November 24, 2013

The art of Bishan Bedi in prose

Suresh Menon's biography on the great Indian left-arm spinner is essential reading for all young tweakers

Bedi made the ball hurry off the pitch after holding it in the air longer than most others © PA Photos

Among the early mentors to guide me as a spinner was my college team-mate back in the 1960s, VV Rajamani, a medium-pacer. The one aspect of my bowling Rajamani stressed was arm speed from the top of my delivery stride to my finish, with my left leg ramrod straight and right arm falling to the left of my left thigh. ("That doesn't mean you push the ball through; you whip the ball as if you were spinning a top. The arm comes down fast, but the ball travels in a parabolic loop.")

Rereading Suresh Menon's Bishan: Portrait of a Cricketer, I was reminded of this brilliant piece of coaching that I, a lucky young spinner, received from a caring senior all those years ago. Watching Bishan Singh Bedi bowl, I was always struck by the ease with which he made the ball hurry off the pitch after holding it in the air longer than most of us could. And I was convinced that superior arm speed and sharp spin imparted by a whiplash-like tweak were the secret of the Bedi sleight of hand that often fooled innocent batsmen.

Menon's beautifully written book is one of the better cricket biographies I have read, certainly the most objective Indian account of a celebrated cricketer (written during the peak of his subject's career, Harsha Bhogle's Azhar was unfortunate in its timing, thanks to the subsequent fall from grace of its hero). It is a paean to the sardar's art, the author's admiration for the gifts of the bowler quite unconcealed, but it is also a balanced critique of Bishan the captain, activist and coach, and unafraid to have a quiet laugh at some of the great man's quirks and follies.

Biography apart, I was eager to find insights into Bedi's bowling methods. Had Menon provided any? Was his lack of playing experience a hindrance to a clear understanding of the tools of the spinner's trade, or the rhymes and meter of an action that was once described as poetry in motion?

Suresh Menon proves, if proof is needed, that it is possible for a cricket writer with no first-class cricket experience to unravel the art and science of cricket through decades of reading, close observation, conversations with experts, and intelligent analysis. If Bedi was a genius with the cricket ball, he did not get that way without working for it, for all his lazy elegance. Let me quote a paragraph from the book to illustrate the extent of the author's understanding of Bedi's bowling:

Bedi's art lay in the apparent artlessness of his flight and his control over length. He could pitch six balls in an over on a fifty-paise coin, but the batsman seldom realised that each time it came from a slightly different direction, a slightly different angle or at a slightly different pace. He would undercut the ball and make it curve from outside the off stump and either straighten it or get it to keep its course towards the leg stump. On the next ball, he'd impart more spin by cocking his wrist. This would arrive more slowly, and, if the batsman was lured into that uncertain forward jab, it would catch him by surprise and take the edge.

There is more in the same vein that throws much light on Bedi's methods.

Why am I drawing attention to a book published two years ago? For one thing, even as I welcome the pace bowling talent India has unearthed in the past few years, I am convinced that our precious spin legacy is something we must not neglect. By accurately describing the nuts and bolts of Bedi's bowling as well as his work ethic of practising six to seven hours a day, Menon has shown the way for young spinners to follow.

As I watch today's Test spinners, I am convinced that the best of them can only improve by reading about some of the greats of the past, watching videos of them, if available, or seeking their counsel. Menon's analysis of Bedi's bowling is fit to belong to a coaching manual and reading it could be a useful first step in the next stage of the evolution of an international left-arm spinner such as Pragyan Ojha. Of the current crop of spinners, Ojha is probably the one bowler who can land the six balls of an over on the same spot. He is, for that reason, already at an advantage, unlike some other spinners who arrive in world cricket with a bagful of skills but without mastering the basics.

Bishan Bedi is a colourful character, but he was, above all, a master bowler. Quite a few young left-arm spinners have over the years sought his guidance and bowled better after that. Today's tribe should not hesitate to follow suit.

V Ramnarayan is an author, translator and teacher. He bowled offspin for Hyderabad and South Zone in the 1970s

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • dummy4fb on November 29, 2013, 19:57 GMT

    Arguably Bedi was the best left arm spinner ever , surfaces never mattered for BS Bedi except for that session in Pakistan at the end of his career.Yes he had to variation to bowl 6 different balls pitching at the same spot.

  • USIndianFan on November 26, 2013, 5:15 GMT

    @CricketChat, Chandra on the right day, in the right weather was unplayable because of his wrist. But the other 3 Indian spinners held some of the best batting lineups ever at bay. And if India had has a slightly deeper batting lineup than basically Gavaskar and Vishwanath (the rest were unpredictable, especially after the 71 series), it would have been a strong team. Add a good pacer or two and it would have been an unbeatable team..

  • ToTellUTheTruth on November 25, 2013, 17:03 GMT

    @GRVJPR absolutely have no clue about the chucking you? Look it up.

    @vatsap - You obviously belong to the IPL generation and hence have no clue about what these four spinners did for India, in India AND Abroad. There was a time when India was the #1 test team in the world, when they beat up on WI in WI, Eng in Eng and NZ in NZ. If you can, get a copy of Sunil Gavaskar's Omnibus and see what these four are about. Absolutely brilliant.

    I remember how he fooled Kim Hughes in Auz. First ball six. A little smile and clap to appreciate the shot. Second ball Six. Broader smile and again clap for the shot. Third ball, clueless, clean bowled. No obvious change in action, but the ball spun like a cobra and went right through bat and pad. Simply brilliant.

  • CricketChat on November 25, 2013, 13:28 GMT

    Most of the time Bedi had to bowl a ton of overs to get his wkts. I felt he was more of a container along with Venkat. These guys would play on the patience of batsmen. I would say that only Chandra and to some extent Prasanna can be called as strike bowlers from the spin quartet. Unfortunately, Prasanna ended up sitting out many matches as Bedi was considered indispensable and Venkat had to be accommodated in the team more often than not.

  • Peter_18 on November 25, 2013, 7:04 GMT

    No doubt was a great bowler . Thanks to VR in bringing back the memoirs. He was a favorite for the radio commentators and there was no stopping flow of words right from the first ball .

  • vatsap on November 25, 2013, 6:41 GMT

    Much as I would really like to be charmed by India's fab 4 spinners, the question really begs as to how effective where they. How frequently where they able to run through a good batting team and bowled India to a win. Would they really fare well in Abroad and India in the last 10 years with broader bats, shorter boundaries and batsmen willing to play more aggressively.

  • GRVJPR on November 25, 2013, 4:34 GMT

    @ManR, Not happy with Bishen Singh bedi's elbow in the picture above. He is too crictical of bowling action, and this pic looks suspect.

  • nareshgb1 on November 24, 2013, 9:09 GMT

    its a pity there are so few (or maybe no) videos of Bedi on youtube. He was my favorite before I noticed Sunny. Really, that beautiful action was fascinating.

  • ManR on November 24, 2013, 7:36 GMT

    And they - the current spinners in the team - should pay for the advice too. Why? Because BCCI for sure will not!

    But, I am sure that the author will agree that after getting the advice, very important as it may be, it is the number of "full" days of cricket that these cricketers put in that will really make a difference to their bowling. Not net practice, but match practice. Ranji, league - whatever. The more they bowl their stock ball, and the variations, in different conditions, on different wickets, the better they will be as bowlers.