The malaise of bitterness
Last week, Bishan Singh Bedi was a spectacle once again - but not in the way that we cherished as we grew up. There was none of the beauty and grace and subtlety that the memory of Bedi's slow left-arm bowling can conjure up.
Invited on stage at the Wisden International Awards to present a special achievement award for the Australian team to their coach John Buchanan, Bedi started by asking Buchanan provocatively whether he considered Wisden really to be the Bible of cricket. He then repeated a statement by Ian Chappell questioning the role of the coach in cricket, before lobbing down this arm-ball: "Tell us, John, have you made this Australian team great, or have they made you?" Buchanan had the grace to deal with the situation, and the hostess had the wit to intervene and ask Bedi to get on with the job.
Sitting in the audience, I felt both outraged and embarrassed. Outraged because our hospitality was being abused, and embarrassed because one of my childhood heroes was inflicting public humiliation on himself. People of my generation did not have the benefit of live television, but written words painted powerful images, and Bedi's was one of most poetic and noble. Yet here he was, only diminishing himself in an attempt to belittle his hosts and the man he had been called upon to honour.
It was a sad moment, because Bedi has much more to give than rancour and petulance. In my own dealings with him, I have known him to be a generous man possessing infinite wisdom. His passion for Test cricket remains undimmed, he has a keen sense of history, and when the mood takes him, he is a marvellous raconteur. It is distressing to watch him reduce himself to a caricature at ill-chosen moments. But to understand what could drive a man like Bedi to such extraordinary pique, we have to view the incident in the context of a broader syndrome that afflicts hordes of former Indian cricketers - the incurable malaise of bitterness.
Bitterness is right up there with jealousy as one of the most corrosive human conditions; those who harbour it find their soul chipped away and their dignity compromised. Life for them becomes a lament, and they end up carrying the burden of what they feel was denied to them. For a clutch of Indian cricketers from the 1970s onwards - and in some it is more pronounced than in others - the biggest cause of heartburn is that eternal evil, money. Some merely curse themselves for being born in the wrong age, but for some, it is a matter of deep resentment that despite their considerable achievements on the field, they were denied the riches available now to even the most modest of international players.
The milder version of this syndrome is manifested in the constant evocation of the noble past. They harp on ceaselessly about the evils of one-day cricket, without taking into account the reality that Test cricket wouldn't be viable without it. They berate the modern coaching system, without realising that cricket today is as much a game of knowledge and fitness as it is a game of skills.
They often wax nostalgic about a time when cricketers turned up at the ground for the love of the game, and follow that up with an immediate reference to the mercenary nature of today's cricketer, who won't even turn up at a charity match without an appearance fee. Of course, it doesn't strike them as odd that they are rarely willing to give anything back to the game without expecting handsome returns. If you have heard rumours about the odd former great asking money from a current cricketer to pass on a few trade secrets, they are true.
In the worst form, this burden of bitterness blinds the bearer to all positives and leaves him in a perpetual state of hallucination. Cricket in the consumer age is a product of its times, and indeed it is beset with many ills. But only the completely blinkered will be unable to see that the game has actually become better in many ways. Too much money too soon can be a problem for some youngsters unable to come to terms with their sudden riches, but to ascribe every dip in a cricketer's performance to his preoccupation with money is to betray naiveté at best and pettiness at worst.
There is scant remedy for such bitterness. The least our heroes from the past can do is to keep it private. By displaying their rancour in public, they only end up dishonouring their own memory.
Sambit Bal is the editor of Wisden Asia Cricket and Wisden Cricinfo in India. His Indian View will appear here every Tuesday.