Cricket: The moment that galvanised a nation

By Dylan Cleaver

Australian Trevor Chappell bowls along the ground to New Zealand batsmen Brian McKechnie. Photo / File.
Australian Trevor Chappell bowls along the ground to New Zealand batsmen Brian McKechnie. Photo / File.

Nothing galvanises a nation more than righteous indignation.

On February 1, 1981 injustice took the form of a ball, discoloured and battered by 49.5 overs of attrition, rolled 22 yards along a hard-packed strip of Melbourne turf under the propulsion of one Chappell and the command of another.

The 'Underarm Incident', lest we forget, and all its infamy is 'celebrated' today, the 35th anniversary of a deed that was said to have done more to sour transtasman relations than anything before or since.

"I wish it never happened," said Brian McKechnie, who patted away the said delivery before tossing his bat and leaving the Melbourne Cricket Ground in disgust.

"I never thought that 25 years later it would still be being talked about. I didn't see it as an issue that would go on for years. Obviously it's a bit more lighthearted now than the early days."

Watch:
On the 35th anniversary of the underarm bowl. The ACC cleanse the original ball of evil.

Read more:
Andrew Alderson: Thirty-five years are enough, time to get over the underarm

Trevor Chappell has taken more of a philosophical approach to life after underarm.

"It's better to be remembered for something rather than nothing," he told the Herald. "But it's not a particularly [auspicious] happening; it's not like I took a hat-trick or scored a century."

Chappell was instructed by older brother Greg to make the final delivery of the match underarm to prevent McKechnie hitting the six required to tie the game, as if you didn't know.

"I thought it was a good idea at the time," Chappell said. "I could hear [wicketkeeper] Rod Marsh saying 'don't do it' but I just shrugged my shoulders and pointed at Greg."

When asked why he thought the issue didn't just die on the night or soon after, McKechnie uttered one word: "Muldoon."

Prime Minister of the day Robert Muldoon called it, "the most disgusting incident I can recall in the history of cricket", and "an act of cowardice", before referring famously to the appropriateness of the yellow Australian uniforms. His counterpart Malcolm Fraser conceded that it was "contrary to the traditions of the game".

Since then our feelings over the incident have crossed the spectrum.

The anger turned to indignation. That indignation manifested itself in humour: when Australia toured shortly after, someone in the packed Eden Park crowd rolled out a lawn bowl.

"It kickstarted cricket to a great degree in this country," former New Zealand wicketkeeper Ian Smith said.

A lot of people back home were angrier than the players involved. The crowds wanted to pay the Australians back in some form and that meant unprecedented interest in cricket.
"It made heroes out of us to some degree when we'd lost. It was the oddest thing."

The whole experience was surreal for Smith, these days a respected television commentator but in those days very much the new boy on the block in international cricket.

He faced ball three and four of that final over, hitting twos on both occasions, before being bowled on the fifth. He headed down the stairs to the "dungeon", filthy on himself for blowing the game.

"As I headed down the stairs, Geoff Howarth [the captain] came running past me in his socks, T-shirt and beige trousers. I didn't think much of it, then hell broke loose in our viewing room and I rushed back to see what was going on. I forgot about my disappointment and started to focus on the controversy. It was out of this world.

"I'll never forget us sitting in the dressing rooms mulling it over with a few beers. Even though we lost the game, we started to feel like we were winners to a certain degree.

"We left the MCG that night and hundreds of people were outside reacting to us as if we'd won. People wanted to carry our coffins [gear bags]. It was weird. When we got back to the hotel the reaction from home started to sink in - friends were calling, journalists were phoning."

New Zealand Cricket chief executive Martin Snedden remembered walking into a funereal atmosphere when a few of the New Zealanders joined the Australians for a post-match beer in the home changing room.

"I remember how quiet it was, how embarrassed they were, how they were averting eye contact."

The thing was, nobody believed McKechnie could hit the six.

"I never really thought whether I could or couldn't. The thought was, 'Where's Trevor likely to bowl to minimise the opportunity to hit it, and where's the shortest boundary?'"
McKechnie, who kicked the goal to beat Wales on the 1978 Grand Slam tour after Andy Haden dived out of the lineout, decided straight was best.

"Assuming he was going to bowl full and legside-ish, I wanted to get outside it and hit it straight. That was the theory. That went out the window when I was told they were bowling underarm.

"Once I got over that I was like, 'Well, I'm not going to embarrass myself by having a swing and getting out to it.' If I'd had an hour to think about it I guess I could've turned the game into a farce by picking the ball up and throwing it into the crowd."

MILLSTONE

Eventually the incident came to be seen by many as a millstone.

When Bangladesh toured in 2001-02 under the tutelage of Trevor Chappell, Herald cricket correspondent Don Cameron, wrote: "He [Chappell] promises not to talk about the underarm incident while here, and would probably prefer that everyone else dropped the cone of silence on that boring piece of cricketing history."

But rather than the deed itself, it is the psychology behind the act that has fascinated thousands.

How could someone so steeped in cricket tradition stoop to such a level? In 2004, Greg Chappell gave an interview to national broadcaster ABC which revealed the depth of his torment in and around the incident.

"I wasn't fit. I mean, I was mentally wrung out, I was physically wrung out and fed up with the whole system.

"Things seemed to be just closing in on us and I suppose in my own case I felt they were closing in on me - it was a cry for help," Chappell recalled.

New Zealand middle-order batsman Mark Burgess testified to Chappell's state of mind.
He remembered having a conversation with Chappell prior to the match when the Australian captain revealed to him that he was suffering from Bell's Palsy.

"It can be reflected in a ticky-type twitch in the face," Burgess said.

Burgess just happened to be on hand for the game's other flashpoint moment, when Chappell, on 58 at the time, skied a catch that Snedden caught brilliantly at deep midwicket.

Chappell didn't walk and the umpires, Peter Cronin and Don Weser, both claimed not to be watching so gave it not out.

"He caught it clearly," Burgess, who was standing next to Snedden when he caught it, said. "It was by far the most important issue in terms of that game. I'm sure it cost us the match."

Snedden said he was sure he caught it cleanly and has a sequential set of photos, this being in the days before super-slow motion replays, that prove him right.

"I went up to Chappell and then the umpires and said, 'Hey, I caught it.' I don't think either of them were interested," Snedden recalled.

Whether that act contributed to Chappell's state of mind is unclear but by the time McKechnie came out to bat, Chappell was mentally gone.

"I was sitting on the ground at deep mid-on, Brian McKechnie came in to bat, I'd never seen him before. The fact that he was batting at No 11 probably suggested he wasn't that good but at that stage I didn't really care."

In fact McKechnie was No 10, Snedden was below him. McKechnie looked more capable of hitting sixes than his ability allowed but Chappell did not know that.

"I hadn't thought about it before looking up and seeing him walk through the gate, and I thought I've had a gutsful of this.

"I walked up to Trevor and I said: 'How are you bowling your underarms?' And he said: 'I don't know.' I said: 'Well you're about to find out.'

"When I told Trevor, his eyes rolled back in his head. When I turned to the umpire at the bowler's end, his eyes rolled back in his head, and I'm reliably informed that when he told the umpire at square leg the same thing happened."

And in front of thousands upon thousands of television sets in New Zealand, eyes were popping out of heads.

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