An institution in the game, 1953

A. V. Bedser: a gaint among bowlers

Many have bowled for England. Just a few stay in memory's front rank as England's bowlers, and among them, largest and latest, looms Alec Victor Bedser, of Surrey. Already he is an institution in the game, something taken for granted. We do not picture an England attack without him. Since 1946 he has been its spearhead and its stay, its start, middle and finish. Against Australia when Alec Bedser has failed the England bowling has failed.

He is in the succession to S. F. Barnes and M. W. Tate. Only he to-day can stand comparison with those two masters of the fast-medium method, whatever be the result of the comparing. Perhaps he comes in third on this shortest list. But let us remember, while we compare, the different style of Test game in which Bedser has bowled. Unlike his two great predecessors, he has bowled mostly on pitches dulled by the groundsman's most modern art. And he has bowled to batsmen who, for the most part, have rated survival above stroke-play. Chemistry and the five-day Test have not eased the bowler's task. The business of uprooting is tougher than ever. The methods employed by Bedser have not been unsuccessful.

Alec Bedser and his slightly elder twin brother Eric, were born at Reading on July 4, 1918, American Independence Day. The similarity of the twins in face and stature is so nearly exact that they have been always able to practise jocular deceptions on all but the few. They are not happy when parted for long, and Eric has so far been able to accompany his more distinguished brother on cricket tours abroad. From early boyhood, at Woking, whither the family very soon moved, the twins devoted every possible hour to cricket, and each has done much to develop the ability of the other. At the age of seven they were both members of the All Saints' Choir team at Woodham, Woking. From boyhood their nature has been distinguished by a straightforward simplicity, but not without shrewdness.

Both were determined to stick to cricket; but, when schooldays were done, they seemed to be heading for a legal life with a Lincoln's Inn firm of solicitors and cricket only on Saturdays. Whether they would finally have reached a joint seat on the Woolsack will never be known, because, while they were practising cricket in the nets of a cricket school at Woking, there fell on them the approving eye of Alan Peach, formerly a jocund and skilful all-round cricketer for Surrey. They gave up the Law and, in 1938, became members of the Surrey County cricket staff at The Oval. Originally both twins had been fast-medium bowlers, but they prudently agreed that they were more likely to gain places together in a first-class team if one of them, Eric, developed the off-spinner's art.

World War II came just as they were ready for County cricket. The brothers served in the Royal Air Force Police, took part in the evacuation from Dunkirk and in operations in North Africa, Italy and Austria. They played war-time cricket against the Australians, the West Indies, and the Dominions. In 1946 first-class cricket started again, and at this point we must separate the inseparable twins and concentrate on the career of Alec, very soon to play for England.

Critics are a sceptical bunch, and I doubt whether any at first saw in Alec Bedser's bowling anything more than extreme competence. Yet he began well enough for Surrey. Against India at The Oval he had taken the wicket of V. S. Hazare for 0 and four other wickets fairly cheaply when Sarwate and Banerjee came together and stole the scene with their extraordinary last-wicket stand of 249. A month later, in the Test Trial at Lord's, Alec Bedser took the wickets of Hutton (82) and Hammond (25). But more interest attached to the bowling and batting of another newcomer to higher cricket, J. T. Ikin of Lancashire. Then came the First Test, at Lord's, between England and India. Of the first five Indian batsmen Bedser ended four, Merchant, Amarnath, Hazare and the Nawab of Pataudi. He also swallowed up the tail, taking in all seven for 49. No other bowler, not even Australia's Clarence Grimmett, had made so startling an entry into Test cricket. In the second innings he took four for 96. A month later, in the Second Test at Manchester, Alec Bedser again took eleven Indian wickets. Of course, the batting was blamed. It always is. But the fact was a new star had arrived: one whose light has never since been dimmed for long.

It was natural that Alec Bedser should stand for comparison with M. W. Tate. They have this in common: both have greatness, that quality which can be sensed rather than defined. Both have been willing and, by their strength, able to bowl for a long time at a stretch. Both have used shortish runs to the crease and generated pace and fire by the terrific force of a perfectly timed follow-through. Of the two, I would say that Tate had the more natural genius, Bedser the more invention and variety. In Australia, where both have touched the meridian of their powers, Tate in his prime had the faster, and so the more suitable, pitches to bowl on. He attacked batsmen whose best hope of success lay in the forward stroke. Bedser in Australia has attacked, on slower surfaces, batsmen whose main method has been the back-stroke. Each solved his problem triumphantly. Tate was able to bowl more for the slip catch. Bedser, though his deadliest ball is the one that goes from leg to off, has made far more use of close leg-fielders. But he has used in-swing as a stick, so to speak, not as a prop. He never lulls the batsman by monotony of method.

But both Tate and Bedser suffered from the over-fullness of the first-class programme. They had times of staleness, an occupational affliction that does not attack the less heavily employed Australian bowlers. When W. R. Hammond's England team went to Australia in the winter 1946-47, a severe burden fell on Bedser and Wright. In the Tests each bowled more than twice as many overs as anyone else. Each had to keep going when he should have been resting. On each the strain left its mark. When the South Africans came to England in summer 1947, it was soon evident that even Bedser's tremendous and willing engine needed some rest, and he was omitted from the last three of the five Tests. His rest was to go off and bowl for Surrey.

But in 1948 he came back, to do battle with one of the strongest Australian teams ever to visit England. In that series it was the fast bowling of the two Australians, Lindwall and Miller, that took the headlines. But Bedser's part in the struggle should not be forgotten. He bore the brunt of the work, bowling near 120 overs more than anyone else, and for a time at least he uncovered a weakness in the hitherto flawless batsmanship of Don Bradman. This he did with a ball that dipped in late from the off and caused a catch close on the leg side. Bradman, as he would, recovered from this interlude of perplexity. But it was an achievement. Not since the triumph of Harold Larwood in Australia sixteen years earlier had Bradman looked so fallible. It was in the Fourth Test of this series, at Leeds, that Bedser surprised many, but not, I fancy, himself, by playing an innings of 79. He had been sent in at number four to play four balls overnight. But he far exceeded his terms of reference, and gave a notable display of batsmanship off the front foot, using his 75 inches of height and 15 stones of weight to full advantage.

In 1948-49 Bedser went with F. G. Mann's England team to South Africa. He had fair success as a bowler, and was in at the death in that terrific finish of the first Test at Durban. In the next two seasons, 1949 and 1950, Bedser did not add to his reputation as a bowler, his success against the New Zealand and West Indies touring teams being moderate. Indeed, he began to be regarded as reliable rather than penetrative. "We've seen the best of him," was the general comment. Yet, at this time of doubt and depreciation, he stood on the threshold of performances that were to raise him to the ledge of immortality as a bowler. F. R. Brown's touring team to Australia, 1950-51, did not set out with a fanfare of trumpets, and its achievements in the early stages were, to put it mildly, meagre.

When Hassett won the toss in the First Test at Brisbane, to take innings on a perfect pitch, a total of about 500 was almost taken for granted. I chanced to be sitting next to a famous Australian bowler of former years when Bedser bowled his first over. "No good," he said, "Bedser's just hitting the bat." But soon Bedser had Morris l. b. w., bowled Hassett for 8, and stopped Harvey in his dashing journey towards a century. Supported by the fine bowling of Bailey and Brown, and with Evans in his most brilliant form behind the stumps, Bedser took four for 45. This was the start of his domination over Morris, the great left-hander who had averaged over 80 in the Tests here in 1948. Morris did break free at Adelaide, but on a pitch of any pace, as at Melbourne, Bedser was his master. It was in the Fifth Test, at Melbourne, that Bedser touched the height of his powers. In each innings he broke through early, and sustained throughout an uncommon intensity of attack. In the match he took ten wickets for 105 runs, a rich contribution to England's first victory over Australia since August 1938. In the whole series he took 30 wickets at 16 each.

Back in England, Bedser played in all five Tests against South Africa. In the First Test, at Trent Bridge, he took six for 37 in the second South African innings, a performance that did not avert defeat. In the Third Test, at Manchester, he did much towards winning the match by taking twelve for 112. In the season of 1952 Bedser and the young fast bowler, Trueman, produced an attack to which the Indian batsmen had no effective answer. It was Trueman who stole the story, but those who watched Bedser in action saw very much the same bowler who had troubled in turn such masters as Don Bradman and Arthur Morris. By the end of the season 1952 Bedser had taken 182 wickets in Test matches at 26 each. Only S. F. Barnes, with 189, has taken more for England.

Bedser's bowling for Surrey, Champions in 1952, is a story of continuous excellence and success. A word, too, for his fielding. For a large and heavy man he is unusually quick on his feet. He is a competent fielder anywhere, and at second slip he has made many a fine catch. In bowling he adds to natural gifts a thoughtfulness and sense that are reflections of his character. He is a man of equable and stable temperament, but authentically English in his ironical acceptance of the worst and inward hoping for the best. At 34, he has played in only seven years of first-class cricket. For two or three years yet he may stay at the height of his powers. We shall need them against Australia in summer 1953.

Also we shall be able to show our appreciation of this magnificent cricketer when he takes his benefit for Surrey against Yorkshire at The Oval on July 4, 6, 7. May the sun shine for him.

© John Wisden & Co