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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

Cover image of <i>Bishan: Portrait of a Cricketer</i> by Suresh Menon

Penguin India

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