Most childhood myths endure for longer than they should. Some are never forgotten. So it has been with me in the matter of Bishan Singh Bedi, the Sardar of spin and the most prolific of India's famed quartet of the sixties and seventies. Once mythical status had been bestowed on Bedi by me, mesmerised I was and remain, by the exploits and imagined possibilities of the man blessed with that poetic bowling action.
It all started with a conspiratorial revelation by an uncle when I was at an age when wonder and superheroes rule, and logic and reality are alien concepts.
Clustered around the radio we sat one day, listening to the commentary of a Test match India was playing in. A gaggle of excited kids, surrounded by our own expert commentators - vocal fathers, uncles, and the odd grandfather thrown in to maintain a semblance of decorum amid the mob.
And then, in what I am certain was a tense situation in the match, Bedi proceeded to concede not one but three boundaries in one over. Consternation all around. A forest of hands thrown up in dismay, followed by shouts of "He is going to ruin this for India if he continues!" and "Bring Prasanna on right away!" from not just the kids but even the adults in the group. In the midst of all this agitation, my eyes caught an uncle sitting there, smiling at the radio, a sea of calm. He leaned over to me and whispered with theatrical intrigue, "Don't worry. This is just a part of Bedi's plan. He will make the batsman pay in a few overs. He is setting him up to look foolish. Be patient."
Disbelief replaced the alarm on my face, but cashing in some of the trust and goodwill the uncle had accumulated in me, I turned to the radio again. Surely he was putting me on? Payback in a few overs' time? How does that work? Surely the batsman was no fool to get sucked into Bedi's extended sting operation?
The next Bedi over upped the ante. A relatively quiet over; no wicket falls. Quick look at the uncle begets just a knowing smile and raised eyebrows. Back to the radio again, staying away from the rest of the mob, now being led by the grandfather himself in hollering for the local lad, Erapalli Prasanna. Two or three balls into Bedi's next over and I hear, "And he has bowled him! Through the gap between bat and pad. Completely deceived him in flight. Bedi strikes!" Look up in disbelief and see the conspiratorial look replaced by a look of satisfaction, hands rubbing in delight.
Thus the myth enters the imagination. So the bowler pays up, and pays up again and again till the batsman coughs it up and hands it over sheepishly. The phrase "buying a wicket" was now de rigueur all of a sudden. It also proceeded to cause endless headaches every time Bedi was bowling. Following the progress of the match became a temporal jigsaw puzzle that had no solution. Every ball was a head-scratcher in itself: furious thinking would ensue as one tried to place it in a pattern initiated overs ago. Or was a new sequence of trickery starting with it? Now, was that a set-up ball, to be cashed in by the Sardar a few overs later, or just a bad one? Or was it just an innocent bridge piece in the composition before the cymbal crash came, causing the batsman to walk back? Wicket balls were the easy ones, and a relief, too, for they reset the puzzle. Yes, those times were magical. The period when the strategy has sunk in but the tactics are shrouded in mystery.
With exposure begins the fraying of the edges of the myth. The rewards for the watcher are substantial. When the fundamental aspects of a spinner's art reveal themselves gradually, causing one to follow the game in a completely different way. When the batsman's footwork begins to reveal secrets about the ball that was bowled. When the amount of daylight between the umpire and the bowler at the point of delivery is keenly noted. And when a batsman's looking foolish as he loses his wicket is not a reason to giggle at him but a time to look at the bowler in admiration. Foolishness needs to be pried out of good batsmen, and it is truly special when it happens.
"Every ball was a head-scratcher in itself: furious thinking would ensue as one tried to place it in a pattern initiated overs ago. Or was a new sequence of trickery starting with it? Now, was that a set-up ball, or just a bad one? Or was it just an innocent bridge piece in the composition before the cymbal crash came, causing the batsman to walk back?"
Once this comprehension had set in, Bedi's bowling was a fascinating study. I remember, for example, a dismissal of Kim Hughes in the seventies. Hughes, with his superb ability to use his feet against spinners, had many memorable battles against Bedi, but this one stands out to this day. Flighting the ball and pitching it up each time, Bedi proceeded to get Hughes to use his feet and advance repeatedly to smother any turn and drive the ball into the V. Then, as if feigning a realisation of folly, he proceeded to draw back the length of his deliveries over a few overs. Of course, Hughes caught on and the advances down the pitch became less pronounced as this developed. Till the momentous over when the length had been dragged back, ever so gradually, enough to be unobtrusive. Then, the offering. A flighted and floated delivery that was creamed into the stands for six. A slightly fuller ball followed, but Hughes was ready with his immaculate drive for four. But he had already swallowed the bait, except he didn't know it yet. Till a ball later. Floated up again, but a shade shorter. Hughes rocked back to cut but the arc of his bat was still at its midway point when the ball crashed into his stumps. The dipping faster arm-ball had done him in. The sting operation had lasted at least five overs. Hughes made it to the front pages as proof the next day, bat in mid-air, stumps pegged back, looking down in horror and looking a tad foolish. And my uncle was still a prophet.
You have to be trusted by the people that you lie to,
So that when they turn their backs on you,
You'll get the chance to put the knife in.
- "Dogs", Roger Waters (Pink Floyd)
Those were the rock n' roll days, and thus it went on with Bedi for years to come. Many were the heists that were designed and executed by him, with his accomplice Prasanna, another genius in the genteel art of mid-air deceit and deception, against players of all ilk, at venues of all geographical persuasion. Newspapers regularly brought us pictures of duped and out-plotted batting stars, looking the wrong way, staring back perplexed at stumps astray, stranded out of position having whiffed at the ball, or nailed on the back foot seconds after the ball fizzed into their pads bang in front. Looking foolish all the time.
THE RETIREMENTS OF BEDI AND CO. brought on a dry period in world cricket of the hoodwinking spinner, with just one notable exception in Abdul Qadir in the eighties. The nineties gave us some wonderful spinners in Anil Kumble and Muttiah Muralitharan. Very special bowlers they were and are, but they somehow didn't fit the image of the con artist or the trickster that was tattooed on my brain. Nirvana came in the form of the blond bamboozler who announced himself to the world in the most dramatic manner, with his first Ashes ball, conferring honorary legendary status on Mike Gatting instantly.
As the second Test of the recently concluded Ashes series started at Lord's this summer, in the Sky Sports box was Shane Warne, fresh off the poker tables of Las Vegas, donning his latest role, of commentator. As he added a welcome Aussie angle and drawl to the mix, with his "Aww, look mate…" exclamations, he also provided an acute reminder, right through the rest of the series, as to what we were profusely missing this time around. Just the 2005 Ashes in themselves contained among his haul of 40 wickets a cornucopia of poster shots memorable to this day, of wide-eyed batsmen who had just been duped in grand larcenous style.
Two examples should suffice for now. Michael Vaughan at Trent Bridge, minutes after he had walked out to join Andrew Strauss in England's run-chase. Using his impeccable footwork, leaning towards the pitch of a ball outside leg to play it quietly towards midwicket. And then… picture this aftermath. A visibly mystified Vaughan scrambling back and searching for the ball at a non-existent short fine leg, looking quizzically towards Adam Gilchrist, then staring at a hooting Ricky Ponting at silly point, oblivious to the fact that the ball rested in Matthew Hayden's paws at first slip.
And Andrew Strauss in the second innings at Edgbaston. If there ever was a "ball of the century", one that would have startled Daryll Cullinan off his couch in amazement, here it was. The poster depicts Strauss standing upright, left foot in line with off stump, right foot all the way across to the edge of the pitch, head turned around in a voyage of discovery, in utter bewilderment that while he had been trying to pad up to a delivery apparently heading towards first slip, he had somehow managed to lose his leg stump. He had been conned and schemed into an absolutely improbable stance and dismissal (the set-up commenced, tellingly, when Warne castled him in the first innings). Michael Slater needed to be administered oxygen in the commentary box to recover from his bout of hysterical chortling.
Jim Laker, the great England spinner, once opined that his idea of paradise was being at Lord's, bathed in glorious sunshine, with Ray Lindwall bowling at one end and Bedi at the other. My idea of cricketing paradise may feature other dramatis personae, and the lunch break on the fourth day of the Oval Test of the 2009 Ashes provided a reminder of one. Out in the middle alongside Nasser Hussain was Shane Warne, executing a masterclass on legspin bowling with two teenaged tyros from the counties. Substantially more portly than two years ago, but sporting a warm and cheerful smile and demeanour, Warne went through the intricacies of his legendary repertoire with them. And then, as the wide-eyed aspirants watched, he twirled the ball in his hands, gamely walked over to the top of his run-up, turned… and for a brief, very brief, moment it turned magical again.
The casual walk from his mark, the handful of strides to the crease and that simple, glorious and uncomplicated action burst into view once again. The ball looped out perfectly, drifted innocuously away and then back, dipped and landed on a perfect length. It gripped on that practice wicket and spat furiously off it at a disconcerting height towards second slip. There was no batsman to be spooked by it, and the makeshift keeper jumped to collect it over his shoulder. Surely millions of English eyes watching this widened in terror for an instant, faces turning pale at the thought of Warne running rampant on the baklava-top yards away that the Test match was being played on. Warney, looking like a chubby frat-boy, drawled "Not too bad!" turned and walked back to his gawking students. He ended his class with an exhortation to them to work hard at their craft and to just enjoy bowling legspin because it was "a lot of fun". "And we get to make batsmen look foolish," he added with a huge grin.
I find myself constantly looking for the image of the batsman completely flummoxed, gobsmacked, hoodwinked and strung-on to a memorable demise. I blame Bedi and Warney for this quest more than any others. And the uncle who started it all.