Bishan Singh Bedi: A craftsman of flight and an old-school straight talker

He was known for his unforgettable arc on-field and his candid opinions off-field.

WrittenBy:Anand Vardhan
Bishan Singh Bedi, 1946-2023.

It started off as a lyrical amble across the stumps before he reached the bowling crease. And at the point of the release, almost meditating over the next note, the poet of aerial trajectory let go of the ball to spin a story.

That was a typical delivery by Bishan Singh Bedi, an orthodox left-arm spin that let the air be its slow accomplice. As cricketer Jarrod Kimber once said, “it’s as if the ball floated to tell something in whispers”. Yet this was sometimes intruded upon by an arm ball, sending a jarring show of strength almost to deceive.

It was this courage – of giving flight and control over the turn – that defined the spinning legend that was Bishan Singh Bedi, a feisty and straight-talking Sikh who was among the famed quartet of Indian spinners. With Prasanna, Chandrasekhar and Venkatraghavan, he formed the pivot around which India’s bowling attack revolved from the late 1960s onward. 

In many ways, Bedi and co. brought a sense of Test-winning purpose to Indian bowling. Their imprint was seen through the 1970s, starting with the quartet’s role in India’s first Test victories in England and the Caribbean in 1970-71.

Talk about Bedi’s craft with the ball often turned romantic – perhaps apt while discussing a man who was attached to the sport in its pristine form and classic philosophy. He cherished the ethos of the sport to an extent that it became part of his persona. Unsurprisingly, his farmhouse in Mehrauli, where he spent his last years, is called Cricket Abode. 

In many ways, Bedi embodied vintage left-arm spin bowling, restoring its core in an era where his contemporaries, like legendary English spinner Derek Underwood, had charted a different course. It was a phase when spinners, including Underwood and the rest of Bedi’s quartet, had become quicker and flatter through air, using flight only as a variation.

But it was the other way around for Bedi. He made flight his staple and stuck to the guile of deception through the air and controlled turns. His signature craft had an enduring romance with the air, his ball finding paths and tweaks through the air once it was pitched.

This made the Bedi arc a sight in itself. Many esoteric watchers of the art of spin bowling even called it “poetry in motion”. In his cricketing memoirs The Commonwealth of Cricket, historian Ramachandra Guha fondly recollected the sight of the arc woven by the supple sardar, who wore a patka of a different colour on each day of the Test match in Delhi against England in the 1972-73 series. Guha recalled that one charm of his seat in the stadium was that it was the “perfect position to watch the arc of Bishan Bedi’s flight”. 

The invitation to batsmen to take him on, however, did not affect his economy rates, which remained one of the stingiest. In the limited number of one-day games that he played, this economy would not desert him. His figure of 12-8-6-1 against East Africa in the 1975 World Cup in England remains unsurpassed. 

The flight with spinning guile yielded Bedi 266 wickets in 67 Tests. This may seem a modest haul measured against today’s high numbers, but it was the highest for India until out-swinging speedster Kapil Dev surpassed Bedi’s wicket haul. 

The aerial guile of Bedi’s tweak worked well on foreign soil too, particularly on Australian pitches where his figures were as strong as on Indian soil. In the English county, he played many seasons for Northamptonshire and found a way to English cricketing memory. A few years ago, when former British Prime Minister John Major was on a private visit to India, the British High Commission took special care to make sure Major met Bedi, a man who was part of the former PM’s cricketing youth.

Beyond his distinctive appeal as a left-arm spinning great, and a brief stint as captain of the Indian team, Bedi was also known as a forthright voice on his cricketing convictions. It often ruffled feathers and he was seen as stuck in the old era of cricket, anachronistic for contemporary cricket. But that did not diminish his straight-talking on a range of cricketing issues in his official capacity as manager of the Indian team during India’s tour of New Zealand and England in 1990, or as an independent voice in the media. During his stint as captain in the late 1970s, he had also fought for players’ rights and valued cricketing rationality in sports administration.

In some ways, Bedi carried the aura of a quintessential patriarch of Delhi cricket for his dedication to nurturing young cricketers in the city. He was also seen as a Delhi rebel who challenged the hegemonic hold of Mumbai on the sport. In that sense, he voiced discontent against the de facto power centres of Indian cricket and sought better regional representation and spread. That meant that his stature – as a revered patriarchal presence among Delhi cricketers, including current stalwarts like Virat Kohli – remained intact. This cut across generations, even when he withdrew from the scene a few years ago. 

At the same time, Bedi stood against the claims of politicians and administrators on cricketing glory and acclaim. “The place of administrators is in their glass cabins,” he once quipped while slamming the decision to name Feroz Shah Kotla Stadium after former finance minister and BJP leader Arun Jaitley. He was of the view that DDCA chief Jaitley wasn’t apt for such an honour, and that it should have been bestowed on someone from the cricketing community. In protest, Bedi even asked that his name be removed from a stand in the stadium that had been named after him long ago.

Many innovations in the sport, like the T20 leagues, left him baffled. Some thought he was bitter and sulking in his old-world cricket romanticism. Similarly, he dismissed the ICC’s 15-degree elbow extension rule that legalised Sri Lankan spinner Muralitharan’s suspect bowling action, going so far as to call the latter a “javelin thrower”. 

Even if caustic at times, however, Bedi was sought for his candid views on cricketing issues and his ability to articulate politically sensitive opinions at a time when any utterances from sporting greats were sharply scrutinised.

While his off-field persona held sway, the most enduring appeal of Bedi’s presence was obviously the wily grace of his craft. Jim Laker, the great English spinner, once famously said, “My idea of paradise is Lord’s in the sunshine, with Lindwall bowling from one end and Bishan Bedi from the other.” 

That was the hold of the poetic Bedi arc on the spinning imagination, an arc that had air as an accomplice in its guile. In more ways than one, he was a craftsman of flight, the poetry of a ball in air.

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