Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Bishan the Magician

It is one of the lovely ironies of modern cricket that great cricket writers can wax lyrical about both fast and slow bowling. Whoever described Michael Holding’s bowling action as whispering death was perhaps a greater wordsmith than the man who described Bishan Bedi’s as poetry in motion, but both the speed merchant and the spin wizard tended to evoke superlatives in those watching them in their prime.

Bedi at his best not only fitted that description perfectly, but was the most consummate exponent of the art of spin bowling—so much so that the question is often asked if he has been the greatest left-arm spinner in the history of the game. Certainly Sir Donald Bradman, who saw Bedi only at his best or close to his best, believed so.

He was certainly the best left-arm spinner I saw, better than Vinoo Mankad, whom I did not have the good fortune to watch in his youth, more classical than the mercurial genius Salim Durrani, more complete, especially on good wickets, than Derek Underwood of England, who could be destructive on certain types of pitches, the two brilliant bowlers he kept out of Test cricket—Rajinder Goel and Padmakar Shivalkar—his outstanding successor Dilip Doshi, and New Zealand’s Daniel Vettori.

Expanding this assessment to name the best Indian spin bowler I have watched, Chandrasekhar would have been the obvious choice for being the most spectacular, and Anil Kumble for being the most consistent, longest lasting match-winner of them all, but I might have placed Bedi higher than my eventual choice Prasanna among them, but for Bedi’s profligacy with flagrant unconcern for the state of the game in the last ten or so Tests of his illustrious career.

Every self-respecting Hyderabad cricketer of the 1960s and 70s knew that Bishan Singh Bedi might never have played for India had chairman of selectors Ghulam Ahmed not preferred him to Mumtaz Husain, the boy from his own home town, in an exaggerated display of impartiality while picking the final Prime Minister’s eleven for the tour game after the first Test of the 1966-67 season. While his band of Hyderabadi admirers were all convinced Mumtaz’s amazing bag of tricks would have proved a handful for the touring West Indies, Bedi it was who went on to snare six of the best in the first innings of that match. The rest is history.

Though Bedi had been impressive when I first saw him—in his second Test and the third and last of that series at Chepauk—it wasn’t until six years later that he was to overwhelm me with his total domination of the English openers when brought on within moments of the start of the innings. By now, he was a confident purveyor of his exquisite art of classical spin bowling. Twinkle-toed in his run-up, he was virtually airborne in his final stride to the wicket, looking over his right shoulder in side-on elegance. His incredible arm-speed in delivery completed the illusion of effortlessness that enabled him to slow the flight of the ball in the air but hasten it off the pitch with just the amount of finger spin he wanted. His arm ball, especially with the shine still on, was a veritable in-swinger that could castle the bemused righthander or find the edge of the unsuspecting lefthander. 

Bedi seemed to be naturally fit, with just the right strength and flexibility of muscle for a spin bowler. If Prasanna was cerebral and Chandrasekhar intuitive, Bedi was more the artful dodger, though he too could lay an elaborate trap for a batsman when he set his mind to it. He was also the most stubborn of the Indian quartet of spinners, someone who sometimes refused to see what was good for him or his side, as events in the evening of his career proved.

In his rivetting Bishan, portrait of a cricketer, Suresh Menon—perhaps completely rightly— attributes this chapter of his bowling life to Bedi’s adamant refusal to deviate from his philosophy of flight, but I have always wondered if the poet had simply lost his talent for verse by the time he arrived at that juncture of his cricketing journey. Was it a question of loss of spinning ability and resultant absence of loop that made the previously deceptive suddenly innocuous? (Menon does hint in his empathetic yet delightfully honest book that Bishan was physically and mentally tired by the time he toured Pakistan as India captain).

In his foreword to the book, Anil Kumble recounts how Bedi as Indian coach on the 1990 England tour made him carry Venkatapathy Raju on his shoulders and run during a practice session: “My back never recovered for the rest of the tour.”

I had a similar, if milder experience of BS Bedi the martinet when I played under his captaincy for Rest of India in the Irani Cup in 1976. Jimmy Amarnath was laughing at my plight as Bedi reserved me for special treatment on the eve of the match. Bedi was obviously training to be the future India coach even then.

To give a more complete picture of the man, I can do no better than quote from the same book. “Bedi bowled like a magician, and passed on what he had learnt. Yet the basic lessons he taught were philosophical rather than cricketing. Learn to respect the game. Work hard.”

Menon also says Bedi’s greatest contribution to the game after his retirement was as a coach. I tend to agree, and hope to soon unearth a piece I once wrote after watching him in action with young cricketers.

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