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THE SARDAR OF SPIN
- One of the true greats of the game

In the third week of August, I got a call from a friend in Delhi, the great slow bowler, Bishan Singh Bedi. “Everyone around me is shouting Anna Hazare! Anna Hazare!” he said, “a few months earlier the same people were shouting IPL! IPL!” “Instead of a Jan Lokpal Bill,” remarked Bedi, “what Parliament should have passed is an Anti Herd Instinct Bill.”

This may have been the most insightful remark I read or heard on the whole tamasha at the Ramlila Maidan. It was certainly the wittiest. And it was entirely in character. As player and captain, as coach or commentator, and, not least, as a plain old citizen of the Indian republic, Bishan Bedi has long been known for his robust independence of mind. His opinions are sometimes foolish, at other times farsighted — and at all times, his own.

I first met Bishan Bedi in 1974, when I was just out of school and he was at the height of his cricketing renown. He had come for dinner to my uncle’s house in Bangalore, where he polished off a bottle of whisky. The next morning, he ran through a very strong Karnataka side. Later that year I joined St. Stephen’s College in Delhi. In a city crowded (even then) with Very Important People, Bedi was a presence. He was the captain of the Delhi Ranji Trophy team, and soon to be captain of India. He dressed colourfully, bowled beautifully — and spoke his mind. In those pre-liberalization days, his glamour was enhanced by the fact that he was only one of two Indians in the capital to own and drive a Volkswagen Beetle (the other was the professor, Mrinal Datta Chaudhuri, of the Delhi School of Economics).

In my years as a student in Delhi, I was too shy to approach Bedi in person. But I went often to the Feroz shah Kotla to watch him play. And I soaked in stories told me by colleagues in college who played under him for the Delhi Ranji Trophy team. There was the tale of the tall, brawny fast bowler who admired his muscles and invited his teammates to do likewise. When the braggart dropped an easy catch in practice, Bedi told him to carry a brick in each hand and run around the ground holding them above his head. Halfway, the giant fell to the ground, screaming (if you run for 10 yards with the same burden you will know why). Then there was the story of the young batsman in search of his maiden first-class hundred. At close of play on the first day of a Ranji match he had reached 50 not out. At drinks the next day he had advanced to 75. Bedi sent a message asking him to accelerate, and another message half an hour later to the same effect. The young man crawled on, playing for himself rather than the team. At lunch he had reached 99 not out, whereupon Bedi declared the innings closed.

The character and cricketing genius of Bishan Bedi are nicely captured in a new biography by the Bangalore-based writer, Suresh Menon. Bishan: Portrait of a Cricketer is a fine book: rich, detailed, affectionate, yet not uncritical. Menon speaks movingly of Bedi’s generosity to young cricketers. The former India captain regularly takes youngsters on educative tours of England, raising funds and arranging matches for them himself. Each time Menon himself visited his subject, he met cricketers from the mofussil staying at Bedi’s home.

This nobility of spirit manifested itself early. An old teacher of Bedi’s told Menon that as a schoolboy he was often seen wheeling around a disabled classmate. “Former players have reduced ‘giving back to the game’ to a cliché,” writes Menon, “Bedi has rescued the cliché and restored it to its original import.”

The first Test Bedi watched was the one he made his debut in. A story in this book speaks of how spoilt today’s cricketers are in comparison with the cricketers of the past. In the winter of 1975-76, Bedi played an unofficial Test for India against Sri Lanka in Nagpur. He then had to proceed to Chandigarh to play a Duleep Trophy match. The Board of Control for Cricket in India forgot to book his ticket, so Bedi travelled unreserved in the luggage rack of a third-class compartment. So parsimonious were cricket administrators back then that they paid cricketers Rs 250 per Test match. When Bedi and company won a Test match against New Zealand inside of four days, the Board paid them fifty rupees less.

If Indian cricketers are compensated far better now, it is due to the struggles on their behalf by men like Bishan Bedi. In his book, Menon documents his role in organizing a players’ association, that demanded and got fair compensation for cricketers active as well as retired. Bedi was able to do this in part because of the force of his personality, and in part because he was one of the true greats of the game. I did not realize until I read this book that Bedi was the only cricketer who played in India’s first Test victories in New Zealand (Dunedin, 1968), the West Indies (Port of Spain, 1971), England (The Oval, 1971), and Australia (Melbourne, 1978).

Suresh Menon begins his book with this sentence: “‘I hear you are writing a biography of Bishan Bedi. Have you heard of the time when…’ and the speaker would launch into a story that might verge on the edge of authenticity or topple over into the realm of the incredible.” I shall end this column with two stories that are authentic because I can bear witness to them.

Some years ago, the former British prime minister, John Major, made a private visit to New Delhi. His host threw a party, choosing the guests with some care and attention. In deference to the visitor’s political distinction he invited a senior Union minister and the serving chief election commissioner. To indulge the visitor’s passion for cricket he had called two former Test players. Through a long evening John Major ignored the other guests entirely. He focused on Bishan Bedi, with whom he swapped a series of cricketing stories. Several involved Fred Trueman, whom Sir John venerated and Bedi had played against. At the evening’s end, I got in my sole sentence, when I told the chief guest that I hoped he would write a fan’s book with many stories about ‘F.S.T. (Frederick Sewards Trueman). ‘Why only F.S.T,” replied Sir John, “I shall tell stories too about B.S.B.”

The other tale is, I think, more telling still. I had been in Kabul, where our mission expressed its interest in inviting a famous Indian cricketer to inspire, and coach, young Afghans. I suggested that since players still active would not risk a trip to a land subject to regular terror attacks, they ask a retired player to come. Various names were discussed, one of whom was Bishan Bedi’s. When I returned to India I called my hero-turned-friend. I asked him if the invitation came through at a convenient time, whether he would be willing to go. “Why not?” answered the Sardar of Spin spontaneously, “anywhere for cricket.” Anywhere for cricket — whereas the unspoken motto of some of his former teammates is, anywhere (and anything) for money.

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