April 11, 2002

Bishan Bedi's deadly straight delivery

The Delhi Golf Club may be one of India's more prestigious institutions of its kind, but its lawns are an unlikely location for a cricket interview. But, punctuated by the thwack of wood striking golf ball and with genteel golfers dressed in chic plus-fours milling about, legendary left-arm spinner Bishan Singh Bedi holds court. No mere interview this; it was more a case of a past master talking up a fine game of cricket.

Just before we can get started on our capuccinos and questions, up walks Kapil Dev. The mutual respect is evident, the moment fairly unique. And that sets the ball rolling. Bedi begins on a subject that, one suspects, is very close to his heart.

Reversing roles, Bedi fires the first question at his unsuspecting interviewer. "Tell me. Over the years, is it spin bowling or medium-pace that has won us matches?" It is a dicey question from a man with 266 Test wickets as part of arguably the deadliest spin quartet ever, and one knows better than to attempt an answer. "Over the years, it is spin and not pace that has won us matches," he begins, answering his own question. "Why don't we produce medium-pacers? It is not because the wickets are slow, as some people suggest. Look at the list of people who have done so well bowling medium-pace here in India - Imran Khan, Ian Botham, Bob Willis..."

So if it is not the pitches, is it that elusive killer streak that is missing, then?

"Some people say we don't have an aggressive streak in us. That is patently untrue. Look at what's happening in Gujarat!" shoots back Bedi, referring to the carnage in which communal riots have seen angry mobs slay hundreds.

"We don't produce medium-pacers because it is the hardest job in cricket. You need to have the will to go on, to sweat it out. Bowling medium-pace will cause a lot of pain to the body, and a lot of Indians are simply not willing to go through that," Bedi explains, all the while looking across at an Indian medium-pacer, seated not 15 feet away, who captured 434 Test wickets.

"Even Kapil Dev was never genuinely fast, just a hardworking medium-pacer really," Bedi opines. Sipping on sugar-free Green Label tea, Bedi chuckles as he recalls an incident from 1979. "I remember what Mike Brearley told me when Kapil first toured England," says Bedi. "'Kapil would make a good third seamer in a county side,' Brearley told me. The fact that he went on to take 434 wickets is a testament to the man's commitment."

Rarely afraid to speak his mind, Bedi has often found himself at loggerheads with cricket boards, not least because he is sometimes critical of them. "In the process of going after commercial interests, the Board has forgotten our basic strength - spin," Bedi says. The irritation is palpable. "Corporates want instant results, and that is never going to happen at spin academies. The Board is making an effort with the regional and national cricket academies. The concept is good, but the implementation leaves a lot to be desired," says Bedi. When the MAC Spin foundation at Chennai is brought up, the turbaned legend dismisses it as "a half-hearted attempt."

Bedi, furthermore, believes that spin is being neglected not just in academies, but in team selection as well. "India should have taken another spinner to the West Indies ahead of Sanjay Bangar. This is where a good captain comes in. When we were playing, we were very lucky. Tiger Pataudi had a clear vision, and he would play a good spinner ahead of a mediocre medium-pacer any day," says Bedi. The praise is not unwarranted; Pataudi was the first captain to recognise the match-winning potential of spin and unhesitatingly played three spinners together.

Bedi's passion for the game of cricket is obvious. But while the fiery eye is present when he speaks of certain subjects, the quiet philosophical comment is never far away. "It is really the only game you can compare to life itself. The very nature of the game keeps you humble. It makes you commit mistakes and brings you down to earth. It teaches you to put the team ahead of yourself. That is not happening in Indian cricket now, and I think there's some validity in Kapil Dev's recent remarks," says Bedi. He refers to the fast bowler's recent controversial comments that questioned the commitment to the team of certain players.

Speaking of individual cricketers, Bedi cannot help but turn to Kolkata and the epic Test against Australia. "Laxman's 281 is the only great innings that has helped a team win in recent times. It was crucial that no wicket was lost on the fourth day," Bedi says. But just when you begin to think that he has finally found something about the current scene that makes him happy, he rids you of the illusion. "Even that didn't really happen by any master plan or design, I think. It was just one of those things that happened."

Having interviewed three of the four members of the famed spin quartet, it is always interesting to ask for an assessment of their association. "The best asset of the spin quartet that we formed was that we were all very different from each other and yet all technically sound," ruminates Bedi. "All very side-on and conventional in that sense. And we were very proud of each other; that made us work well together. We got along superbly with each other."

Bedi had, by now, handled a diverse range of topics with aplomb. Some questions were answered with gentle, looping floaters that teased, tempted and finally beat you all ends up. Others were given the arm ball - straight, unexpected and lethal. There is, however, one subject to which Bedi shoulders arms. You simply could not entice him into making comment on the two most successful off-spinners in world cricket today. The reason, of course, is his recent fairly well-publicised views on chucking.

"The ICC is not a reformatory school," Bedi thunders. "And neither is the cricket board of any country. It is time the umpires did their job. When a bowler is chucking, he's referred to panels and the home cricket board. Why not do the same for a wide or no-ball, then?" he asks, a steely look behind the photo-chromatic glasses he sports. "The umpire could let it go and gently write in his report to the ICC that the bowler in question was bowling the ball a bit too wide or was over-stepping the mark," he says, tongue firmly in cheek.

"It is important that the umpires do their job out in the middle. They must be fair, and be seen to be fair as well," says Bedi. The conviction in his voice is unmistakable, and after an hour of freewheeling chatter with Bedi, it is almost impossible not to believe him. When he gingerly stands up, braces a knee that is giving him some trouble these days, and walks away with a slight limp, you cannot help but wonder what this man would have been like in his prime. But you certainly know that you would not have messed with him.