It is far and away the most explosive moment in the packed history of New Zealand and Australian sporting rivalry.

And it happened 39 years ago to the day.

Underarm: The Ball That Changed Cricket re-visited the drama, with every major player in the remarkable drama — bar one — taking part.

Australian captain Greg Chappell asked his brother Trevor to bowl underarm to the New Zealand batsman Brian McKechnie, thus ensuring New Zealand could not tie the ODI match with a last ball six.


The rarely-used delivery was within the rules, and well outside what most regarded as sportsmanship.

McKechnie, who was unlikely to belt a six at the massive Melbourne Cricket Ground anyway, threw his bat away in disgust, the figurative striking of a match which ignited a rampant bushfire of outrage.

The way interviewer Eric Young explains it, while the moment changed cricket, the documentary explores the personal stories in and around the underarm incident.

Young was just out of school when all hell broke loose at the MCG, and watched the game at a friend's place in Napier.

He was just a year or so away from embarking on a fine cricket writing career, on a journalism path which has led him to being the Prime newsreader these days.

Young says Ian Smith, the former New Zealand wicketkeeper, puts it superbly.

"That day was about two sets of brothers — Greg and Trevor Chappell and Australia and New Zealand, big brother and little brother," says Young.

"There were times when I would tell friends what I was doing and they would say 'really, is that still a thing, there's nothing left to tell'.


"And in quieter moments, it is a question I asked myself. But it was an extraordinary project. There are literally no villains I don't think — even the obvious villains — because of the way they approached this project and the stories they told, what they shared of themselves."

No villains?

There certainly was one at the time: Greg Chappell.

Young had worked with Chappell briefly in the early 1990s and says the former Australian captain, one of the finest and most elegant batsmen in history leapt at the chance.

Eric Young. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Eric Young. Photo / Brett Phibbs

"He said he'd been waiting a very long time to tell his truth," Young says. That truth details the enormous pressure Chappell faced alone as the captain of the great Australians, in the aftermath of a cricket war in which the winning broadcasters were flogging their new stars to exhaustion.

Chappell feared he had wrecked his younger brother's life by instructing him to undertake that foul sporting deed, a suggestion Trevor rejects.

The controversy certainly changed New Zealand cricket forever.

The drama filled New Zealand cricket grounds and enabled captain Geoff Howarth, whose players who had been on about $120 a game, to extract far better deals.

But it is the personal stories which sound the most striking in this documentary, a transtasman production initiated by Channel 7 after it won Australia's free-to-air cricket rights.

Young says that the most famous bust up in New Zealand-Australia sport actually involved two teams who were incredibly friendly. (When the 2011 earthquake struck Christchurch, Trevor Chappell was the first person on the phone to inquire if McKechnie was okay.)

Some key figures, including brother Ian Chappell who was a commentator that day, did not take part because of contractual considerations. Ian Chappell had been critical of his brothers at the time.

But Young was disappointed he could not persuade legendary Australian wicketkeeper Rod Marsh, the one dissenting Australian voice on the field, to be involved.

Marsh told him he would be forced to tell the truth and "I'm not going to s*** on my mate".

"He wanted nothing to do with it — he had a story to tell and he clearly wasn't going to tell it, a great disappointment," says Young.

Young's feelings about Greg Chappell are clear.

"It is wonderful being able to tell a 38-year-old story like this," says Young. "I sound like a Greg Chappell fan and in some ways I am — he put it all out there for this.

"When Martin Crowe died, it was Greg who came over. There were a few cricketers around the world who wouldn't have minded being at the funeral but only one of them was.

"Set aside the cricket — all the time I have known him, he was a deeply thoughtful man and incredibly supportive of people."

Young says the underarm story is "still part of everyone's lives".

"I knew them all as much younger men and we've all become a bit more reflective on the moments which changed our lives, that have touched us over the years."