He could mess with a batter’s mind with his flighted deliveries, give administrators sleepless nights being a quintessential rebel, and then floor a youngster with his magnanimity. Bishan Singh Bedi just knew how to touch people’s lives with various facets of his character—being an artist, a straight-talker, and a mentor to many as and when the need be.
On October 23, Bedi passed away at the age of 77. Part of the famous spin quartet comprising Erapalli Prasanna, Srinivas Venkataraghavan, and Bhagwath Chandrasekhar, he claimed 266 wickets in 67 Tests in an illustrious international career between 1967 and 1979.
Arguably the greatest slow left-arm bowler that the world has ever seen, Bedi travelled to the other side after three years of illness but left an indelible impression in minds of many with a character to die for. Honest, upright, someone who played the “Gentleman’s Game” for the right reasons.
Sunil Gavaskar ruled the 1970s but ask any Indian cricket fan of that era what it meant to their ears: when the late Suresh Saraiya, during his commentary stint with All India Radio, would describe how a batter was caught by Gavaskar in the slips or stumped by Farokh Engineer with the original “Turbanator” of Indian cricket jumping in joy.
There are certain words or phrases that become cliches with over-usage and “poetry in motion” is one of them. It is hackneyed but when it comes to Bedi, it remains an apt description.
The legendary Sunil Gavaskar drew Mohammed Ali’s analogy in his book Idols, which is a memoir on his peers from cricketing world. “Floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee” is what they said about Ali and if there was any cricketing equivalent in the 1970s it was Sardar, who become famous for his multi-coloured “patkas” (head gear) that he changed during each session.
What was a perfect Bedi delivery? It would be one which would be tossed up in a parabolic arc above a batter’s eye-line. Just as the batter would come down the track and feel that he had measured that delivery, it would land on the leg-middle line and just kiss the outer edge of the bat or miss it. Either the first slip or the keeper would be in business.
There is a picture from the mid 1970s when Bedi played county cricket for Northamptonshire. They called it the perfect grip with both hands used: two fingers across the seam and the left thumb below to balance while the right thumb on top of the leather just before he would load up.
When a batter would hit him for a four or a six, he never sledged. Instead he would just clap and applaud, lure him into a false sense of confidence and when next time, he jumped out, he knew there was something amiss: the wherewithal to deal with Bedi’s greatness. He knew how to buy wickets.
Ask Gavaskar, who fell prey to Bedi’s deception in the Ranji final of the 1976-77. Bombay won that game but Gavaskar was beaten by flight and drift in both innings. Caught and bowled for 5 in the first and stumped by Surinder Khanna after dancing down the track in the second innings for 10.
Rajinder Goel, probably the second greatest left-arm spinner in world cricket in the 1970s, never got a chance to play Test cricket. Goel saab, as he was respectfully called in cricket circles, was the best in the business but Bedi was better than the best.
Subtle as a sledgehammer
He had a fierce sense of right and wrong and could be very opinionated to anyone’s dismay. But that was Bishan Singh Bedi. He could easily terminate the Indian innings at 97 for 5 as a mark of protest that the West Indies’ umpires were allowing Michael Holding and Wayne Daniel to cause physical harm to Indian batters with two or three beamers per over.
He was once banned for a Test match by the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) in 1975, after he gave an interview to the BBC during his stint with Northamptonshire without listening to the board’s no-interview diktat.
“I remember we won the Ranji Trophy back in 1979-80 season and a DDCA [Delhi & District Cricket Association] clerk came with a letter from the erstwhile top-boss. It was written that ‘Invitation for Hi-Tea’ for captain and manager with president of DDCA. He flung the invitation card back and told the messenger that he will only meet the president if every player got a separate invitation card,” Kirti Azad recollected the good old days spent with his “skipper”.
Had it not been for Bedi, Delhi would have never become the cricketing powerhouse that it became after he took over as skipper. He instilled self belief in players such as Kirti Azad, Madan Lal, Surinder Khanna, Venkat Sunderam, and Sunil Valson that Bombay (now Mumbai) is a beatable side.
“He could take up cudgels with anyone. In those days, at times DDCA would arrange for accommodations which would be considered as hell-holes. There won’t be enough room to walk to the washroom let alone keep our cricket kits and suitcases. Bishan would just check-out of the hotel and force them to put us up in a minimum three-star facility,” Azad said.
In those days, post practice, aloo ke pakode (potato fritters) and mirchi ke pakode (green chilli fritters) with tea, worth a few annas, were served post the Delhi team’s pre-season practice leading up to the Ranji season. Bedi told the establishment that this unhealthy food would not be consumed by his boys. “He said get boiled eggs and fresh fruits for them after practice. Get ‘paneer’ for the vegetarians,” Azad remembered.
“But there was one thing which was a must on the menu and Bishan paaji paid from his own pocket. Chilled beer in extreme Delhi heat. He got it for everyone and no one was allowed to take out their wallets apart from him. ‘Keerat’, that’s how he called me, ‘Veerey, have a glassy’ (glass of beer),” Azad remembered.
He never ever sledged or used a cuss word on the field. No one can remember but if someone played a bad shot or there was poor fielding, Bedi could be pretty verbose in chaste Punjabi inside the dressing room during the break. But after the end of the day’s play, the first person who would walk up and hand him a glass of beer was none other than Bedi himself.
Man with a golden heart
During the 1979-80 Ranji Trophy final when Delhi beat Bombay for the first time, Azad scored a hundred, hitting Padmakar Shivalkar for three sixes to race from 84 to 102.
So happy was Bedi that he actually opened his kit-bag after Azad walked into the dressing room. “He just opened it and said take whatever you want. There were shoes of the British company Patrick. There were gloves from Duncan Fearnley and a Grey Nichols cricket bat: a dream of every player. It was worth in thousands even in the 1970s and he said it’s all mine. He was the only one to use imported equipment as he played county cricket for Northamptonshire,” Azad said.
Gursharan Singh remembers how after scoring 298 against Bengal in a Ranji match, the Punjab skipper got a massage from the coach.
“I was red in embarrassment as paaji would massage my calf muscles, shoulders as we didn’t have the culture of permanent masseurs even in the early 1990s. He made me captain for the season and even when Sherry (Navjot Sidhu), who was our biggest star back then, was back from national duty, he didn’t change the captain. He said: ‘If Gush has led the side till now, he would continue.’”
Ethics and Rules of the Game
In his later years, Bedi was not the establishment’s most favourite person but he could not care less. In the pre-social media days, he once courted controversy as the Indian team’s manager (not coach) after some media houses misquoted him saying that he wanted to “throw the players in the Pacific Ocean”. This was after they lost an ODI in New Zealand during a tri-series which was more of a debacle.
However years later, the TV interview was available and it was the interviewer who had asked him whether he would mind if his players wanted to jump in the Pacific Ocean after such a poor performance and all he said was: “I won’t mind.” His role as a cricket manager was a short one and it was understandable that a lot of super seniors, who were by then at the fag end of their careers, did not like his strenuous regimen.
However, being sharp-tongued meant that he would often question the action of spin bowlers Muttiah Muralitharan (Sri Lanka) and Harbhajan Singh (India), terming them “javelin throwers”. “You call it 800 wickets, I call it 800 run-outs,” he famously said about Murali. No marks for guessing that the Lankan legend was not one bit amused.
He was a staunch critic of the DDCA, not exactly an institution known for its propriety and probity. He had his massive difference of opinion with the late Arun Jaitley and although a stand is named after him, he wrote to Jaitley’s son and current DDCA president Rohan to remove his name as he did not conform to the workings of the state body, which he felt was mired in corruption.
In one of his last press interactions in 2019, Bedi had said a sentence which fits with his persona. “I don’t stoop to conquer,” he had said in that interview, in reference to another former India cricketer. Bishan Singh Bedi, the “Sardar of Spin”, only conquered hearts.
Tributes flow in
President Droupadi Murmu on October 23 expressed grief on the demise of the Amritsar-born legend and said the former Indian cricket team captain was among those few who elevated spin bowling into an art. “In the demise of Bishan Singh Bedi, the country has lost one of its greatest sporting icons. Bishan Singh Bedi was among those few who elevated spin bowling into an art. He was also instrumental in the growth of cricket and cricketers. He was held in high esteem by the cricket fraternity,” President Murmu posted on X (formerly Twitter).
Prime Minister Narendra Modi said he was “deeply saddened” by Bedi’s death. “His passion for the sport was unwavering and his exemplary bowling performances led India to numerous memorable victories,” he posted on X. “He will continue to inspire future generations of cricketers,” Modi added.
Former and current cricketers paid rich tributes to Bedi, describing him as one of the best bowlers the country has produced and one who went out of the way to help youngsters.
Bedi’s teammate Sunil Gavaskar said: “Sad news indeed. He was the finest left hand bowler that I saw.”
Sachin Tendulkar recalled his time with Bedi, who was manager of the Indian team when the batting great was finding his feet in international cricket.
“To Bishan Paaji (elder brother), I wasn’t just another cricketer; I was like a son. Under his nurturing guidance, I scored my first 100 in England,” Tendulkar wrote on X. “On chilly NZ evenings, we’d sit over meals, and I’d hang on to every story he told, every piece of wisdom he shared. Today, there’s an echoing silence where his voice used to be. The world seems a little emptier without you, Paaji.”
Senior India spinner Ravichandran Ashwin remembered Bedi as someone who went out of the way to help young cricketers, while former opener Gautam Gambhir felt the former left-arm spinner’s immense contribution would be remembered forever.
“Sad to hear about the demise of the great Bishan Singh Bedi, apart from being a great cricketer, he was an affable person and went the extra mile to help young cricketers,” wrote Ashwin on social media.
“Extremely saddened by the passing of Bishan Singh Bedi ji. His immense contribution to cricket will forever be remembered. May god give strength to his family and loved ones!” Gambhir wrote on X.
The International Cricket Council (ICC) paid tribute to the spin legend. “I would like to extend heartfelt condolences from everyone at the ICC to the family of one of the greats of the game and one whose exploits in Test cricket will be remembered for a long time,” ICC chief executive Geoff Allardice said in a statement. “He was the kind of spinner who could excel in different conditions and would have been one of the greats in any era.”
Former Pakistan captain Intikhab Alam said he was “sad” at Bedi’s death. “I had a very cordial and friendly relationship with him, he was a great spinner and human being”, Alam said. “It’s a great loss for cricket in general and Indo-Pak cricket in particular.”
Another former Pakistan captain, Asif Iqbal, recalled Bedi’s greatness. “He was an extraordinary man. If you speak to anyone in Pakistan or India he will tell you how great a man he was,” Iqbal said. “He was a great bowler who won many matches for India. I enjoyed playing with him and against him. May his soul rest in peace.”
(with inputs from PTI, AP, AFP, and ANI)