Bishan: Portrait of a Cricketer October 16, 2011

The many facets of Bedi

Suresh Menon's biography does justice to most aspects of one of cricket's more legendary larger-than-life characters

With public personalities, you seldom know where the truth ends and myth begins. That is especially so in the case of larger-than-life figures like Bishan Singh Bedi. Many people's idea of the role model for a classical spinner, Bedi in his playing days was something of a rebel - a staunch traditionalist who could also be an iconoclast.

It takes both wisdom and wit to make sense of such a man, and Suresh Menon addresses the challenge in front of him in the preface to this engaging biography. "It is rather like the blind men of Hindustan describing an elephant: everything depends on where you are standing and which of the personalities is turned towards you," he says. "The personas overlap occasionally, but often remain so out of touch with one another that a group of people could spend an evening talking without realising that they are referring to the same person."

This is Bedi's story, but in many ways it's also a chronicle of the coming of age of Indian cricket. Before the spin quartet, of which he was such an integral part, came along, even home victories were a rare commodity. But over the two decades that the two offspinners (Prasanna and Venkatraghavan), one left-armer (Bedi) and the unorthodox leggie (Chandrasekhar) played, India became a side to be reckoned with, enjoying a particularly vivid purple patch between 1971 and 1973, when they beat West Indies away and England (twice).

Bedi was the only man to play in Dunedin (1967-68), Trinidad (1970-71), The Oval (1971) and Melbourne (1977-78), as India won their first Test matches in those countries. The book goes into a fair bit of detail about those epochal tours, without getting bogged down in the minutiae.

As with any good biography, its strength lies in its ability to make sense of the man behind the numbers and the quotable quotes. There is enough personal detail - his son, Angad, turned to acting partly because the father was such a hard taskmaster - without the book becoming a page-3 exercise in voyeurism. Best of all, any admiration of the subject is counterbalanced by a clear-eyed view of his shortcomings.

"Like most men with a strong mind, he can be a staunch friend or a bitter enemy," writes Menon. "It is part of his black-or-white philosophy. Long before George W Bush made it an anthem, Bedi was telling those around him, 'You are either with me or against me.'"

He was also a man who might have been better suited to playing in Victor Trumper's day, when professionalism hadn't become sport's leitmotif. In Menon's words: "Bedi ignored context, sometimes put beauty before mere efficiency, and retained his amateur spirit in a game that had no time for amateurs - this despite his stints as a county professional in Northamptonshire and a grade cricket pro in Australia."

The story starts back in Amritsar, in the decade after independence, with a young boy who wanted to bowl fast. Gurpal Singh, Bedi's captain at Khalsa College, dissuaded him. "The first ball Bedi the spinner bowled to me was a full toss," he recalls. Though he reckons he was "nature's own child", Bedi practised seven or eight hours a day, inspired by both Sir Garfield Sobers and Tony Lock.

"Few understood better than Bedi the separate roles played by the fingers, the palm, the arm, the shoulder, the hip, the legs and the toes," writes Menon. "He could alter the position of one of them at the top of the bowling mark and change the delivery." In Sobers' pithy words, "he took the weight off the ball nicely".

One of the strong suits of this book is the fact that the biographer knows his cricket. Apart from the facts and anecdotes that pepper the narrative, there's informed description and analysis of Bedi's strengths as a bowler, from friends and opponents alike.

During the years that Bedi spent as part of a trio or quartet, the individual was often secondary to the collective. Between them, they took 853 wickets, 18 more than Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Joel Garner and Colin Croft managed for West Indies during their years of terrorising the world's batsmen.

This is Bedi's story, but in many ways it's also a chronicle of the coming of age of Indian cricket

Bedi was also generous with his advice, both during and after his playing days. In 1972-73, when Dennis Amiss struggled in India, Bedi bowled to him in the nets to help him sort out technical shortcomings. Nearly a decade after his retirement, he told Iqbal Qasim in Bangalore: "On a turner, the most dangerous ball is the one that goes through straight." Pakistan won the decisive Test by 16 runs.

In the two years of glory under Ajit Wadekar - far less popular as a captain with the spinners than his predecessor, the Nawab of Pataudi, was - Bedi took 51 wickets in 13 Tests. But by the time the team went to England in 1974, the relationship had deteriorated. After what became known as the Summer of 42 (India were skittled for that total at Lord's), Wadekar remarked: "Bedi doesn't always bowl to instructions."

By then he had also, unfairly, been marked out as something of a troublemaker. In an era when players were treated like indentured labour, Bedi asked uncomfortable questions. One of them concerned the fees for that tour of England. "The increased allowance would have given the players, who received £2 per day, an additional 50p," writes Menon of a situation that's scarcely imaginable in the gilded world that is modern-day Indian cricket.

Bedi captained India to victory in six Tests, though his reign is perhaps best remembered for declaring the innings closed at Sabina Park in 1976, after a bouncer barrage sent several of his side to hospital. He also took 434 wickets for Northamptonshire, though his six-year stint ended with the recriminations that followed the John Lever-Vaseline affair. As Menon chronicles the pettiness and vindictiveness of those times, you realise that the BCCI's bullying tactics are merely an imitation of MCC behaviour back in the day.

Bedi's on-field story ended at the age of 33, with 266 wickets from 67 Tests, and his stint as an administrator with Delhi produced no lasting impact. Few remember that he was one of the selectors who picked the World Cup-winning squad of 1983.

The post-retirement years were dominated by trenchant remarks on various subjects. "With an open-chested action like that, you can't possibly be round-arm," he said of Muttiah Muralitharan. "He is a fine athlete; perhaps he would have made a good javelin thrower at the Asian Games."

This is an erudite yet easy-to-read portrait, one that manages to focus on the many intriguing facets of an individual who was far more than just a skilful bowler. Bedi's passion for the game - as player and coach - shines through, as does his commitment to its traditions. "He might have taken more wickets if he had come off his lofty perch and begun believing that wicket-taking alone meant success," says Menon. But had he done so, there would have been no story to tell, just the mundane instead of the magical.

Bishan: Portrait of a Cricketer
Suresh Menon
Penguin, 2011
Rs 299, 236pp

Dileep Premachandran is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on October 18, 2011, 11:16 GMT

    One of the most beloved Indian cricketers in Australia...perhaps only behind Sachin Tendullkar. Bedi was a brilliant bowler. Deceptive flight, surprising bounce off the pitch for one so slow and a vault full of variations. Bedi had it all. For those that believe for one second that Baji is even in the same frame let alone better than Bedi, obviously never saw Bedi bowl. Bishen Bedi was a brilliant bowler and is forthright, honest human being.

  • Dummy4 on October 17, 2011, 13:38 GMT

    I know Bedi speaks his mind in an era of political correctness. The fact of the matter is until the rule book was changed Murli would not have been a bowler...whatever be the logic of letting him. IN my books Shane warne always will be a better bowler for he bowled as it should be and no angle business...

  • John on October 17, 2011, 11:02 GMT

    As I suspected, most of those here who commented adversely on Bedi never actually saw him bowl. To suggest that he was just a containing bowler is rubbish, he was constantly striving for wickets. Compare his test average with India's other spin greats- Bedi 28, Chandra 29, Prasanna 30, Venkat 36. Kumble and Bhaji are another generation, but they have higher averages: Kumble 29, Bhaji 32. All these are great test bowlers, not average trundlers. @Biggus: you're right about his batting and he was a terrible fielder as well, one of the slowest runners I've ever seen! To the Murali lovers; get over it. I'm not going to comment on the legality of Murali's action, he was ruled legal and that's that. The fact is his arm was in a different position during his delivery than anyone's else's I've ever seen. The result was he was able to do things with the ball that no-one else could. Bedi had his own opinion on that, but that has no bearing on Bedi's own bowling.

  • Dummy4 on October 17, 2011, 4:32 GMT

    Bishan Singh Bedi,no doubt,was a superlative bowler but he can be severely faulted for taking out his animosity against Ajit Wadekar by very poor,sloppy bowling during India's 1974 tour of England.On top of that ,just to spite Wadekar,he 'helped' Denis Amiss by bowling to him in the nets-that was downright treachery not sportsmanship. It's a mystery that this dark episode in Indian cricket has been swpt under the carpet and not been investigated further. Poor Ajit Wadekar paid the price for the disastrous 1974 tour by losing captaincy and Bedi achieved his ambition of captaincy soon thereafter . He was a lousy captain and prone to overbowling himself.He also was responsible partly in Pakistan achieving an unlikely victory in the 1978 test in Karachi by stubbornly bowling juicy lollypops to Imran Khan and getting slaughtered for three 6s in one over-Javed and Imran were racing against the clock. Bedi was also lucky that the unfortunate Rajinder Goel of Haryana never played a Test.

  • Johnathon on October 17, 2011, 4:29 GMT

    Its an insult to the game of cricket to compare Murali and Bedi. Even Harbhajan is a better bowler than Bedi. The one thing I will admit, though, is that Bedi had style. Very very orthodox and very text book like. No wonder he was so upset with Murali's unorthodox action. In 50 years from now, Murali will be remembered, but nobody will remember Bedi's name. End of story

  • GV on October 17, 2011, 3:55 GMT

    Bedi flighted the ball up to Imran Khan and we lost the Karachi test in those 5 minutes, after fighting so hard for a draw. India was not a bad team in the 70s, largely because 4 high quality spinners in a team is as rare as 4 fast men. Bedi led the pack. However, did he bowl and show extreme fighting qualities like Warne in the cape town test (7/161 in 70 overs of non-stop bowling in a full day)? I dont remember. Nevertheless one of the great bowlers.

    But my favourite memory is Tony Greig, spreading the field, when Bedi came in to bat, and Bedi obliging by lofting the ball accurately and getting caught.

  • Steve on October 17, 2011, 3:36 GMT

    From what I remember in my childhood, Bedi was at best a containing bowler who sometimes also attacked when wkt suited him. I would rate Chandra and Prasanna ahead of him to have won matches for India. I liked him most for calling a spade a spade both in BCCI and fellow players.

  • Uday on October 17, 2011, 0:58 GMT

    Bedi was a fabulous bowler. I did not know that the spin quartet got more wickets than the great Windies quartet. I first saw him in the Eden Garden test vs England in 72/73 but only remember the fabulous ambience. I had the fortune of meeting him along with Messrs Borde, Pankay Roy and Sarwate in 1982. They were all selectors and happened to be in Bombay just before the team to England was announced. Bedi was the youngest of the group but it did not seem to matter. Greatness is best personified by how your peers treat you and he was more than their equal!! A bit later, I recall watching a festival game in Delhi with Maninder bowling from one end and Bedi from the other. Bedi had retired long before but you had to see the zip he got off the pitch to imagine how he must have been at this best. And he still had a wicked arm ball. In his era, he was clearly the best left arm spinner. Who else can you think of?

  • Dummy4 on October 16, 2011, 23:24 GMT

    Stats don't lie. Bedi is the most boring bowler that ever played for India and I was quite disappointed the way the England batsmen took to his bowng in the 1974 Englad tour, the first time I saw him bowl in tests. In fact I can remember him for his batting cameo's a tail-ender. Maybe in theory he was a good bowler but he needed to put it into practice ! Baji is at least 100x better bowler than Bedi.

  • Bunty on October 16, 2011, 22:12 GMT

    Bedi had a rythmical and languid 5 step bowling action.My abiding memory was of him clapping a young Kim Hughes after he had stepped out and smacked him over deep mid-wicket at SCG. Very soon came a faster delivery which had the middle stump out of the ground and in wicket-keepers hand and a visibly chastened Kim hurriedly walking back. Sardar was never a person to let his thoughts to himself and he got many times singed for it. Truly a character of the game.

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