'Chucking is a bigger threat than bribing or betting'
Bishan Singh Bedi the bowler has little in common with the man in real life. The bowler was cunning, a master in the arts of trickery and deceit. The man is no-nonsense, forthright and blunt to the point of being tactless. With Bedi the bowler, batsmen had no clue what was coming next. Bedi the man holds nothing back. But there is one common feature: he was a delight to watch, he is a delight to speak to.
Can you explain the steady decline of classical spin bowling in India?
It is a direct result of one-day cricket. The very concept of one-day cricket is anti- spin bowling. By his very nature, the spinner must buy his wickets; must encourage the batsman to go after him. One-day cricket demands that the spinner alter his fundamentals. It has reduced genuine wicket-taking bowlers to containing bowlers. Today, what's the difference between a Harbhajan Singh and bowlers like Sourav Ganguly or Ian Harvey? They are all trying to do the same thing.
But isn't it a little simplistic to blame one-day cricket alone? If that was true, we wouldn't have two of the all-time-great spinners playing today, would we?
I will count only one. Shane Warne is a great bowler and he is an exception.
What about Muralitharan?
Let him start bowling first.
Are you suggesting that he doesn't?
Why me alone, ask any cricketer worth his salt and he will tell you the same thing. I often tell people: if Murali doesn't chuck, then show me how to bowl. I have nothing against him personally, but it's grossly unfair to the game. Tell me, how can you call it bowling? He has no follow-through and he makes no use of his shoulders. And with an open-chested action like that, you can't possibly be round-arm. Murali's arm doesn't go up at all. It goes [demonstrating the final rotation of Murali's bowling arm] from here, from the shoulder level. I have a picture of him bowling somewhere: he looks like a good javelin thrower.
But if we leave aside his action for the moment - because we were discussing adaptability - he has shown that you can perform equally well in Test cricket and one-day cricket.
But how can we leave aside his action? Do you mean chucking should be made legal?
How much does his action contribute to his success?
The problem is with the way he imparts spin to the ball. He doesn't even land it on the seam, yet he gets huge deviation off the track. Normally, you bowl with your shoulder, the shoulder follows the ball and, in the follow-through, the body follows the shoulder. Cricket is a side-on game. Batting, bowling, fielding... everything is side-on. How can you extract so much spin without any follow-through? After releasing the ball, he just stops. He does have a very good line and a beautiful loop; his trajectory is very fast and the ball dips very sharply which makes it very difficult to hit him out of the attack.
And he has developed this away-going ball now...
That's another dangerous development. In the good old days, it was called the floater. It was bowled using the shoulder, like an outswinger. You bowled it with the offspinner's action, but without imparting any spin. You rolled it, and put in a little extra shoulder, so the ball drifted away. Pras (Prasanna) and Venkat (Venkataraghavan) used to do it beautifully. Fred Titmus, Ashley Mallett, Lance Gibbs, they all did it.
So how do they do it now?
Now they do it with their elbows and wrists. And they do it at a good 90 to 95 kilometres an hour - whereas an arm-ball or a floater is at the same speed as the normal ball. It is an illegitimate ball.
Are you saying all offspinners - Saqlain, Harbhajan, anyone bowling the away-going ball - are guilty of this transgression?
Yes, they all are. Anyone using the elbow to turn it the other way is doing it illegally. Another thing I would like to point out here is that cricket is a very social game. It's perhaps the only sport immediately connected to life. When something untoward or unfair takes place, we remark, "it's not cricket". Now what's this doosra thing? It's like the other woman. Isn't that what you would call it? There was a time when there were chuckers galore in Australian cricket. At one go, Bradman had them finished. It just takes a firm will.
Have you brought up this matter with your friend Venkataraghavan?
Yes, I have. I said, `Venks, if you think Murali chucks, why don't you call him?' But umpires are afraid; they want to secure their jobs. The ball is in the ICC's court. I think the best possible solution would be to get all the top umpires of the world and let them jointly decide. Because all of them, I tell you, know it. Then there will be no question of one umpire standing up against the authorities.
Venks told me this, and this is very interesting. He was going to umpire in the World Cup final at Lahore between Sri Lanka and Australia (in 1996), and he said, `If I think anyone is chucking, I will call him.' And he was told, `No, you won't.'
So is that why he didn't umpire in the match?
No, he didn't. You see, somewhere, principle comes into play. I admire Darrell Hair [who called Murali for chucking] for his courage. He showed some guts.
But hasn't the ICC cleared Murali? Hasn't it been certified that he was born with a defective arm?
What nonsense. Ian Meckiff was born with a defect. But he had to quit. Now they say Shoaib Akhtar was born with some defect. It is just too bad, honestly. Some people are born blind, or without limbs. Will a blind man be allowed to fly an aircraft? So why should a bowler be allowed to chuck because he has a defective arm? What does not conform to law is illegal; and the law has to be applied uniformly. The problem is that the parent body is not taking cognisance of the problem. It may soon become monstrous - every team may end up with three or four chuckers. That's a real possibility if these fellows are allowed to go scot-free. I am not concerned about individuals, I am worried about the survival of the game as an institution.
So you think this could bring about a paradigm shift in cricket?
Of course it could. It poses a far more serious threat to cricket than betting and bribing. I have seen young kids in Delhi trying to do what Murali does, and I have tried to stop them. But they respond by saying, "Woh bhi to kar raha hai, so why are we being stopped?" It's not a healthy trend. But the onus is not on Murali or Sri Lanka. It's upto the ICC to put a stop to this nonsense.
Going back to the decline of spin bowling: one-day cricket is a fact of life. It can't be wished away. Shouldn't spinners learn to adapt?
You've got to draw a line about how much one-day cricket you are going to play.
But isn't it up to the spinner to learn to adjust to the new reality?
He will only adjust if he plays a lot of Tests too, like Shane Warne. If you are a good Test cricketer, you may be able to adjust to one-day cricket. But if you are only relying on one-day cricket, which a lot of Indian boys are doing at the moment, you are in trouble. It's the mistakes you make in your formative years that can destroy you.
You did advise Harbhajan not to play one-day cricket.
Yes, I did. After he took 32 wickets against Australia, I said he should not play one-day cricket because he needs to be a surprise weapon in Tests. But he was not very happy, because of the money factor.
`Main bhookha mar jaoonga,' he said.
He does not realise that bhookha nahin marega, but that he will become a better thinker. The five-day game allows the thinking process to mature.
But for a newcomer like him, it's not really a matter of choice. If you are selected, you have to play.
Yes, that's the sad part, you have to play. But not many would refuse anyway. The adjustment is not only about line and length. It's all mental. What happens is that they tend to take the one-day tendency into a Test match. They tend to bowl flat and fast.
The question is, why should it affect only the spinner? Batsmen have to make similar adjustments. So do fast bowlers. And bowlers like Glenn McGrath, Allan Donald, Shaun Pollock, Waqar Younis have all been very successful. Wasim Akram has been outstanding.
Wasim is terrific, truly outstanding. But it's comparatively easy for pace bowlers. The difference between the margin of error for a fast bowler and that for a spinner is huge. A fast bowler can get away with a full-toss or a long hop. A spinner can't. And one-day cricket completely neutralises the spinner's good balls. When a spinner bowls in a Test, he has two or three close-in fielders; in a one-day match, he starts with a sweeper cover and a deep midwicket. So the strategy is not to get wickets. I played a bit of one-day cricket, but I never changed my basic style.
Would you have bowled the same way if you were playing today?
I don't think I'd have played. I'd have been a complete misfit.
Are you implying that the classical spinner has no place in modern cricket?
Not really. A good classical spinner, say, someone like Sunil Joshi, I don't know why he is not being picked. Or for that matter, Murali Kartik or Rahul Sanghvi, why aren't they being given a chance? Kartik hardly got a bowl in the match he played and Sanghvi was taken off just after he had got a wicket. I don't understand this.
You have a freakish legspinner in Kumble ... he is great, a remarkably intelligent cricketer who knows his limitations... but you must find a way to add variety to get a nice, balanced attack.
The other thing that has contributed to the decline of the spinner is the new equipment and small grounds. Modern bats have so much meat that even mishits carry for sixes.
What must the spinner do to survive? Obviously he can't be allowed to become extinct.
I was telling Shane Warne, after Sachin destroyed him in India, that a straight six is always hit off a good ball. You can't set a field for a straight six ... but I was always happy when somebody hit me for a six, because I thought I could get him out. But before I could explain the intricacies of outwitting a batsman, Warne said, `No, rubbish, this bloody thing is disappearing too often'.
I mean, if a spinner is hit for two or three sixes, the captain takes him off. But he can be taken for nine or 10 runs an over with a couple of twos, a few singles, and psychologically, the captain doesn't feel the same effect.
You haven't answered my question.
They have to be patient. They need to keep their heads on their shoulders, that's very important. Lots of times, youngsters who get early breaks are not able to do that. There is a saying that you must learn to accept failure and you should be able to tolerate success. Not many Indian sportspersons are able to do that.
Is that what happened to Maninder Singh?
Yes. And that's what happened to Siva (L Sivaramakrishnan). I thought Siva was God's gift to Indian cricket. He had everything, but he went down the drain and nobody was able to stop it. Now we have Yuvraj Singh, whose talent is enormous. But people are already talking about his attitude. If, with all the help from sports psychologists and modern methods, we can't keep that talent in check, there is something wrong somewhere. They have tagged Yuvraj as a one-day player. I tell you, this one-day cricket is going to destroy everything. It's like a one-night stand, it leaves no impact.
Look at this tussle between Stuart MacGill and [Gary] Kirsten [we are watching the third Test between South Africa and Australia as we speak]. What a bowler this MacGill is. So lovely to watch, look at that high arm action. I tell you he is a better bowler than Warne.
But surely, Warne has more variety?
More than anything, Warne is fortunate that he has the confidence of the captain and the selectors. And he has delivered every time he has played. I am not taking anything away from Warne's abilty as a great wicket-taker. But I haven't seen a better bowler than Subhash Gupte. Sir Garfield Sobers rates him as the best legspinner he ever faced. Today you have teams like Zimbabwe, South Africa and West Indies, whose batsmen don't know how to play spin. Kenya are likely to come in next and there is no limit to how many wickets a good spinner can take. But the number of loose deliveries Warne bowls is ludicrous. It's just that most batsmen don't have the skill to take advantage. Warne has the ability to run through the tail. But MacGill is more classical and he has outbowled Warne every time they have played together. Unfortunately, they are playing in the same era.
Much like Rajinder Goel, who played in the same era as you.
Yes, you can say that. I have always rated Rajinder Goel as the best bowler of our time.
Better than you?
He was very, very good. I was fortunate that I probably had a better thinking capacity and a better spinner's temperament. A spinner must have the right temperament: a big heart, loads of patience and an ability to stay switched on. A fast bowler can switch on and off, but a spinner must stay switched on all the time. Even when he is not bowling, he has to be thinking, plotting his next dismissal. I was very fortunate to have played with Pras and Venkat. I learned so much, bowling with them. We interacted a lot. And we were very proud of each other, all four of us. That camaraderie that we enjoyed, I haven't found in the current lot.
Hypothetically, would you rather play two great bowlers even if they were similar, or opt for balance?
I will play my best bowlers. I will play Warne and MacGill together more often. Rajinder Goel and I played together for Delhi, and we had two great offspinners playing together in the Indian side. If you can balance the side it is fine, but that should not be at the cost of not playing your best players.
Does a spinner needs more careful handling than a fast bowler? Will he necessarily do better under a captain who's more sensitive to him?
Yes. We were lucky to have had one of the finest leaders in Tiger Pataudi. He realised very early that our medium pacers were staple diet for the English and Australian batsmen. He handled us very well. Spinners will always do better under a thinking captain, the one who knows the what, when and why of the game. What you should be doing, when you should do it and why are you doing it.
How do you think Ganguly has handled the spinners?
Poorly. I am not at all happy. What's the point in keeping guys like Sunil Joshi and Rahul Sanghvi in the reserves if you are not going to play them? He seems to have no confidence in them.
Is there such a creature as a natural spinner, the way there are natural batsmen like Lara and Tendulkar? Are some people born to bowl spin?
Of course, it's a natural thing. A natural spinner is born with a spinner's temperament. You can spin the ball, you can vary the length, but the most vital aspect of spin bowling is guile; how you disguise and plot. This is something no coach can teach you. You can acquire it with experience, but mostly it's a cricketing sense that comes from within. Pras and Venks had it. Reading and reflecting also helps. I read a lot and still do, and I am still learning. It's a tragedy that the modern cricketer has no opportunity to relax, to pause, to think. When you play like a robot, the game loses its charm.
So you can spot a natural spinner in a crowd?
Oh, yes. The first and foremost thing is his bowling action. Is it side-on? Then you look at his delivery stride and follow-through. Spinning is something you can't teach. I had a coach called Gyan Prakash who died two years ago. He never taught me anything about spin bowling. But when I was in college, I would go to him and we would sit hours together talking. He taught me a lot about cricket sense. How to be patient, how not to get upset about a dropped catch, a misfield or an umpiring decision. Cricket teaches you how to accept life as it comes, cricket teaches you to be upright and honest.
Can a player of limited ability be coached to be a great spinner?
I doubt that. Some things have to be natural. I was a poor athlete and I couldn't bat to save my life. All I was blessed with was a smooth action. But yes, you have to work very hard. I bowled seven to eight hours every day. It's very difficult for youngsters to believe this. You can never achieve perfection in life, because every time you think you have come near it, perfection has moved 20 yards away. But with intensity, you can come close. Football is all about 90 minutes of explosive energy. Fast bowling is all about explosive energy, physical strength. But spin bowling is mental: it's about mental toughness, mental coolness and mental application. It's about outwitting your opponent.
And it's about control, of course.
Yes, control is a must. There's a fine statement by Pras that I love. `Line is optional,' he said, `but length is mandatory.'
Does spin bowling require a different kind of physical fitness?
It requires more suppleness of limbs. Nice and loose shoulders and flexible wrists and loose fingers. I used to, and I still do, wash my own clothes. Washing clothes is the best exercise for your shoulders and fingers. It's a practice that has stood me in good stead.
Last summer, I was bowling with Rahul Sanghvi and Sunil Joshi. There was a beautiful breeze blowing from third man. And I said, let's try this out. Let's drift the ball in with the breeze and after pitching it should turn away. Somehow, I found my rhythm, and it happened. These two guys just had their eyes popping out. They were struggling, because they were too quick with their release.
But is there a specific regimen for spinners?
More than anything else, it's personal discipline and not taking your place in the side for granted. I was in the side as a specialist bowler, so I knew I had to perform in every Test to keep my place. Now you have someone like Laxman, who is sitting on his 281 at the moment. The lad is enormously talented, but obviously he is not working as hard on his game as he should be. The only professional cricketer we have at the moment is Sachin Tendulkar. Isn't it a sad commentary?
I played county cricket just to find out if I could last six months of rigour. There was no money then. If hadn't played county cricket, I would have lasted a little longer in Indian cricket. And also if I hadn't touched alcohol. I keep telling youngsters that your personal discipline has to be outstanding if you want to last. Longevity determines how good you are. I admire Anil Kumble for that. Sunil Gavaskar, Kapil Dev... what discipline they had.
A lot has been said about Ashley Giles's tactics against Tendulkar. What did you think?
Let me not talk about it. That's not cricket at all. He did get him out stumped and behaved as if he had got his 1000th wicket. But such negative tactics will allow legislators to creep in. Cricket is a very simple game. It doesn't need too much of legislation, let's keep it to the minimum. TV replays, third umpires, match-referees, with all this we are still not able to stop chucking.
You once said you fancied getting Tendulkar out caught and bowled.
A lot of left-arm spinners ask me how I would bowl to Tendulkar. I say that I will bowl to get him out. Yes I said I think I will get him out caught and bowled, because he is a small man. There is every possibility that he will hit you over the top, but I will work on his greatness because a man's greatness is also his weakness.
Is cricket yours?
I hope I will still be talking about cricket on my death-bed. It's a wonderful subject. I am so glad that I didn't take up anything else.
Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo