The Spin Maestro

Suresh Menon

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

The greatest influence on the young Bishan was not Sobers, Gupte or Lock; it was the captain of the Khalsa College team, Gurpal Singh. Bedi would often come to the Khalsa College nets to bowl, and, on one occasion, Gurpal decided to break it to the youngster that he was not likely to set the cricketing world afire with his fast bowling.

‘I saw a spinner in him,’Gurpal recalled years later in Amritsar where I had gone to meet him. He lived in Jalandhar but had come over to visit the Bedis. He is a dapper, well-kept man with a kindly face and a fund of stories. Bedi treats him with the respect due to an elder and in particular an elder who changed the course of his life. ‘He made the difference at a time when I was an uncoached lad that was enthusiastic but lacked guidance,’ says Bedi. ‘He was a wonderful guide, and would check me every step of the way if I did anything stupid. He played a most crucial role in my life.’

Another friend from those days was B.S. Rattan, Bedi’s senior in college, and later a manager of the Delhi cricket team. ‘There was an inevitability about Bedi getting to where he did in cricket,’ he told me. ‘And he remained the same person I knew in college, once arriving at my doorstep with a ticket for a Test match in Delhi in which he was playing.’

Within two years of that special day at the Khalsa nets, Bedi had progressed enough to make his Ranji Trophy debut—again thanks to Gurpal Singh—for Northern Punjab versus Southern Punjab. It was January 1962, and Bedi was just fifteen years old. He had 2 for 40 and 1 for 32 in the drawn match. Bedi’s break came because Northern Punjab did not have twelve players for the match since many of them were representing Punjab University in Inter-University matches.

If Gurpal Singh was the formative influence on Bedi’s cricket, the next major figure was Gyan Prakash, the coach of Hindu College, where Bedi shifted.

‘Gyan Prakash was my guru, although he didn’t teach me how to bowl or indeed anything technical at all,’ says Bedi. ‘He taught me something far more important—how to play the game. He inculcated in me a cricketing sense.’

Bedi is fond of saying that his early years in the game passed in a blur. He played cricket; he graduated from college; life went on. Things happened to him. I once suggested to him that despite his ups and downs, the on-field and off-field problems, he was largely nature’s spoilt child. Things sorted themselves out and arranged themselves neatly to his advantage.

‘No,’ he corrected me, ‘I am nature’s own child and did whatever nature wanted me to do. There is a lovely verse in the scriptures that says that you can’t trust anything or anyone, nor can you say that it was I who did this or that. Nature will take its course. Don’t defy it. Accept it.’

Some years ago, while recuperating after surgery, I had a chance to put to the test the writer H.G. Wells’ dictum that the mind is the natural habitat of man. I was in intensive care and there were no books or television. To relax I had to travel inwards. And the image that helped was the poetry of Bishan Bedi’s bowling.

I could see in my mind’s eye the easy run-up, the fluid action, the follow-through, and the half-jump that confirmed to the batsman that he had been had. I marveled at the contrast between the gentle curve of the ball in the air and its vicious pace off the wicket. The rainbow makes a beautiful arc, but it is predictable. Bedi’s arc was pleasing and as a bonus its effect was unpredictable.

Bedi, the only Indian with over 1500 first-class wickets, claimed 266 wickets from 67 Tests. It is necessary to descend to figures when discussing an artiste like Bedi only because, in sport, beauty without cruelty is a silly notion favored by those long in the tooth and short in memory. Every generation produces a great player who does not please the eye (Allan Border is a good example), but there is no great player who does not have the figures to show for it.

I once saw Bedi leave a batsman stranded down the wicket when the ball went the wrong way after it had seemed set to come in with the arm. Bedi was fifty-three years old then and made no secret of his enjoyment at having fooled the batsman. This enjoyment was a big part of his game. ‘I dismissed Ian Chappell on 99 in a Test with just such a delivery,’ he recalled, demonstrating how he had held the ball in his palm and slid his wrist under it.

Bedi had the full repertoire of the finger-spinner. Like Rhodes, he ‘dismissed the batsman even before the ball had pitched’ (the words of Neville Cardus, the legendary cricket correspondent), thanks to the ability to apparently yank it back at the last moment. Unlike Verity and Derek Underwood, who both bowled much faster, Bedi didn’t rely on the pitch for his wickets.

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