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Underhand, underarm

Why Greg Chappell instructed brother Trevor to bowl the infamous underarm delivery, and the subsequent fallout

Trevor Chappell bowls the last ball of the match. "I thought it was a pretty good idea at the time"  •  Associated Press

Trevor Chappell bowls the last ball of the match. "I thought it was a pretty good idea at the time"  •  Associated Press

A single incident in an otherwise utterly forgettable one-day international in February 1981 remains, to this day, one of the most infamous sporting moments of all time. Thirty years on, the last-ball underarm delivery in the match between Australia and New Zealand at the MCG remains a scar on the reputation of Greg and Trevor Chappell, and a classic example of an issue that fell within the strict rules of the game but way outside the moral ones.
It was the third match in the best-of-five final of the Benson & Hedges World Series Cup. New Zealand had won the first, Australia the second, so whoever won would take a 2-1 advantage into the fourth game, at the SCG. The afternoon developed an edge when Martin Snedden caught Greg Chappell in the deep - TV replays confirmed it was good - but the umpires gave Australia's captain not out. Many felt Chappell should have taken Snedden's word.
With New Zealand needing six to tie from the final delivery of the game, Chappell, Australia's captain, instructed his brother, Trevor, to bowl an underarm delivery along the ground to prevent tailender Brian McKechnie hitting it into the stands.
Images of Trevor Chappell rolling the ball along the pitch as if playing bowls, and a furious McKechnie lobbing away his bat as the crowd booed, have been shown countless times. "The boundary was the fence in those days. There weren't any ropes, so it was almost 100 metres to the boundary," he said." I decided I wasn't going to have a swing and get bowled. Throwing the bat down was just in frustration. It was a hell of a good game of cricket."
Trevor Chappell admitted he "thought [the underarm delivery] was a pretty good idea at the time" even though "obviously it wasn't in the spirit of the game". Greg Chappell said he was not aware of quite how badly his decision would go down until he was walking off. "One little girl ran beside me and tugged on my sleeve and said, 'You cheated'," he recalled. "That was [when] I knew it would be bigger than I expected."
"Yesterday one-day cricket died, and Greg Chappell should be buried with it"
Former Australian allrounder Keith Miller
What was not widely known at the time was that Chappell was deeply unhappy about the demands being put on Australia's players by a relentless schedule of cricket. "The underarm had very little to do with winning that game of cricket, because, in fact, we'd won the game," he said. "They weren't going to get six off the last ball of the game. It was my statement. My cry for help was: 'You're not listening. This might help you sit up and take notice'."
McKechnie confirmed Chappell's state of mind. "He was under pressure," he said. "He wanted to leave the field during the game. He stood at long-off, which is near the boundary. That's unusual for a captain."
The reaction in the media verged on splenetic, and almost inevitably politicians weighed in. Robert Muldoon, the New Zealand prime minister, said it was "the most disgusting incident I can recall in the history of cricket", adding "it was an act of true cowardice and I consider it appropriate that the Australian team were wearing yellow". Even his Australian counterpart, Malcolm Fraser, said it was "contrary to the traditions of the game".
New Zealand, meanwhile, were "pissed off" according to McKechnie but no more than that. "An hour or two after the game, when we'd all had a shower and were back at the hotel, we were joking about it, trying to work out how you could hit a six off an underarm," he told the Age on the 25th anniversary of the game.
"Fair dinkum, Greg. How much pride do you sacrifice to win $35,000?"
Former Australia captain Ian Chappell
"We tried a few years later to flick it up and hit it. You can flick it up if the ball is at the right pace, but the coordination of it is damn difficult. And then you'd have to hit it about 90 metres for it to be six at the MCG. I would defy anyone to do that. When we tried, it took about 30 or 40 goes to get to the level where you could actually hit the ball. But we could only hit it 40 metres."
But was Greg Chappell's act as heinous as it is often made out? One-day cricket was still a relatively new beast - the first World Cup had been played less than six years earlier - and players were challenging regulations still geared to the first-class game all the time. In the first international one-day series in Australia the previous season, Mike Brearley, the England captain, had put all his fielders, including the wicketkeeper, on the boundary with West Indies needing four to win off the final delivery. It was an action almost as unsporting as the underarm incident, but was barely commented upon.
Almost three decades later Tony Greig, who at the time had just moved into the commentary box after retiring as a player, had nothing but scorn for McKechnie rather than either Chappell. "He didn't even try to hit the thing for six," he explained. "We practised for years in England because we knew at some stage someone would bowl an underarm. For him to not run down and let it hit his toe and pop up and try and smash it for six was a gross miscalculation. Bloody atrocious."
"I am very disappointed at Australia's win-at-all-costs attitude"
Sir Don Bradman
McKechnie had regrets of his own. "I wish it all went away the day after it happened, to be honest. I wish it never happened. It still gets raised in other contexts, inside and outside of sport. When someone thinks Australia have done something to NZ they shouldn't have, the underarm comes up again.
Trevor Chappell admitted he got fed up with hearing about that delivery. "But some years ago I came to the conclusion that I'm better off just to go along with it rather than get upset by it. So I might as well jump on the bandwagon and have a bit of a laugh about it."
Greg Chappell said he always got more abuse in Australia than New Zealand, but he added his brother should have got more credit for the delivery. "Richard Hadlee twice tried to bowl underarm balls to me in charity matches but both were wides," he said. "I might have thought it might have been forgotten. I have got over it. It took me a while."

What happened next?

  • Greg Chappell was booed all the way to the middle when he walked out to bat in the fourth match two days later. But he won the crowd round with a match-winning 87 to secure a 3-1 series win for Australia
  • The ICC amended the Laws of Cricket so underarm deliveries were illegal in one-day matches, stating they were "not within the spirit of the game".
Is there an incident from the past you would like to know more about? Email us with your comments and suggestions.

Martin Williamson is executive editor of ESPNcricinfo and managing editor of ESPN Digital Media in Europe, the Middle East and Africa