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Samir Chopra

Once upon a Bedi welcome

Bishan Bedi welcoming the visiting Pakistanis at the airport in 1979 is an image for the ages

Samir Chopra
Samir Chopra
Ricky Ponting shares high-fives with Harbhajan Singh, Royal Challengers Bangalore v Mumbai Indians, IPL, Bangalore, April 4, 2013

The IPL has helped players from different countries get to know each other  •  BCCI

One of many claims made for the IPL is that it has made possible - like other cricket leagues in the past which brought together players from different nations to play on the same teams - a species of friendship between cricketers that would not otherwise be possible in this nation-dominated sport of ours. This is not a radical claim to make these days: many professional cricketers find that being on the same roster as a former foe offers the possibility for the growth of a relationship of the sort that is not possible when engaged in on-field competition for rival teams. (It helps that evidence of such friendships can be easily Instagrammed.)
And cricket fans often find something rather endearing about the sight of international rivals wearing the same team's jersey or engaging in non-edgy interaction off the field. For a few moments, the bitter, contentious rivalries that engage us so are put aside and we are allowed to wallow in the warm glow of the illusion that our heroes and villains have put aside their personal and sporting differences. (The soccer fans who swoon over photographs of Messi and Neymar goofing off in the Barcelona dressing room know what I'm talking about, I hope.)
For me, one of the earliest and most vivid occurrences of this sensation came on viewing a photograph that I still consider a classic, despite the fact that it does not feature cricketers in action.
In November 1979, Pakistan arrived in India to begin a six-Test tour. Anticipation for the series ran high. Scores were to be settled after India's 0-2 defeat on their 1978-79 tour of Pakistan, and besides the tourists brought considerable glamour: Imran Khan, Zaheer Abbas, and Majid Khan most prominently. Despite Sunil Gavaskar's bizarre pre-series prediction that Pakistan would "beat India to pulp", most fans expected a closely fought series. Like all of them, I awaited the tour with barely contained impatience.
I received the news of the tour's commencement with a dramatic photograph: Bishan Bedi greeting the Pakistan captain, Asif Iqbal, at Delhi's international airport. With a characteristic bear hug and huge grin, both reciprocated ably by Iqbal. Toothpaste advertisement-worthy smiles and hugs and the distinctive Indian marigold garlands all around.
Bedi was famous for his generous appreciation of his opponents: he clapped good shots off his bowling and had handshakes and pats on the back for many who adversely affected his cricketing fortunes
What made this photograph - instantly reproduced on the front pages of many Indian newspapers the next morning - distinctive and memorable was that Bedi was not at the airport as an official BCCI greeter or anything like that. He had retired from international cricket; a retirement forced on him in part, ironically enough, by the team he had come to welcome. Pakistan's series win, Zaheer Abbas' demolition of the Indian spinners, and Pakistan's successful chase in Karachi, one made possible by an over of Bedi's that went for 17 runs, had ended some distinguished careers. Bedi's was among them.
Instead, Bedi had come to the airport in a purely personal capacity. He knew Asif and Zaheer - and among those not touring, Sarfraz Nawaz and Mushtaq Mohammad - from the county circuit in England, where they had all enjoyed distinguished careers; these friendships had been renewed and reinvigorated during India's tour of Pakistan. How could you possibly not meet and greet such good friends when they had come visiting? Even if that meeting was to take place at an ungodly hour?
Bedi, of course, was famous for his generous appreciation of his opponents: he clapped good shots off his bowling and had handshakes and pats on the back for many who adversely affected his cricketing fortunes. This gesture of cricketing fraternity, this welcoming of folks coming to play against his nation's team, was entirely in keeping with that personal style of his.
For my part, it felt as if another world altogether had been revealed to me. My idols were not automatons; they were men with feelings who were capable of being chivalrous to their opponents.
A few weeks later, Pakistan's tour was in full swing. Cricket and controversy ruled the roost; the welcome at the airport might have been the last time the team did not feel beleaguered during a long, tiring, and ultimately unsuccessful tour. But for a few moments at least, that year's cricket tourists could have reassured themselves they were among friends.

Samir Chopra lives in Brooklyn and teaches Philosophy at the City University of New York. @EyeonthePitch