Sawdust and spin

Derek Underwood, via Wisden

‘I saw them play.’ Those are precious words to be said of any notable sporting figure, that you played your part in making them great because you were there in the crowd, witness to their exceptionalism. So I saw Derek Underwood play, the Kent and England left-arm spinner, who died aged seventy-eight on 15 April 2024.

I saw him play several times in the mid-1980s, at the end of his professional career, at the St Lawrence Ground in Canterbury. It was the end of an era for Kent too, though we did not know it,the county having seen a decade of classic sides and a cupboardful of trophies, with Underwood the finest English spinner of those times – indeed statistically for four years the world’s top bowler. Time then stood still, until it moved on.

The Underwood I truly saw, and now remember, was a televisual one. His brilliance as a cricketer would belong to any time, but it was the close-up camera that made him memorable. In my mind’s eye I see him coming up to the wicket with that unmistakeable action of his, almost at middle-pace – certainly quicker that any other spinner I can recall – the quiff of blond hair waving as he released the ball, eyes locked laser-like on the apprehensive batter, a left-hander more than just etymologically sinister, the ebullient Alan Knott of course keeping wicket at the other end, the two in telepathic communication with one another. His speed made the delivery relatively flat, but there was beauty in his gait and delivery, while his deadliness came from subtle shifts in line, length, pace and flight. It was mesmeric to watch, and that is, in part, what made him so televisual. He projected the thing that made you fix your eye on the screen: the repetition with variation, the apprehension and the expectation, what John Ellis (in Visible Fictions) calls “the patterns of repetition and innovation” that define the aesthetic of broadcast television.

The other part of his televisual success was the sense of theatre. In this sawdust played a huge part. Sawdust can be used to help soak up the water from a rain-affected cricket field and enable players to secure footholds (as specified in Law 9.7 of the game). Underwood, the obituaries all tell us, was particularly effective coming on after rain as the pitch dried and the batters’ lost certainty. Hence you have the classic image of Underwood, rolling in again as though through a minefield of sawdust molehills, the batter grimly concentrating when up against someone with evermore powerful reserves of concentration than he, the fielding side gathered close around the wicket like vultures, in expectation of a close catch.

Dennis Oulds’ photograph of Underwood taking the final Australian wicket at the Oval in 1968 via Cricket Monthly

Such is the scene in one of the greatest of cricket photographs, that taken by Dennis Oulds of Central Press on the occasion of the last ball of the Oval Ashes Test in 1968. The ground was sodden following a thunderstorm, but members of the public helped clear the surface water, desperate as they were to see an England victory, and groundstaff added the piles of sawdust to finish off the job. The photograph captures the moment when Underwood’s ball hit the pads of Australia’s John Inverarity and he turned to the umpire with finger raised in appeal, the umpire responding with the finger that confirmed Inverarity and Australia’s doom. Every other member of the England team is there, surrounding the wicket: Illingworth, Graveney, Edrich, Dexter, Cowdrey, Knott, Snow, Brown, Milburn, D’Oliveira, the whole composition an isosceles triangle to delight a Pythagoras. Though a still photograph, it is full of movement. Underwood’s appeal, the umpire’s decision, the players ranging to expectation to elation, the batter knowing that fate has been sealed. It is the story of the game.

It was spinners who attracted me to cricket. I saw them on television first, in those happy days when not only Tests but many county games were shown on free-to-air television (because free-to-air was all we knew), long before the compulsion led me to see the game for real. India’s Bishen Bedi, floating the ball through the air; Lance Gibbs of the West Indies, his fingers so long they practically wrapped round the entire ball; and Derek Underwood with his seemingly unerring stock of repetition with such subtle variation. They made you see how cricket was a game of minds, the ball in flight a representation of thought with intent. They made the game so beautiful, to contemplate as much as to see.

Kent County Cricket Club video tribute to Derek Underwood

I did not see enough of Underwood live. I regret in particular having missed his one century, scored against Sussex in Hastings in 1984. They say he was never cheered more loudly by the crowd than on the day. He retired in 1987, aged forty-two. The latter years of his career had been tarnished by bans following his excusable joining of Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket competition, and the inexcusable joining of the ‘rebel’ South African tour of 1981-82. The hallowed glow he had was never quite recovered, though time has forgiven him. He always had that boyish air of one who simply wanted to play the game. It was the look of the daring young RAF officer held up in Colditz, the quiet but determined one, first to join the escape committee and start the fight again. He was the Leslie Howard of the game.

All these things I will remember. Rest in peace, Derek Underwood.


  • The tribute to Underwood on the Kent County Cricket Club site summarises his gifts and achievements well
  • There is a fine 2019 assessment of Underwood’s career, by Doug Ibbotson, on the Wisden site. It makes clear how the modern taste for dry pitches “so rigorously tailored for batsmen” have robbed us, for the most part, of the opportunities to enjoy spinners of Underwood’s skill and appeal
  • The Annexe Stand at the St Lawrence Ground, which has always been my favourite spot from which to view the game, was renamed the Underwood and Knott Stand in 2011


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