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'We're riding the crest of a cricket revolution'

There is a significance to Derek Underwood's succession to MCC president that reflects the new niche that the world's oldest cricket club is carving for itself

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller

Derek Underwood: the latest in a line of "real cricket people" to lead the MCC © Getty Images
There is the hint of a glint in the eye of the new MCC president as he sizes up the challenges that lie ahead for his club. "We're riding the crest of a cricket revolution," says Derek Underwood, who today succeeds his former England captain, Mike Brearley, at the helm of an organisation that is entering arguably the busiest 12 months of its 222-year history.
It might seem like a bit of a digression from that revolution to pass comment on a 63-year-old former spin bowler taking on the top job at the world's oldest cricket club. No one expects Underwood to change the world during his year in charge, least of all the man himself, and even if he did, an endless itinerary of cocktail parties and official functions would doubtless limit his scope for tinkering.
But nonetheless there is a significance to his accession that reflects the new niche that MCC is carving for itself. In the days of Empire (and for far too long thereafter), this was the club that ran the world game, stuffily and aloofly - an attitude that it came to regret in the long, anachronistic decades that followed. For the past few years, however, it has set about altering, subtly but determinedly, that public perception.
"MCC is the most highly respected cricket club in the world," says Underwood. "I happen to believe that, and I know that when cricketers from other countries visit our shores, the one place they want to play is at Lord's, because the atmosphere and feel of the ground is steeped in history. Yes, we did run international cricket, and yes, times have moved on, but the influence, knowledge and power of the MCC is still pretty high in the world game."
Smart and genial, and utterly at home in the tie and blazer that epitomise his role, Underwood could easily blend into the crowd that forms around the Long Room during the average Test match. And yet, he has a hard act to follow. The appointment of Brearley in October 2007 broke the mould so far as MCC presidents are concerned. Unapologetically liberal and one of the great thinkers on the game, Brearley spent as much of his tenure mixing it with the tie-less journalists in the media centre as he did with the G&T set in the Long Room. His relationship with the club while England captain had been icy at times, but the simple fact of his acceptance underlined the progressive strides that have been taken since that time.
"Mike did so much to temper the aloofness and elitism of the MCC," says Underwood. "And it's changed dramatically, believe me. When I walked through the Long Room in my playing days, I was Underwood. These days I'm Derek. And you can see from the people who've been president of MCC in recent times, there's been an influx of real cricket people - Tony Lewis, Robin Marlar, Doug Insole, Brearley, myself. All of us care passionately, rather than, shall we say, Brigadier General So-and-so. The presidency used to be reserved for the titled gentry, but now it's on a level."
It would be overstating things to claim that the MCC has come full circle, but at a time of massive upheaval in the world game, the egg-and-bacon colours of NW8 have ceased to represent everything that is wrong with cricket, and instead have become a touchstone for those whose greatest fear is the erosion of the game's traditional values. Back in April, just as the IPL was preparing to transform the sport forever, those colours were on display in Mumbai, as the tournament signed up to the MCC's Spirit of Cricket campaign.
That photo opportunity was possibly no more than an act of tokenism on the part of both parties, but it underlined that the heartbeat of the club has shifted away from the pavilion and back onto the playing field where it belongs - a staggering 430 matches are scheduled for 2008-09, in venues as far-flung as Croatia, Mozambique and Japan. But the aspect of the new-look organisation that most excites Underwood is the chance to take his place on the MCC World Cricket Committee, the think tank comprising the greats of the game, former, current and recently retired, which met for the first time in April 2006, and whose pronouncements carry an increasing weight in the current climate.
Right now, Twenty20's at the very top of the pyramid, but hopefully it'll find its level in three to five years' time, and we'll end up with the right balance of what is good and right for game of cricketDerek Underwood
"It'll be great just to be a fly on the wall in these discussions," says Underwood. "The chance to sit around with the likes of Steve Waugh, Rahul Dravid and Courtney Walsh, and discuss the issues that matter to today's players - it's pretty heady stuff. Everybody should listen to the most seasoned and best cricketers in the world, rather than allow them to disappear into the mist and never see them again. These are the people who should be shaping the future of the game, because they are the best placed to know about it."
The next meeting of the Cricket Committee is scheduled to take place in Delhi later this October, although the fruits of previous labours come into evidence today, as the ICC adopts the reworked Law 6 regarding the manufacturing of cricket bats. At a special general meeting in May, 98.6% of MCC members voted in favour of a ruling stipulating that bat handles should no longer be permitted to include carbon fibre, but should be made primarily from wood, cane and twine. As a former spin bowler, the bullying modern-day batsman is a topic close to Underwood's heart.
"The ball is being hit further and further these days, and as the years go by, more and more regulations are being brought in whereby the spinner just isn't getting a decent crack," he says. "Is it right that balls going off the splice still fly for six? We really had to delve into every conceivable aspect of cricket bat manufacturing to address the law amendment, and we had long discussions with the R&A in the golf world as well. Really, we were looking at making the game more sensible."
Good sense is required in abundance right now, and one topic is sure to dominate discussions in Delhi later this month. "I enjoy Twenty20 cricket," says Underwood. "I'm entertained by it, and if you are willing to enter into the spirit of it, then it's a fine game - I know the players love the adrenalin it brings. Right now, it's at the very top of the pyramid, but hopefully it'll find its level in three to five years' time, and we'll end up with the right balance of what is good and right for game of cricket."
But what, exactly, constitutes the right balance? Underwood doesn't for one minute deny he is a traditionalist at heart, but there is, nonetheless, an unexpected rebellious streak coursing through his cricketing veins, a fact to which his strangely incomplete Test statistics bear testament. In 86 Tests over the course of 16 years, Underwood took 297 wickets at 25.83, a tally that fell tantalisingly short of 300 thanks to his twin decisions to sign for Kerry Packer in 1977, and then, five years later, to join the rebel tour to South Africa.

Underwood may be a traditionalist at heart but he has a rebel streak running through him, to which his statistics as a player bear witness © Getty Images
"We are all businesspeople, and this game, like every game, has to be run like a business," says Underwood. It is a lesson that he learnt half his lifetime ago, thanks to the intervention of a rogue Australian tycoon and his fistful of dollars. "It was a very straightforward decision," Underwood says of his World Series hiatus. "I say straightforward... it was actually very painful, because I was at the height of my career... but I was suddenly offered a contract for three winters of cricket.
"As a Test player you were offered nothing. If you broke down in July or August with an injury, you wouldn't make the tour. There was no security, we were only offered contracts for six months from April to September, and the boards had no hold on us at all. It all went to court sadly, but here we are, I think, benefiting from Packer's revolution."
Some are set to benefit more than others. Underwood never for one minute imagined the riches that Allen Stanford is set to confer on his lucky victors in Antigua. Even so, he seems slightly surprised that the second wave of the revolution has been so long in coming.
"It's 30 years since Packer came to town, yet the only innovation we've had since then has been Twenty20, which has been played for years at club level. Everything that still strikes us as new - coloured cricket, night cricket, white balls, cameras at both ends, pitches prepared in greenhouses, better television presentation. Packer gave us all of that."
It was also Packer who, in the midst of furious negotiations at Lord's in 1977, declared during a meeting in the very committee room where Underwood is now speaking: "It's every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost." His words could be the mot juste for the power grab that is international cricket in the early 21st century. It's not the MCC that will be bringing up the rear, however. For an organisation that has now spanned four centuries, it is approaching its challenges with remarkably youthful zeal.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo