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Bishan Being India: Journey of a Cricketer Contiguous With India's Own

·6 min read

A year older than independent India, Bishan Singh Bedi embodies almost all the glories and failures in that journey. His own scars – his personal cricketing success and also his experience during the reprehensible violence against Sikhs in 1984 – are badges in his own journey contiguous with India’s as it approaches 75.

How the Sardar of Spin Found Courage To Tide Over Through Times

Bedi recounted last year on independence day about his decision to determinedly stay and build his home in India in 1984, despite the mayhem and ‘sage advice’ urging him to leave India.

It came about after a meeting with an unnamed well-placed bureaucrat in Rashtrapati Bhawan, as violence was engulfing Sikh homes.

Bedi was hoping for some support when he went to ask this powerful officer if he should sell his land and move back to his hometown Amritsar, versus the other option, which was “to leave the country”.

But when the cricket administrator-bureaucrat suggested he should exit India, Bedi came into his own. He fumed, returned, the clouds of uncertainty dispelled, and decided he must dig in and stay pitched.

He told his wife he will not leave the country and he had the right to be here. “When pushed into a corner, you worry for your life. However, if you take it as a challenge and fire yourself up, you get the strength to tide over bad times,” wrote Bedi.

Bedi’s courage, his ability to speak up clearly and loudly, in the face of severe adversity, doing the right thing has marked his cricketing career and well after, in his public life.

Bishan never mistook a spade for a diamond, but always called it out, in an otherwise glitzy and disturbingly commercialised cricket world. He had made it his business to be himself and true to form.

'The Bentley of Spin'

The just-out The Sardar of Spin, a compendium of tributes to Bedi to mark his 75th birthday on Saturday, 25 September 2021, has a timely recollection, “If Holding is the Rolls Royce of fast bowling, Bishan is the Bentley of spin.”

Michael Holding, the nemesis of so many batters, retired as commentator just days ago and is a most suitable match to weigh what Bedi is to Indian cricket and sport.

Just as Holding was most blasé and honest about calling out racism at all levels of the game and life on Sky News, in the aftermath of Black Lives Matter, Bedi’s life too has been about holding out against the powerful. On and off the ground.

In Twirlymen, the Unlikely History of Cricket's Greatest Spin Bowlers by Amol Rajan, Bedi spoke of how he was inspired by the legendary spinner, Subhash Gupte, often seen as the father of the culture of spin.

“I was listening to radio commentary when Gupte took nine for a hundred and two against West Indies in Kanpur in 1958. I was so inspired by that performance that I took up spin bowling. Gupte’s feats really spurred me on.”

Rajan goes onto describe Bedi’s craft as the epitome of spin, as his “hovercrafting approach" to the crease, in anticipation of release at the highest point, while perfectly side on, “is as pure a spinner’s action as there had been.”

The use of his fingers, the fluidity of motion and his ability to flight, pull back, control and deceive the batsmen by varying the kind of ball he bowled made him damn sure he did spin and not just slow bowling. Murali Kartik recalls in the Sardar of Spin how his voice boomed as he answered his own question of who was a spinner – “someone who spun the ball”.

Everyone else, he told awestruck younger cricketers, was “just a slow bowler.”

Yoga & Laundry for Fitness

Bedi with 266 wickets in 67 tests and 1,560 in 370 first-class matches, was one of the four wheels of a glorious phase in Indian cricket.

Tiger Pataudi as captain played a big part in carving that space and Bedi, as captain perhaps imbibed a lot of Tiger in how he mentored, supported and became the game and its spirit as captain for his teammates.

Ayaz Memon has sketched the phase, which may induce a sharp intake of breath in youngsters in thrall of pure pace now.

He writes that Tiger’s “thrust on spin and emphasis on close-in fielding” meant that Bedi, BS Chandrashekhar, EAS Prasanna and S Venkatraghavan grew to be the “quartet” and the “gold standard”.

In 1970–71, a series of wins overseas versus West indies and England defined an era.

"The magic of Indian spin: spicy, pungent, deceptive and destructive – got international renown through the exploits of these four bowlers, with Bedi as the pivot.”

Bedi did a unique combination of yoga and his own laundry on tour to stay fit. He is known to have skipped for hours and climbed stairs. He placed a premium on fitness even later as manager and a mentor to younger players.

Bishan Singh Bedi’s spontaneity and ability to dissolve from anger to laughter may have made him hard to cope with for some. His biographer, Suresh Menon, said that “like the poet Walt Whitman, Bedi can claim that he is large, he contains multitudes… childish and mature, infuriating and comforting, all at once.”

In 1976, as captain at Sabina Park in the West Indies, he called off India’s innings in protest against West Indians bowling to intimidate tailenders.

Bedi vociferously made the point about cricket being a game and not war. In the same year, he called out England’s controversial bowler John Lever for using Vaseline-soaked gauze on his brow in order to sharpen the ball rather than his art.

Both these moves were not easy ones and came with a personal cost to Bedi as cricket establishments became anxious about cricketers showing spunk, rather than playing ball. But Bedi was never one to get tamed.

It is said that the MCC’s ‘Spirit of Cricket’, which was codified in 2000 and became part of the laws of the game, owes much to articulations such as Bedi’s, even if he remains unacknowledged.

More recently, he told the Delhi District Cricket Association to remove his name from a stand at Feroz Shah Kotla ground when they decided to rename it after Arun Jaitley.

To imagine even a slice of that courage in players today, would be just that – imagination. The lure of more money and contracts has meant that even cricket dadas after retirement have preferred to seamlessly go with whatever needs to be said or done.

To continue to be a cog in the cricket establishment wheel has ensured such a squeaky-clean existence and that no one blows a whistle. Why we must take time to pause and wish Bedi a very happy birthday is because he used his time in the sun well. His ‘poetry in motion’ comes with courageous prose. Happy Birthday, Bishan.

(Seema Chishti is a writer and journalist based in Delhi. Over her decades-long career, she’s been associated with organisations like BBC and The Indian Express. She tweets @seemay. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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