The art of Bishan Bedi in prose
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