Alec Bedser, born July 4, 1918, was one of the greatest medium-pace bowlers of all time, at one time the holder of the world record for the highest number of Test wickets, and for long the lone crusader as the England pace bowling attack after the Second World War. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the life and career of the man who dismissed Don Bradman six times in Test matches.
Australia 1946-47. The tour has gone down as a tale of devastation for the Englishmen. The bombardment of Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller reduced the structure of their batting to ruins. And the Don Bradman-powered Australian batting followed it up by scoring mercilessly, without any semblance of the goodwill and friendship that the visit was supposed to symbolise.
It was not really a great time for Alec Bedser. While the Australian scores swelled with each innings the mercury kept pace, soaring to intolerable levels. In the first Test at Brisbane, Bedser slogged and sweated in a heat-wave for two-and-a-half days, bowling 41 eight-ball overs to take two for 159 while Australia amassed 645. At Sydney, it was hardly better — his returns one for 153 from 46 overs as the home team piled 659, Syd Barnes and Don Bradman famously hitting 234 each.
However, it was during the Sydney outing that Bedser made his startling discovery. Barnes, a wonderful leg-side player, was picking easy runs off his stock-in-trade in-swingers. Bedser’s coach Alan Peach had taught him to hold the ball across the seam to stop it from swinging. Now he bowled with his fingers gripping firmly across the seam. It pitched on the middle stump and fizzed past the off like a leg-break. Barnes came down the wicket, a quizzical look on his face, and asked, “What the hell’s going on?”
Peter Smith at mid-on was sceptical. “You can’t hold a new ball like that,” he remarked. Bedser did not agree. He ran in again and sent it down in the same way. The ball, according to the interviews given by Bedser later on, spun away. It actually spun.
By the fourth Test at Adelaide, Bedser had perfected the delivery. The conditions that greeted him as he ran in to bowl were extreme. The temperature on the field shot to 134 degrees on the Fahrenheit scale. A sick Bedser had to retire to the dressing room, and come back with his face white as a sheet. It was a blessing that he was six foot three and strong as an ox. On the third day, he lost six pounds. But the drama took place just before stumps on the second afternoon.
Within a quarter of an hour of the Australian innings, Bedser had got one past opener Merv Harvey, rattling his stumps. In walked Don Bradman, playing for the last time against England on his home ground. The air was abuzz, the excitement intense.
The ball was swinging a bit, and Bedser cleverly kept the line outside the off, denying Bradman the favourite leg-side push to get off the mark. Bradman was stuck at Bedser’s end. And the ninth ball he bowled to the great man was sent it down with a wider grip, helped along with the huge span of his hand. It swung in from the off, pitched on the leg, and cut away to hit the off-stump. A synchronised groan was emitted by the crowd. Their hero had been dismissed for a duck. Bradman later admitted that it was the best ball that had ever got him out.
Immediately after the day’s play, the Australian captain arranged a special net session and asked his bowlers to imitate Bedser. Yet, for all the trouble, Bedser continued to trouble him.
To be fair, The Don piled scores with the same metronomic precision. But Bedser dismissed him five times in the next six innings.
It started with the final innings of the 1946-47 tour at Sydney, when Bradman drove him into the hands of cover. In the summer of 1948, the Invincibles landed in England for the farewell series of the greatest ever batsman. In the early tour match against Surrey, Bradman ran into Bedser for the first time that year and was bowled – although not before he had scored 146.
When the Tests started, Bedser got him four times in succession, the first three times caught by Len Hutton in the leg slip. It was the potent in-swinger which brought about the downfall each time. Twice at Nottingham, he glanced into the waiting hands — once for a century and the next time for a duck. And finally, in the first innings at Lord’s, he perished in the same way for 38, after being dropped off a difficult chance at the same position when on 13. In his Farewell to Cricket, Bradman did make an attempt at waving away his spate of dismissals, writing: “I refused to be chained down into inactivity by an obvious plan, and paid the penalty.” But as he took off his pads at Lord’s, his views were significantly different: “Aw, gee, I can’t make head or tail of what I should be doing.”
In the second innings at Lord’s, Bradman stroked his way to 89, meticulously avoiding the glance off the in-swinger. And then Bedser got him for a final time in Test matches when a genuine drive was gobbled up by a flying Bill Edrich.
There was yet another dismissal as the tour drew to a close. In the traditional final tour game against HDG Leveson Gower’s XI, Bedser got Bradman caught by Hutton once again, but this time the catch was taken in the covers. As he walked back for the last time from the wicket in England, Bradman’s score read 153. But, seldom had a bowler dismissed him this frequently in any form of cricket. It is not for nothing that Bradman branded Bedser the best bowler of his kind he had ever played against.
The lone crusader
However, this period was perhaps the lowest ebb of Bedser’s career. His greatness was evident from the way he posed challenges to the most supreme batsman of all times. His prodigious skills were conspicuous from the very day he took eleven wickets on his debut against the touring Indians of 1946. But, during his initial few years, till the end of the decade, he struggled without support from the other end.
As many as 11 bowlers shared the new ball with Bedser during these years, and the lack of firepower to respond to the thunderbolts of Lindwall and Miller was embarrassingly evident. Some were way past their prime, chugging on the residual greatness of their Bodyline days. Yes, Bill Bowes and Bill Voce did open the bowling with Bedser after 1946, so pitiable were the fast bowling resources of post-War England. There were some earnest but limited operators, many with chunks of their careers eaten away by the War. England also used Bill Edrich as an opening bowler, to fling down some fast paced stuff for a couple of overs. Not until Trevor Bailey’s debut in 1949 was there any vision of permanence at the other end. And it was only in 1951 that Brian Statham emerged and a year later Fred Trueman. By then, Bedser was in his mid-thirties, overworked, stretched to the limits, used as the strike as well the stock bowler.
And then there were the thousand plus overs sent down every summer for Surrey, the superhuman efforts during the Australian and South African summers of 1946-47 and 1948-49. All these did fritter away the edge, his splendid artillery frayed at the edges out and the shine dimming fast.
By the end of the series against West Indies in 1950, Bedser did reach 100 Test wickets, but they came at an expensive 33.36 apiece. Some of the performances had been less than ordinary. He had been dropped for three Tests against South Africa in 1947, two against New Zealand in 1948 and the opening Test against West Indies in 1950.
And then at 32 he was injected with an amazing spark of rejuvenation. From the Australian tour of 1950-51 till the visit of Pakistan in 1954, he added 131 wickets at 17.22.
The good years
The 1950-51 Ashes was yet another sad chapter in the saga of English cricket. However, through the gloom of defeats the brilliance of Bedser did shine thorugh. At Melbourne he made the ball move at will. Australian opener Ken Archer remarked that he had never realised bowling could be as good as that. A batsman of Neil Harvey’s pedigree played at him five times and the ball beat the bat on every single occasion. He managed to touch the sixth, with the edge of his broad blade, and was snapped up behind the wicket.
When the action returned to Melbourne for the fifth Test, the Ashes was already emphatically secured by the Aussies. Bedser ran in to capture five for 46 and five for 59 to give England the first win against Australia in more than 12 years. The Surrey pace bowler ended the series with 30 wickets.
Another 30 followed when South Africa visited in the 1951 summer. Twenty more came in the next year against the hapless Indians already petrified by the fearsome pace of Fred Trueman. However, Bedser’s moment of supreme triumph came during the summer of 1953 when Lindsay Hassett’s Australians came over to defend the Ashes.
In the five Tests, Bedser scalped 39 at 17.48 each. There were nine other bowlers used by England in the series, and they shared the 52 other wickets. In the first Test at Trent Bridge, on a pitch with no untoward menace, Bedser mesmerised the Australians with seven for 55 and seven for 45. It was only the irritating rain that allowed Australia to get away with a draw. It was Bedser’s best-ever match analysis. It also took him past Sydney Barnes, whose 189 wickets had stood since 1914 as the highest tally of wickets in the kitty of an English bowler. In the match, Lindsay Hasset had batted with perfect poise and technique for almost 400 minutes to score 115. Bedser produced a ball similar to the one that had got The Don in 1946-47. It started outside the off stump, dipped in sharply and pitched on leg-stump, and whipped across the Australian captain to clip the top of off-stump. Hassett said that he had played three different strokes, and had almost kept the ball out with his third.
Bedser followed it up with five wickets in the first innings at Lord’s, five more in the first at Old Trafford and six in the first of Headingley. At Leeds, he went past the world record of 216 wickets till then held by Clarrie Grimmett.
In the final Test at The Oval, Bedser picked up three wickets in the first innings before Jim Laker and Tony Lock spun England to a win in the only result that summer. Although his role in the final victory was limited, Bedser had been instrumental in pegging back the Australians right from the start of the series. His dominance over the star opener Arthur Morris had been a vital factor in the Ashes triumph. The Australian media declared that Bedser was “Morris’s bugbear”. From 1946 to 1954, the two met in 21 Tests and Bedser dismissed the Australian opening batsman on no less than 18 occasions.
In particular, Bedser capitalised on the Australian left-hander’s initial shuffle to play the balls outside off-stump defensively to the off-side. With the movement, Morris was rendered vulnerable to balls that dipped in towards his leg and middle stumps. Bedser, with his mastery of movement, was able to make full use of this chink in the otherwise excellent armour.
Yet, for all his Ashes success, it was in Australia in 1954-55 that Bedser’s career virtually ended with a heart rendered heavy with disappointment. England won, but Bedser only watched from the sidelines as Frank Tyson and Brian Statham scripted remarkable history.
In the ship he had been afflicted with shingles and had not fully recovered by the time he sent down 37 overs at Brisbane, taking one wicket for 131. Things were not helped by seven catches that went down off his bowling.
At Sydney, as vice-captain, Bedser walked out to inspect the wicket with captain Hutton. It was green and spicy and made to order for seamers. There was a smile of anticipation as he walked back to the pavilion and which changed to incredulity as he did not find his name on the team list. He played only one Test after that, against South Africa in the summer of 1955.
Bedser was not a bowler of great pace, but he could hustle through and surprise the batsman. His run up consisted of three walked paces followed by nine gigantic strides. As he reached the crease he would land on his left foot with his left arm pointing towards the heavens. A brisk pivot would follow involving a classical side-on position. The right arm would be high up when the ball was released, and would trace almost a full circle with the follow-through. The pace was generated with the concentrated effort in those few steps and final projection. He often came off the wicket at unexpected rates. Because of his short run up, wicketkeepers generally preferred standing up to the wicket but had to be gifted with special ability to handle the sudden accelerations. Thankfully the man who kept to him for England was Godfrey Evans.
With exceptional line and length, Bedser’s most used weapon was the late in-swing in conjunction with deliveries that either held their course or drifted away. And later he added the leg-cutter that outwitted Bradman in Australia. As he claimed later on, often the ball darted through like a fast leg-break.
Here we must pause for a while and realise with a start that Bedser might not have become a medium-paced seamer at all had it not been for a lucky spin of a coin. If the half-crown had landed the other way, there could have indeed been a medium-paced Bedser playing for England, but another man.
Alec Bedser was born in Reading, Berkshire, just 10 minutes after his identical twin Eric. They grew up together, in difficult circumstances, hardworking and inseparable. Their father was a bricklayer and played cricket at Woodham Hall, and the twins often helped out at the building sites. Later in life Alec Bedser would say that there was no better way of staying fit than digging at construction sites.
At school, the connection between the Bedser twins was almost supernatural. Even when separated into two different rooms, they made the same mistakes in their schoolwork. Both sang for the choir at All Saints, Woodham, and the cricket-crazy vicar Rev RT Jourdian organised matches in which the two excelled.
At 14, the boys began work as clerks in a solicitor’s office in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London. It was during this apprenticeship that they joined a cricket school at Woking, recently opened by the former Surrey all-rounder Alan Peach. Both the Bedsers bowled fast-medium and impressed the coach.
It was at this juncture that the twins decided that there should be more variation in the bowling attack boasted by the Bedser brotherhood. They tossed a coin and Alec Bedser won. From that day, Eric stuck to off-breaks.
The twins joined the Surrey ground staff at The Oval on the recommendation of Peach. They were more than happy to leave the legal world behind, a drudge that had offered them little spare time. They watched the senior professionals with awe, the hierarchy of the day preventing them from approaching the well-known names or starting conversations. In June 1939, they made their Surrey debuts together against Oxford University. However, Alec Bedser was not able to take a First-Class wicket before another seven years had passed. The Second World War intervened.
The twins remained together throughout the War. At first they joined the RAF and narrowly escaped death when bombed by a German fighter plane on the Belgian border in May 1940. They were marooned in occupied France and now just about managed to avoid being shot. It was left to a Surrey member to drive them to the edge of Dunkirk in his car.
The Bedsers went on to serve in Algiers, Tunis and Naples. They found the time to visit the grave of Hedley Verity in Caserta. The great Yorkshire spinner had been killed in action in 1943. The twins helped to arrange a headstone for the departed cricketer. Later, they helped lead survivors to safety after the Mount Vesuvius eruption in 1944.
During the course of the War, Alec was offered a promotion to become a warrant officer, but refused when he realised it would mean separation from Eric.
When county cricket resumed in 1946, Alec Bedser got into his groove immediately. For Surrey, he captured six for 14 against Marylebone Cricket Club, five for 135 against the visiting Indians, seven for 46 against Northamptonshire and eleven wickets in the match against Lancashire. He did not have to wait any longer, and was drafted into the England team for the first Test against India.
His first three Test wickets were Vijay Merchant, Lala Amarnath and Vijay Hazare. Bedser captured seven for 49 in the first innings of his debut, and 11 wickets in the match. In the second Test he scalped 11 more. The British press hailed a new hero, much-needed source of cheer after the hardships and horrors of War. In his family, the reaction was mixed.
Eric would often criticise his twin’s efforts with biting comments from the slips. “Rubbish, bowl straighter Alec, make them play,” one could hear him voicing during Surrey games. However, now he was delighted by the success of his brother in the Tests, and would continue to be happy throughout Alec’s career.
However, when the media approached their mother for her reactions at her son’s fantastic start to Test cricket, her response was less than ecstatic: “Well, isn’t that what he’s supposed to do as a bowler?” Alec Bedser inherited quite a few characteristics from his mother. He seldom understood the fuss made over him. Neither did the success go to his head, nor did he suffer from despondence when faced with the hard days and burdened with a weak English side in the latter half of the forties.
Bedser finished his Test career with 236 wickets at 24.90 each. It remained a world record until overtaken by Brian Statham in 1963. He continued to play, and often shine, for the all-conquering Surrey team of the fifties. With Jim Laker, Tony Lock and Peter Loader, he formed a formidable bowling attack and was one of the architects behind the seven consecutive county championship triumphs from 1952 to 1958. When Peter May was not available, Bedser took on the mantle of leadership as well. By the time he retired in 1960, he had captured 1,924 wickets from 485 matches at 20.42.
With the bat, he was always a stubborn customer, adamantly difficult to dislodge and had the ability to drive off the backfoot through the covers with considerable elegance. The Headingley Test of 1948 is remembered mainly for the incredible heist pulled off by Bradman and Morris, but it also marked Bedser’s brightest moment with the bat as he scored 79 as a night watchman. Later that year, he scampered a single with Cliff Gladwin to win against South Africa by two wickets off the last ball of the heart-stopping Test match at Durban. However, Bedser’s typically honest analysis remained, “I have to do all the bowling. I can’t do the batting as well.”
Alec Bedser was made an OBE in 1964. Later he was appointed CBE in 1982. In 1997, he became the only England bowler ever to be knighted for his services to cricket.
Down the years he performed the roles of manager and assistant manager on several tours. He served on the England board of selectors for almost a quarter century, from 1961 to 1985, and was the chairman of the selectors from 1968 to 1981.
His stint at the helm of the selection committee occasionally ran into problems with difficult individuals like Geoff Boycott, Tony Greig and Ian Botham. However, England did win 10 of the 18 series while he was managing the show. Some of his curious decisions were remarkably successful, such as calling up the bespectacled and grey-haired David Steele in 1975.
Yet, there were some dark passages during the 24 years. He courted controversy in 1968 by being one of the decision makers who originally left out Basil D’Oliveira from the touring side to South Africa in 1968. It was also his rather obstinate adherence to the rule book which ended Tom Graveney’s sterling career with more than a tinge of unnecessary sadness.
After his cricket career, the Bedser twins went into business to sell office equipment. The venture was highly successful. The twins stayed together all life and neither of them got married. Identical and indistinguishable, they added to the confusion of others by often dressing alike. From their youthful days to late age, they delighted themselves by using their likeness to trick batsmen, umpires and captains. Off the field, they played several befuddling jokes on barbers, barmen, guests and, more seriously, lady friends.
Eric Bedser died in 2006. He never played a Test for England, but captured 833 wickets in First-Class cricket in 457 matches at the excellent average of 24.95. He also hit 10 First-Class hundreds. Sir Alec survived him for four years and went on to become the oldest surviving Test cricketer after the death of his old Surrey wicketkeeper Arthur McIntyre in December 2009.
The great England seam bowler passed away in April 2010. A year earlier, while watching Australia versus Pakistan on television, he had enthralled a group of onlookers by explaining how he would have got Ricky Ponting out.
In Pics: Alec Bedser’s cricketing career
(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twiter.com/senantix)