June 7 (Reuters) - The sight of England left-arm spinner Derek Underwood coming off his unusually long run with a batsman at the other end of a wet pitch surrounded by close fielders perfectly conjured up the image of a wily fox closing on its prey.
His mastery on sticky surfaces prompted a popular saying that England captains carried Underwood like an umbrella — in case it rained.
While recognising his exploits on wet wickets, which earned him the nickname “Deadly” from his Kent team mates, this was somewhat unfair to England’s most successful test spinner.
For if Underwood was virtually unplayable on sticky pitches, he was also unrelenting on dry surfaces, probing tirelessly until the batsman wavered.
Underwood went wicketless in his 1966 test debut against West Indies at Nottingham but was soon terrorising batsmen, spinning the ball nearly at a medium pace off a run-up of 10 yards.
“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,” the left-arm spinner told ESPNcricinfo in a 2014 interview.
It was a combination of Underwood’s skills and mindset that brought him 297 wickets from 86 tests between 1966-82.
Such was his accuracy that a journalist wrote that Underwood could dig a hole in the pitch by dropping the ball on the same spot.
His precision was complemented by parsimony, proven by an economy rate of conceding an average of only 2.10 runs per over which is among the best in the game.
“Underwood hated going for runs, you could see it in his body language, in his facial expressions,” former team mate John Lever said.
“He was always trying to bowl dot balls. A dot ball is a good ball, he’d say. Last ball of every over had to be a dot ball.”
A rare overseas spinner who tasted success in India, Underwood is best remembered for lighting up the 1968 Oval test against Australia when England were racing against time after torrential morning rain had flooded the ground.
Underwood claimed the last four Australian wickets in 27 deliveries to script a dramatic series-levelling victory with five minutes to spare.
Underwood lost two years of test cricket after defecting to the controversial World Series of Cricket in 1977.
He eventually finished agonisingly short of the 300-wicket mark after joining a rebel 1981-82 tour of an apartheid-ridden South Africa and receiving a ban from the English board.
A tally of 297 test victims, however, makes Underwood the sixth most successful England bowler of all-time, more than 40 wickets ahead of Graeme Swann, the next spinner on the list.
Reporting by Amlan Chakraborty in New Delhi; editing by Ed Osmond