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David Frith on the controversial 'underarm' incident of 1981 between Australia and New Zealand
'I have been waiting, with trepidation, for the moment when, with six runs needed off the final ball and a lot of money at stake, the bowler informs the umpire of a change of action and rolls the ball along the ground.'
Those grimly prophetic words appeared in these columns twenty months ago, when the 'Brian Rose Affair' was being debated. But it was never envisaged that the cool, proud and dignified Australian captain Greg Chappell would be the perpetrator. When his brother, Trevor, rolled the final ball of the match along the Melbourne pitch to New Zealand batsman Brian McKechnie, who needed to hit a six to level the scores, the game of cricket plumbed new, dark depths.
Such was the sense of outrage that the Prime Ministers of both countries issued statements, Robert Muldoon of New Zealand calling the underarm delivery 'an act of cowardice' and smearing the entire Australian XI with the assertion that it was appropriate that they were playing in yellow clothing -- notwithstanding that wicketkeeper Rod Marsh, for one, reportedly disapproved of his skipper's 'underhand' plan when it was put to him. Following the Kiwi Premier's aspersion, the Australians took legal advice. The Australian Cricket Board, for their part, refrained from taking action against Chappell, since he had broken no written law or regulation.
Shock-waves touched all corners of the cricket world and beyond. Political cartoonists adapted the Chappells' derelict act for their drawings. News-papers found it sufficiently profound to script it into their leaders -- one of them headed 'Unfair dinkum'.
Greg Chappell later expressed regret, explaining that the decision was hatched in the heat of the moment. The ACB admonished him and outlawed underarm bowling for the rest of the series. It should have been forever. In England, underarm bowling in limited-overs cricket was banned two years ago.
Australia clinched the Benson & Hedges World Series Cup -- and the bag of gold that went with it -- in the following match, steered home by...Greg Chappell (87).
So Chappell's name joins those of other stigmatized engineers of evolution, such as 'Shock' White, whose sprawling bat-blade prompted control of the breadth of the bat; John Willes, William Lillywhite, Jem Broadbridge and Edgar Willsher, principal figures in the roundarm and overarm revolutions; E. B. Shine and C. M. Wells, whose deliberate wides and byes forced modifications to the follow-on rules; Douglas Jardine, whose exploitation of Bodyline bowling led to restrictive legislation, elastic though it may have proved to be; Sid Barnes, whose absurdly frequent appeals against the light helped drive the authorities into finding an alternative system; Brian Rose, who dared to declare at 1 for 0 in a statistically-complicated limited-overs match to safeguard his team's top position. Instrumental, all of them, in altering the written codes of conduct. Disappointing, most of them, to their friends and supporters.
The lesson, it must be accepted, however reluctantly, is that nothing can any longer be left to 'the spirit of the law'. We live in an age when the sharper individuals in our midst are devoted to the exploitation of loopholes for financial gain.
We shall not this time hazard any guesses as to the next lucrative piece of gamesmanship. That would be tempting the fates.
This article first appeared in the March edition of the 1981 Wisden Cricket Monthly
© Wisden Cricket Monthly
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