BY THE TIME he played his last Test at the Oval in 1979, Bishan Singh Bedi’s legendary powers had begun to dim. He was still better by a big margin than others who plied his trade of left-arm spin, but the sun had begun to set on a remarkable career. Indeed, the era of India’s famous quartet of EAS Prasanna, S Venkataraghavan, Bhagwath Chandrasekhar, and Bedi was coming to a close as new stars like Kapil Dev were rising. In the 1979 tour of England, Kapil Dev frequently bagged bowling honours and with the likes of David Gower and Ian Botham in the English ranks, it was saying something. In his final Test, Bedi picked three wickets and not too long after, retired from the game in 1981, following which he mentored dozens of cricketers who played for top domestic teams and India. It is no surprise that so many of them attended Bedi’s cremation in Delhi on October 24.
Bedi was often in the news during and after his playing career for his outspoken comments, but it was when he wafted to the crease, his left arm rising in an arc as his full-sleeved shirt fluttered, that he shone. Shadows and dappled sunlight on a cricket field sometimes imbued him with an ethereal aura, transporting him and the spectators into a timeless universe. Describing Bedi as the “Sardar of Spin” was a popular refrain and a catchy headline. Yet, it fails to sum up Bedi’s presence—his fluid run-up of just a few steps and the pivot to despatch the ball on a flight that seemed to follow hidden commands. When weather permitted, Bedi’s shirt would be unbuttoned at the top. This was very much an aspect of his personality, a dash of dare and swagger that never left him. Later in life, too, shirts remained firmly unbuttoned in television interviews where Bedi’s unplugged views often ruffled feathers.
It was not that India’s spinning quartet was always successful. India played the West Indies and England frequently and both teams routinely posted large totals. It was often dispiriting to listen to radio commentary (the only medium for live broadcast) as India were sent on leather hunts. To be fair, the inability of Indian sides, held up by the brilliance of a Sunil Gavaskar or a Gundappa Viswanath, to stand up to the opposition’s bowling left Indian spinners with little to bowl to. Yet, there was hope that one or more of them would deal India a winning hand. All India Radio commentators like Suresh Saraiya, Kishore Bhimani, and Ravi Chaturvedi, who were household names, would raise the spirits, describing the exploits of Bedi & Co. Surely, a wicket was not long in the offing.
Much has been written about Bedi’s beguiling action, which rarely betrayed what he was about to bowl. All the four Indian spinning greats were quite different, but Bedi and Prasanna had the gift of flight. Bedi’s carefully crafted deliveries seemed to take forever to traverse the pitch to the batsman trying to figure out whether a forward stride or a watchful retreat into the batting crease was the best option. Bedi spun the ball prodigiously and the variations in revolutions and length made him a handful. After cricket with Pakistan resumed, he led the side in 1978. His decision as captain to “concede” a match in Pakistan as umpires refused to call wides for deliberate and repeated bouncers was controversial as India needed just 23 to win, but it was just him. Umpiring in Pakistan was a scandal and he called it out.
Bedi’s uninhibited observations on cricket and much else could be tellingly accurate and then sometimes, not so much. He lived, as he often said, without regrets and believed in offering unvarnished opinions. What he will be remembered for is the joy he brought to millions who fell under the spell of his magic that he wove as he began his light-footed shuffle towards the bowling crease.