The Sardar of Flight

Like Fred Trueman, the fast bowler, some of the stories around Bedi can be apocryphal. Like a story about Fred Trueman who told a dining companion at a banquet in Asia: Hey Gunga Din, pass on  the salt ? Did Bedi tell a reporter in Mumbai that he would like to bury the cricket officials in Delhi, so that just as Bombay has a brick based wicket, Delhi would have a Mehra -based wicket. Or when he named two dogs bought from a Kernel in England, Charles & Diana. When asked at the Heathrow airport, if he was taking the mickey out of their royalty, he said:  No, I am taking royalty with me. Like most larger than life figures, Bedi was not just one personality. Bedi, the player, Bedi the man, Bedi the public image, Bedi the rebel was possibly the amalgamation of all these .

Beneath the various personas, the boy from Amritsar still befuddles. His second wife says he is an extremist, someone who deals in extremes. If he loves you, he will stop at nothing to help; if he dislikes you, there is nothing you can do to stop the flow of invective. He called Gavaskar a destructive influence and stood for the cricketers, for better match fees and travel facilities.  The middle path, for him, was   for practicing Buddhists! Bedi is the only Indian with over 1500 first class wickets. He was stealthy, silent and deadly, a master of deception, who conjured variations in flight, loop , spin and pace without any perceptible change in action. Sobers said: ‘Bedi took the weight off the ball nicely. He would make the ball descend far quicker than when it went up’.  

But Bedi’s enjoyment came from befuddling the batsmen. I saw Bedi leave a batsman stranded down the wicket when the ball went the wrong way after seemingly set to come in with the arm. At fifty-three he made no secret of his enjoyment at fooling the batsman. ‘ I dismissed  Ian chapel on 99 in a test with just such a delivery’, he recalled, demonstrating how he had held the ball in his palm and slid his wrist under it . Bedi had the full repertoire of the finger spinner. Like Wilfred Rhodes,’ he dismissed the batsmen even before the ball had pitched; thanks to the ability to apparently yank it ‘, as Neville Cardus wrote about Rhodes. Unlike Verity and Underwood, who both bowled much faster, Bedi did not rely on the pitch for his wickets . He wore his stature lightly.

Against Tony Lewis’s Englishmen, Bedi claimed 25 wickets to Chandrasekhar’s 35 in 1977, as the spinners harassed and strangulated the batsmen. Bedi was often brought on the third over of the match and had the batsmen in trouble from the start. It was a measure of both his confidence and generosity that he found time to bowl to Dennis Amiss in the nets to him sort out his problems. Just as Bradman helped out Sobers to play Dennis Lilee in Australia Vs Rest of World Series 1971. Sobers after being Lilee’s bunny in the first two tests scored a match winning 254 in third Melbourne Test . Amiss scored 179 in the Kotla Test in December 1976, but Bedi had the satisfaction that he held him at 99 for three consecutive overs!

Australian leggie Arthur Miller had a similar kindred spirit. They bowled with the lavishness of millionaires. Mailey used to say: I would rather spin and see the ball hit for four than bowl a batsman out by a straight one ‘. Bedi used to  say: If I ever bowl a maiden over , it’s not my fault, but a batsman’s ‘.Despite one day cricket , he refused to bring his art down from classical heights in to the sphere of everyday utility. It is this refusal to compromise that has been the hallmark of Bedi the player, the man,  the administrator , the coach and the columnist. When Kerry Packer’s tried to entice him to play the rebel series in 1977-78 with generous blandishment, he refused to give in and the test series between India and Australia, led by Bedi and Simpson, the thespian, took cricket to sublime heights and competition. He was too much of a classicist to play kangaroo cricket in flaming outfits.

 I have seen him bowl in Delhi against the MCC in 1976 and at Calcutta against the West Indies in 1975 when Pataudi was the captain. He took four wickets in Delhi, with 59 overs and 22 maidens. With his Patka changing colour every day, I clearly recall how Lloyd stood befuddled when he nicked a ball to Engineer to get out at 19. Bedi rebelled against Wadekar in the 1971 English tour but was very deferential to Pataudi  , who was fine leader of men and mercurial minds. He had no qualms in complaining against Lever’s illegitimate use of Vaseline in the Delhi Test (1976). He forfeited a match against Pakistan, alleging partisan umpiring. Trevor Bailey once said: Bedi had a special brand of mystical obstinacy ‘.  Anil Kumble , whose first coach was Bedi on his England tour in 1990.writes that he was the most orthodox of spinners and an unorthodox coach. Hard work meant sweat and punishment. he is a treasure chest of knowledge and expresses his opinion with stunning honesty . It is part of his charm that he is not even remotely diplomatic.

When he started playing, the romance and record of the fabulous four- Bedi, Prasanna, Chandrasekhar and Venkatraghavan inspired all the spinners. Prasanna , the oldest (83) spun the ball in a classic high loop towards the batsmen, beating them in the air. Ian Chapell considers Pras the best off spinner he faced. While Bedi strangled the batsmen, Chandrasekhar (78) took wickets at the other end by   foxing the batsmen with googlies, winning a Test match for India   overseas against England in 1971 . Venkat (78), completed the quartet, though with more  modest record to his credit. They dominated the batsmen in the 60s & 70s , before Zahir Abbas pummelled them in  Pakistan Test series in 1978-79. But Bedi towered above the rest by his exceptional leadership skills, grooming spinners like Manvinder Singh & Murli Kartik, making Delhi a winning outfit in Ranji trophy against an unbeatable Mumbai. The legendary spat between him and Gavaskar was carried forward by Kapil, his protégé in a less aggressive way.   As India trundles towards lifting the World Cup 2023 , stealthily and surely ,  its quite likely that spinners like Kuldeep & Jadeja can be the match winners for India. Though Bedi  did not like white ball cricket , the Sardar of irrevence  would be the happiest that the members of his tribe would  throttle  the marauding batsmen!  

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