The Spin Maestro

Suresh Menon

Bishan Singh Bedi Former Captain and Spin Bowler, Indian Cricket Team

Bishan Bedi is probably the finest left-arm spinner to have played cricket. He had qualities that went beyond mere wicket-taking, the essential elements that add up to not just greatness but something approaching the ideal.

There was, for one, his action, one of the most graceful seen on a cricket field. It was poetry in motion, music in movement. The best sportsmen are not always the most pleasing to watch, but when form and content come packaged the way it did with Bedi, the competition rises to a higher level.

And there was his sporting spirit and an uprightness about his stand on all matters cricket, a refusal to countenance anyone he felt was not doing right by the game. He was and continues to be, a fine guardian of the game and everything it stands for.

For many years he was India’s highest wicket-taker, the first choice for an ideal World XI based as much on effectiveness as on aesthetics. He was a photographer’s delight even in his later years when he began to put on weight. His bowling was textbook, his approach uncompromising.

He enjoys life and insists that everybody else does so too. His laughter is infectious, and he has the raconteur’s gift of making the same anecdote sound as if he is recounting it for the first time – in some ways he is, because there are always differences from previous times. It is easy to tell where he is – you only have to follow the laughter, his own as well as those of others.

Bedi took the field on his debut with a prayer on his lips, invoking the Lord to give him the strength to do good and eliminate fear on the battlefield. It was not only the first Test he played, it was also the first he watched.

That was in 1966-7, and by the time Bedi retired thirteen years later, he had established himself as the best. He had played county cricket for Northamptonshire in England, and some seasons in Australia. Bedi had played for a World XI under Garry Sobers, the West Indian cricketer who is considered to be one of the all-time greats of the game, Bedi’s boyhood hero and later the good friend, in Australia. He had led India in twenty-two matches and won matches abroad, a rare event in Indian cricket those days.

BishanBedihad formed, along with ErapalliPrasanna, Bhagwat Chandrasekhar and Srinivas Venkatraghavan, the most potent and varied quartet of spinners in world cricket. Each was a master, and together they were greater than the sum of the parts, responsible for their own wickets just as much as their partners’. Bedi made his first-class debut at the age of fifteen, his Test debut at age twenty, and was the most successful of the quartet that is still talked about in hushed tones. Together they claimed 853 Test wickets and confirmed India as the land of spin bowling.

Bedi is the common link running through the first-ever Indian victories in the West Indies, England, Australia and New Zealand. He was the only player who played in all these matches: in Trinidad (1970–1), at the Oval (1971), in Melbourne (1978–9) and in Dunedin (1967–8). He played a supporting role as one or the other of his comrades took the decisive wickets, Prasanna alone keeping him company in both the first and the last matches of that ten-year span.

Indian cricket began to believe in itself in the years the quartet was in charge. For long, a draw was seen as a win of sorts, till the spinners began to raise expectations and actually win matches. But all that was in the future when, on 25 September 1946, Bedi was born.

His first achievement was to break a family curse that was thought to afflict the Bedi household. His arrival was greeted with despair, for no son had survived in the family. An aunt spoke of a jinx that had taken away male infants. Bishan, the first son after four daughters, was thus pampered. He remained close to his mother whose last words still ring in his ears: Have you eaten?

Bedi developed strong index and middle fingers by playing marbles as a child. That activity is completely lost in urban India and barely survives elsewhere. Later, his ‘gym’ equipment comprised towels in the bathroom which he washed and wrung himself even as an adult. It helped develop his wrists and muscles.

Not everyone washing his own clothes is destined to become a great bowler, but great bowlers often have back-stories that become part of the game’s legend.

For all his unorthodox beginnings, however, Bedi turned out to be an orthodox spinner, a master of flight and variation that meant he would be spoken of as in the same breath as Wilfred Rhodes and Hedley Verity, two English bowlers vastly different in style. Rhodes had more first-class wickets than anyone else; Verity once had figures of 10 for 10 in first-class cricket.

Suresh Menon
Editor, Wisden India Almanack and author of Bishan: Portrait of a Cricketer