MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) Relations between New Zealand and Australia at a political level have regained their natural cordiality in the 34 years since cricket’s notorious ”underarm” incident, but in the sporting context memories of the incident have dimmed very little and the shadow it casts is no less.
That shadow will inevitably fall over the Melbourne Cricket Ground on Sunday when New Zealand and Australia meet in Cricket World Cup final: the incident has become folkloric and is evoked routinely when teams from the nations meet on any significant sporting occasion.
It was on the same MCG pitch on Feb. 1, 1981 that Australia captain Greg Chappell instructed his brother Trevor to bowl, underarm, the last ball of a one-day international match when New Zealand needed to hit six runs to force a tie. That type of delivery, rolled along the ground, took away any chance that the New Zealand batsman would have any chance of lifting the ball off the pitch and hitting it out of the ground for a six.
Though at least three players on each of the current squads weren’t born when the underarm delivery was bowled, and though most of the others were too young to have regarded it with any interest, the incident will still have been inculcated in their collective memory.
”I guess a few of us were too young to remember seeing it but we know it happened,” New Zealand fast bowler Tim Southee, who was two at the time, told a news conference Friday. As for this week, he added, ”I haven’t heard too much about the underarm.”
But wherever Australian and New Zealand fans gather for a game, even if no controversy attaches itself to the outcome, the day described as being among the most infamous in cricket history will likely be referenced in some way.
”The rivalry between Australia and New Zealand does pretty much cover every sport and it is massive,” Southee said. ”We’re probably seen as the little brothers from across the ditch (Tasman Sea) and we do do quite well in other sports to compete.
”Obviously Australia has had the wood over us in cricket for the last few years, but we’re starting to even that ledger.”
Seeds for the rivalry are sown at a young age, particularly in New Zealand.
”I think as a kid growing up it was always Australia that you wanted to play against or, if you were playing against someone in the backyard, it was New Zealand versus Australia,” he said. ”There is a massive rivalry in whatever sport we play and we’re always trying to get one up over the big brothers.”
It may be difficult to recall, three decades later, just how severely the manner of delivery of a single ball in a single game of cricket damaged bonds between nations which had been forged on battlefields in two world wars.
Australia and New Zealand share as a common heritage the deeds of ANZAC troops at Gallipoli in 1915, and have been brought closer in intervening years by similarities of culture and identity. But so seriously was the underarm incident taken that it threatened a long-lasting rupture in diplomatic relations.
Robert Muldoon, New Zealand’s Prime Minister at the time, described it as ”the most disgusting incident I can recall in the history of cricket. It was an act of true cowardice and I consider it appropriate that the Australian team were wearing yellow.”
Former Australia captain Richie Benaud, who was working as a TV commentator at the game, said it was ”one of the worst things I have ever seen done on a cricket field.”
Wicketkeeper Rod Marsh tried to counsel Greg Chappell against the decision to bowl underam but was ignored. Chappell later said he was under severe emotional strain at the time and his judgment was clouded.
He received severe criticism immediately after the match and the incident became a minor stain on his career: certainly, he struggled for some time to explain it, then to live it down. Trevor Chappell’s international cricket career is remembered almost exclusively for his involvement in that one moment.
It is often overlooked that underarm bowling was actually legal at the time, or at least was not forbidden. The International Cricket Council, which joined in general condemnation of Chappell’s decision, moved immediately to remove the loophole that made the delivery possible.