy. Obviously people do come in looking to take wickets - especially your top players - but basically the key thing is economy, and certainly at club level in this country, with youngsters coming through, what your captain wants are as few runs off your over as possible. Now for a spinner to learn his trade, there are times when he's going to bowl bad balls. And that's nearly always four runs - if he drops short or overpitches or whatever - whereas a seamer often gets away with it. And what's desperately sad to me is that your spinner doesn't seem to get the opportunity in club cricket and junior cricket to bowl long spells anymore, with the structure of the game as it is. And with the ECB restrictions as well, he's only allowed to bowl so many overs anyway. These are all areas, I think, that are making life for the spinner more difficult. And really, I suppose, it's only in friendly cricket on Sundays that they'll get a proper opportunity to learn the trade.

Would you have any specific advice for captains as far as how to nurture young spinners is concerned?
Encouragement, I think, is the big thing. But, you know, if they come off the field as youngsters having bowled three overs for 25 runs then they know themselves whether they've had a good day or not, don't they. Just talk to them, encourage them, and perhaps try and put him on to bowl when there's a likelihood of a wicket, which I think Colin Cowdrey did in my early career. If you were 0 for 50 from 20 overs and you'd got No. 10 and 11 in, he'd give me the ball and say "Come on then, finish it off for us" and get me a wicket that way.

You said earlier that you preferred bowling to right-handers. Far be it from me to suggest you don't remember your own career properly, but you dismissed left-handers at an average of 23.1 during your Test career, as against 28 for right-handers. It would suggest you were adept at bowling at them. So, how did you go about it, generally: over or round?
I'm quite interested to hear that because I don't think I was ever rated as a great bowler against left-handers, funnily enough. But the general method would be over the wicket, looking for bowlers' rough, trying to contain them, getting them trying to drive me through the covers if I could.

Did you ever get frustrated with batsmen kicking it?
In those days, yes. Very much so. There were various stages when you couldn't be out. It was just awful, really. It was so biased at one stage in favour of the batter. I think I had one season for Kent when I got 100 wickets and I had two, possibly three, lbws. It's ridiculous, isn't it.

Who were the best players of spin in your era?
All the top players. I mean, I suppose if you're talking about turning wickets then you've got to say Geoff Boycott was one of the best. You'd bowl to him and it would seem as though the ball wasn't turning, yet you'd get someone else on strike and you'd be beating the bat two or three times an over. He was, without any doubt, the best player on wickets that did something, or turned a little bit. Basil D'Oliveira was another great player of spin. I had some very good battles and times against him. All your great players, really; they seemed to have that natural ability to be able to cope. Zaheer Abbas: a wristy player, played squash and rackets. Marvellous player. Played the ball very late.

Which other left-arm spinners have you admired?
Well, I think Monty Panesar is a very, very high quality Test bowler. Tuffers [Phil Tufnell] was underrated, too. I thought, at times, perhaps his temperament slightly let him down but he was, to me, a match-winner and bowled people out. Did it to Australia and West Indies. I never, ever got the West Indies on a turner, which was a great shame. I'd liked to have bowled to them on a turner.

What did you know at the end of your career that you wished you'd known at the beginning?
I think I would have been - tried to have been a little bit more attacking. I wasn't really an attacking bowler. I was brought up on this strict line of "keep it tight, keep it tight, Derek". I think that very often I was selected just to block an end up and let the quick bowlers get their energy back. I'd like to have - especially when we had runs on the board - to have insisted that I bowled a little bit more aggressively. Bowl to get a batsman out rather than contain.

So you'd prefer 15-1-70-5 to 24-11-38-2?
Well if it worked out that way then, yeah, brilliant. But there'd probably be times when the opposite would happen - you get your five-fer very cheaply. We could say, right, let's get some men around the bat, put a man on the 45 there, do this and that, and be a little bit more imaginative with fields. So those are things I'd have liked to have done. But I was really brought up, as I say, in a strict mould of keeping things tight.

So would that be your advice for a young spinner? I've asked what you'd advise a captain nurturing a young spinner; how about the spinner him - or herself?
They come at you now more than they did. They simply wouldn't let me bowl 30 overs for 50 runs as they used to. On turning wickets it would be a different game because players would say: "My best form of defence is attack." So I would say to a young spinner that you've got to have control. There's a lot of overs to be bowled in a day. And I would bowl five overs every day before the match started, ask someone to put their pads on, and make it as realistic as you can.

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Posted by mirandola on (April 4, 2014, 19:43 GMT)

Larry - yes, Underwood was a slowish medium pacer, not an out-and-out spinner. His accuracy, tied to just a little movement when it mattered, was his killing skill.

Posted by mirandola on (April 4, 2014, 19:21 GMT)

I think this is one of the best and most intelligent interviews with a cricketer I've ever read. Not only did - does - Underwood know his craft inside-out, but Scott Oliver knows exactly which questions to ask to get the best response. Fantastic piece.

Posted by Basingpiechucker on (April 3, 2014, 22:01 GMT)

I grew up watching him on television and saw one of his last Sunday League performances, as unassuming and apparently effortless as always, but from this article, concealing a very good cricket brain.

Posted by OttawaRocks on (April 3, 2014, 20:23 GMT)

"There is a pace to bowl for every pitch." Although it might not have been intended that way, I like this comment because it suggests any bowler can find a way to economize or take wickets on any track on the planet, no matter how different they are.

Posted by nursery_ender on (April 3, 2014, 16:48 GMT)

I remember seeing Deadly on a drying pitch at the Oval in 1978 take 13 Surrey wickets in a day, including 9-35 in the second innings, as 18 wickets fell (Graham Johnson taking the other 5 with his more-than-useful offspin). I can still picture one of Surrey's lefthanders (possibly John Edrich) fending a length ball off his nose to slip.

Posted by panthervipul on (April 3, 2014, 16:13 GMT)

was a pleasure to watch deadly through the 70's rolling up his white shirt sleeve bowling madain after madain absolute class

Posted by heathrf1974 on (April 3, 2014, 12:47 GMT)

England's greatest spinner no doubt.

Posted by landl47 on (April 3, 2014, 12:35 GMT)

Derek Underwood was the best bowler on turning wickets that I've ever seen. Because of the pace at which he bowled, if the wicket was doing something he was extremely difficult to play off the pitch. On wickets which didn't take turn he became a containing bowler since he didn't have extravagant amounts of spin, but he was always very accurate and bowled an immaculate length. Test wickets were generally not very receptive to spin, especially in England, in his playing days so he doesn't have quite as good a record as he might, but it's still very impressive. If he'd played in the sub-continent in the last 20 years, who knows how many he would have got?

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