Alec Bedser at 90 July 4, 2008

The endurance of the 'Big Fella'

Alan Hill
He was England's inexhaustible colossus in the lean post-war years - both wicket-taker and stock bowler. A salute to Alec Bedser on his 90th birthday

'If his labours as a bowler could be collected and piled up around him in some visible shape he would be seen to be standing beside a mountain' © Getty Images

The cricket challenges faced by Alec Bedser in the lean post-war years paled by comparison with the pressures confronting him on more forbidding battlegrounds. He was one of a host of emerging cricketers when war broke out in 1939. Six years of active service, latterly as an investigative military policeman, gave him a steel and maturity to counter all other trials. The returning warrior, then aged 28, was supremely equipped to engage in the tensions and intrigues of a Test match.

Sir Alec, as he celebrates his 90th birthday, turns back the years to assess his enduring stamina as a cricketer. His fortitude is attributed to the countless hours of practice in the nets at The Oval. He and his twin brother Eric loved practising as boys. From their early years they set themselves the task of aiming to hit a piece of newspaper on a good length, and then bowling six balls each at a time, with one stump as a target. Alec offers this advice to erring bowlers. "Remember", he says, "the stumps are only 28 inches high and if you don't pitch it up enough you won't hit the wicket and you won't get anyone out lbw."

John Woodcock, the veteran cricket writer, has referred to Bedser as "loyal, kind and incorruptible". He adroitly observed: "If his labours as a bowler could be collected and piled up around him in some visible shape he would be seen to be standing beside a mountain." Bedser's monumental endeavours were sorely needed by both Surrey and England. Testimony to his workload is indelibly contained in the statistical lists. Between April 1946 and September 1947 - two English summers and one overseas tour to Australia - he bowled 17,395 balls. In five summers of Test and county duties at home, he busily accumulated an aggregate of 5636 overs, well over 1000 each season. Throughout the long haul of post-war summers, Alec was unflaggingly both wicket-taker and stock bowler.

The ascent to greatness was accomplished without a settled partner. Fast bowlers traditionally hunt in pairs. As England's standard-bearer, Bedser had little respite from his labours until the arrival of Trevor Bailey, Fred Trueman and Brian Statham - all of them eagerly accepted as worthy companions. Juggling the meagre resources available, the England selectors discovered and discarded a variable contingent of new-ball allies, 17 in all, through Bedser's Test career.

Bedser would summon his powers of endurance, as he single-handedly held sway before Surrey's years of plenty. Michael Barton, his captain from 1948 to 1951, conceded that Bedser was overbowled in his formative seasons. "Alec really carried us during that time. There is no question that he was the man who contributed most to our successes. He was a very hard worker, with great stamina, and he was a brilliant bowler, particularly on a bad wicket."

Bedser was nowhere more venerated as a bowler than in Australia, and he especially cherishes his exploits against his rivals from down under. He took 104 wickets, an average of almost five per match, in 21 Tests against Australia. He followed Wilfred Rhodes as only the second bowler since before the First World War to reach this milestone. Another 25 years would elapse after Bedser's achievement before Derek Underwood added his name to this elite of bowling centurions against Australia.

Events were to link Bedser with his good friend, Don Bradman, the greatest batsman to all who came within his sphere of command. From his first triumph at Adelaide in 1947, in the subsequent 15 innings of their rivalry, Bedser took Bradman's wicket eight times. His feat in dismissing the Australian five times in consecutive Test innings is an unprecedented achievement. The delivery which produced a Bradman duck ten minutes before the close of play at Adelaide was the harbinger of things to come. The wonderful legcutter, deviating sharply and coaxed by enormous hands, was the weapon of confusion. It was "spun at speed" and the effect was a genuine legbreak. Bradman related: "It must have come three-quarters of the way straight on my off stump, then suddenly dipped to pitch on the leg stump, only to turn off the pitch and hit the middle and off stumps."

Bedser dismisses Ron Archer, his 39th and final wicket in the 1953 Ashes series © The Cricketer

Remembrances of the newly installed nonagenarian pay attention to the economy of Bedser's action - an unvarying run-up of ten paces, all designed to preserve maximum efficiency. It was estimated that each of his overs lasted two and a half minutes each. One former England colleague, Bob Appleyard, says that Bedser was so grooved in his action, which was rhythmical and economical, that he was able to continue for long periods. Staying at the wicket for two to three hours against Bedser constituted an achievement beyond the norm. Trevor Bailey still winces at the memory of his tussles. "The most significant feature was that Alec was responsible for bruising the inside of my right hand. He just kept on hitting the bat. Alec jarred my hand more than any other bowler I faced."

Bedser was called upon to dispense his wisdom and diplomacy in a record-breaking term as a Test selector at the start of the 1960s. The sequence included 12 seasons as chairman when his teams won ten, drew three and lost only five out of 18 series. His renown as a cricketer - and, perhaps more importantly, his integrity and status as a former professional - earned him acceptance as a trustee of the game. He never allowed popular clamour to cloud his judgment. Doug Insole, then chairman of the selectors, provided one telling story. Soon after Bedser's elevation to the selection panel, he presided at a Test match dinner and was introduced to the assembled players. "If he says you're fairly useful," Insole explained, "you can be reasonably sure that he means you are among the best in the world."

Bedser was closely associated with the swiftly changing order in cricket. Usurping the old amateur supremacy was a surge in player power, which carried perils and impending conflict. He had to call heavily on his reserves of tenacity and patience in a succession of crises involving Geoffrey Boycott, Tony Greig and Ian Botham. Botham's spectacular revival against Australia at Leeds in 1981 was a direct consequence of the unpalatable decision to sack him as captain.

For Bedser, in his last season as chairman, the momentous events of that summer were the most pleasing of farewells. "All who know him and admire his sense of duty and enjoy his bluff humour will have been delighted he ended on a winning note," observed Woodcock, then editor of Wisden. The happiness of the occasion ensnared another cricket correspondent. "That was a marvellous performance by Ian Botham," enthused Christopher Martin-Jenkins. "Yes," said Bedser. "Well, he's a good cricketer."

Alan Hill is the author of The Bedsers among other cricket books.