• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

This new doco reveals the full story behind cricket's infamous underarm bowl

Underarm: The Ball That Changed Cricket. Photo/Supplied

The full story of cricket’s infamous underarm incident of 1981 has never been told – until now. 

Sporting drama often proves more ephemeral than we think at the time. Most thrilling wins, crushing victories and controversial calls fade into the background as the years – or even months – pass. Who can really remember what happened last season?

But the final ball of the cricket World Series match between New Zealand and Australia on February 1, 1981, is not one of those moments. As the interviews in Underarm: The Ball That Changed Cricket (Prime, Sunday, 8.30pm) show, everyone remembers what happened that day. Everyone – even the bewildered fans watching on TV – has a story.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

Greg Chappell, the Australian captain who ordered his younger brother Trevor (pictured below) to bowl that last ball underarm to cut off the very small chance of Brian McKechnie hitting a six to tie the match, seems as steely now as Chappell the player. He explains the pressure he was under as captain matter-of-factly, with regret but without really begging sympathy. Trevor insists the episode didn’t blight his life, when his demeanour suggests otherwise. And McKechnie, as he’s drawn to the moment of the delivery, palpably wells up.

“It’s fascinating that there are a whole lot of feelings still there not far below the surface for all of them,” says co-producer Dan Salmon. “Which is partly because no one’s quite understood why it happened.”

Salmon, a “cricket agnostic”, was hesitant about taking on the story, but changed his mind when he realised that for all that the underarm delivery has become a cultural symbol of the relationship between the two countries, “there hadn’t been a long-form telling-of from both sides”.

Trevor Chappell. Photo/Supplied

He shared the helm with Lee Baker, whom he describes as “an absolute cricket nut”. The fruit of their duelling perspectives is solid enough on cricket lore for obsessives (who will also enjoy a rare catch-up with Geoff Howarth) but open enough for everyone else.

Ironically, as former Black Cap turned sporting commentator Ian Smith acknowledges, Chappell’s decision was the making of New Zealand cricket. If the Aussies had to stoop that low to win, we were no longer the easybeats. It’s also a story about the dawn of modern professional sport. Chappell was captain in the old gentleman’s style, where teams often didn’t even have coaches. Everything fell to him, and he cracked.

“He was even organising physio for the injured players!” Salmon observes. “And doing the media – there were no buffers.”

This article was first published in the February 2, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.