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How Bishan Singh Bedi's love for cricket transcended national boundaries

Legendary spin bowler Bishan Singh Bedi, who passed away yesterday, loved cricket and the game's ethics above all else, even petty nationalistic fervour

Bishan Singh Bedi passed away at the age of 77, on Monday.
Bishan Singh Bedi passed away at the age of 77, on Monday. (ICC Twitter)

Left-arm tweaker Bishan Singh Bedi was best known for being part of the greatest spin quartet in the history of cricket, along with B.S. Chandrasekhar, E.A.S. Prasanna, and S. Venkataraghavan. His art of spin bowling was legendary. But what marked him out also was his open, affable nature, and a love for the game that transcended partisan, national boundaries.

This love of the game sometimes landed him in trouble with fans driven by nationalist fervour. The final Test of Pakistan’s tour to India in 1986-87 was on a rank turner in Bengaluru. Left-arm spinner Maninder Singh took 10 wickets in the game for India, but the spin duo of Iqbal Qasim and Tauseef Ahmed shared 18 wickets between them to give Imran Khan’s team a win by the narrow margin of 16 runs, after being bowled out for 116 on the first day. 

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Bedi’s home in Delhi was gheraoed after a newspaper report “exposed” his role in the Pakistani spin triumph. Iqbal Qasim, who was a far less accomplished left-arm spinner than Maninder Singh, had revealed in reply to a journalist’s query that a tip from Bedi had balanced the scale. 

This was no sinister plot. It came in a casual chat on the ground during practice on the rest day. Qasim had spotted Bedi and sought him out to ask why he had been far less effective against top order batsmen than his Indian counterpart. Bedi told him that on such a pitch, the trick was to reduce the degree of spin to catch the edge instead of trying to beat the bat. Qasim did just that on the fourth morning to take the wickets of Mohammad Azharuddin, Ravi Shastri, Kapil Dev, and finally the prize trophy of Sunil Gavaskar, who scored 96.

Bedi was in love with cricket and he was generous in sharing his knowledge with anybody who came to him for advice. Matthew Hayden, opening batsman in Australia’s dream team of the noughties, credits Bedi with the success he had in dominating spinners on tours to India. 

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Bedi was also outspoken in his concerns over the directions that his beloved sport was taking. He felt one-day cricket was diminishing the art of spin bowling by reducing spinners to a defensive role. Restrictions on the number of fielders who could be put on the outfield, took away the charm of spinners enticing batsmen with flighted deliveries into holing out in the deep.

But his soul can rest in peace. On the day of his passing, Afghanistan fielded four spinners in their match against Pakistan in Chennai in the ongoing ODI World Cup. And the spinners took five of the seven Pakistan wickets that fell.

Bedi had all the virtues of a great spinner: control, guile, and variation. Subtle tweaks with his wrist at the point of delivery kept the batsman off balance. The repeatability with which he could do this made him a bowler a captain could bank on.

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In India’s famous win over the then mighty West Indies in Kolkata in 1974, the fifth and final day of the Test began with the dangerous left-handed pair of Alvin Kallicharran and Clive Lloyd at the crease. The visitors needed 164 runs for a win. Indian skipper Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi got Bedi to dry up the runs from one end and attacked with the leg-spin of Chandrasekhar from the other end. 

The tension mounted but the ploy worked as both Lloyd and Kallicharran perished in trying to plunder runs off the leg-spinner. Bedi then mopped up the tail. It was just one of the many historic moments of Indian cricket that he was part of in the seventies and eighties.

Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bengaluru.

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