Bishan Singh Bedi: The man who turned left-arm spin bowling into a fine art

BIshan Singh Bedi © Getty Images

On September 25, 1946, one of the most ebullient characters of Indian cricket and the greatest left-arm spinner produced by the country saw the light of the day. Arunabha Sengupta traces the life and career of the legendary Bishan Singh Bedi.

He seemed to have the ball on a string – so incredible was his control of flight and loop. He could make the ball hold or hurry almost at will as it traversed the winding arcs in air.

Jim Laker – who in his lifetime had seen his fair share of bowlers – described his idea of heaven as Ray Lindwall bowling from one end and Bishan Singh Bedi from the other!

And the gentle run in, guile and grace remained unabated regardless of how long he continued to bowl. “When you have seen Bishan Bedi twirl down his spinners after 60 overs with the same gentle rhythm as he settled into at the start of the spell, you understand why his is a great bowling action. A clockmaker would have been proud to set Bedi in motion – a mechanism finely balanced, cogs rolling silently and hands sweeping in smooth arcs across the face,” remarked Tony Lewis.

The spinner’s yarn

Born in Amritsar, Bedi made his First-class debut at the tender age of just 15 for Northern Punjab. On the last day of 1966, aged 20, he made his debut for India at the Eden Gardens. Through the next dozen years, his colourful patka and exuberant personality was a loved and recognisable sight across the cricket grounds of the world.

Spinning a lethal web around batsmen for over a decade along with off-spinners Erapalli Prasanna and Srinivas Venkataraghavan, and leg-spinner Bhagwat Chandrasekhar, he was part of the spin quartet who gilded the golden age of Indian slow bowling. On helpful wickets at home, bowling mostly as a trio, the spinners brought India numerous memorable wins – the first time the nation tasted triumphs with something amounting to regularity.

Bedi himself started to excel in two victorious series against New Zealand, first away and then at home, and followed it up by curving a niche for himself against Bill Lawry’s Australians in 1969 – bagging 21 wickets including a career-best seven for 98 in Calcutta.

Before the 1968-69 season, he moved to the capital, and since then represented Delhi in domestic cricket till the end of his career. Virtually unplayable on helpful wickets, he captured his career-best haul of an incredible seven for five against Jammu and Kashmir at New Delhi in 1974-75.

An integral member of the history scripting teams that toured West Indies and England in the early seventies, he landed a lucrative contract with Northamptonshire in 1972. Stints in county cricket went a long way in building his final tally of 1560 First-class wickets which still stands as the highest by an Indian. During his county days, he also enjoyed the unlikely batting delight of striking a boundary off the penultimate ball to win the Gillette Cup semi-final for the Northants against Hampshire in 1976.

The brilliance of this indefatigable spinner transcended the touch of time. When England visited in 1972-73, he captured 25 wickets at 25.28 and when they returned in 1976-77, he once again bagged 25 at 22.96.

A fair portion of his magic was performed abroad as well.

Leading the team with gusto, on the difficult tours to West Indies in 1976 and Australia the year after, Bedi took 18 wickets in the West Indies and a record 31 Down Under, including his best match figures of 10 for 94 at Perth, traditionally known to be a heaven for fast men.

However, at the same time, the brilliance was punctuated by controversies.

In 1974-75, he was dropped from the first Test against West Indies at Bangalore on disciplinary grounds. The authorities were not happy that he had talked to the BBC without requisite permission during the trouble-stricken English tour of the summer of 1974.

He was back in the side for the second Test, and in the third proceeded to bowl India to an amazing victory with the help of Chandra at the Eden Gardens. But, these brushes with the authority would persist as long as he played.

Bishan Singh Bedi: The man who turned left-arm spin bowling into a fine art

The great Jim Laker described his idea of heaven as Ray Lindwall bowling from one end and Bishan Singh Bedi from the other! Bedi seemed to have the ball on a string so incredible was his control of flight and loop. He could make the ball hold or hurry almost at will as it traversed the winding arcs in air © Getty Images

Captaincy and controversy

His captaincy days continued to be full of untold guts, some glory and a lot of controversy. There was the memorable Test win at Port-of-Spain as India scored 406 in the fourth innings. In the following Test at Jamaica, he characteristically refused to buckle under intimidation and declared the innings with just five wickets down and plenty in arrears, protesting against the tactics of Michael Holding and the others.

His direct and confrontational stance against the Vaseline gauze used by John Lever did shake the authorities, and coupled with a 1-3 series loss to England, managed to ruffle some important feathers. This was followed by the series in Australia, which was eventually lost but portrayed India as a force to reckon with. The best players of the home team were away playing the World Series, and the Test matches were keenly fought. India did well enough to win two while losing the other three, Bedi leading from the front, enjoying a supremely successful stint on the Australian pitches.

But the big blow came against Pakistan, when a gamut of fleet-footed batsmen blew away the famous Indian spinners in a disastrous Test series. During that tour, Bedi also became the first captain to concede an international cricket match. In the One-Day International at Sahiwal, Indians were 23 runs away from victory with 14 balls and eight wickets remaining. At this juncture, Bedi called in his batsmen in protest against four bouncers Sarfraz Nawaz had bowled in succession, with the umpires neither warning the bowler or calling wides.

The 0-2 Test series loss in the backyard of the arch rivals did not go down well, and Bedi was replaced at the helm by Sunil Gavaskar, a man with whom he did not exactly gel.

The bitter last days

He returned poor figures against West Indies at home. Bedi later suggested in an explosive interview given to Sportsworld, Calcutta-based Indian magazine, now defunct, that Gavaskar had harassed and humiliated him throughout the series. In the three Tests that he had managed to play, he had been given tiny spells from unsuitable ends.

He still managed to find a place in the side travelling to England in 1979 under Venkat. Although he managed a decent tour – capturing 33 wickets in all First-class matches at 25.66, and seven at 35 in the Tests — he was left out for the next few series as Gavaskar regained captaincy on return.

When India later toured Australia and New Zealand, Dilip Doshi, the left-arm spinner in the team, got injured. Bedi claimed in the same interview to Sportsworld that following Doshi’s injury, Gavaskar himself called up Ravi Shastri – whom the tweaker categorised as a yes-man – asking him to be ready to travel, violating the protocol according to which the manager was supposed to inform individual players. Gavaskar responded saying, “If Bishan has a grievance, I am most surprised. When I first saw the article, I thought Sportsworld had started a jokes column.” The Indian skipper went on to say that he could not imagine dominating a selection panel which included names such as Polly Umrigar, Dattu Phadkar, ML Jaisimha and Chandu Sarwate.

Whatever be the truth, Bedi never played for India again. He passed from the scene as the highest wicket taker for India in Test cricket, a record that stood till Kapil Dev went past it in 1985.He continued to represent Delhi in First-class cricket till 1982 before retiring from the game.

Post retirement

He has been connected to cricket in various roles since then, as national selector, manager, coach, mentor, members of various committees and as an ever-controversial and straight-forward spokesperson of the game.

Bedi’s opinions about many, many aspects of the game always make for interesting perusal. From famously suggesting that the entire Indian team should be dropped into the ocean after a loss in an One Day game when he was the manager, to suggesting that Gavaskar is a destructive influence on the game; from comparing Muttiah Muralitharan to a javelin thrower to branding Twenty 20 cricket as the most vulgar expression of cricket, he has prominently dominated the limelight and air waves.

However, no one can deny his zest and passion for the game and the infinite wisdom he brings with him. He continues to graciously offer invaluable advice willingly and proactively to young spinners. 

Bedi in numbers

And finally, the records of the man still stand – shining among the best with the supreme average and the second best economy rate among the splendid spinning riches of the country.

Indian spinners with over 100 wickets

 

Bowler 

Tests

Wkts

Avg

Eco

SR

Vinoo Mankad

44

162

32.32

2.13

90.6

Subhash Gupte

36

149

29.55

2.34

75.7

EAS Prasanna

49

189

30.38

2.40

75.9

Bhagwat Chandrasekhar

58

242

29.74

2.70

65.9

Bishan Bedi

69

266

28.71

2.14

80.3

S Venkataraghavan

57

156

36.11

2.27

95.3

Dilip Doshi

33

114

30.71

2.25

81.7

Shivlal Yadav

35

102

35.09

2.56

81.9

Ravi Shastri

80

151

40.96

2.35

104.3

Anil Kumble

132

619

29.65

2.69

65.9

Harbhajan Singh

98

406

32.22

2.83

68.1

When you have seen Bishan Bedi (above) twirl down his spinners after 60 overs with the same gentle rhythm as he settled into at the start of the spell, you understand why his is a great bowling action. A clockmaker would have been proud to set Bedi in motion – a mechanism finely balanced, cogs rolling silently and hands sweeping in smooth arcs across the face,â remarked Tony Lewis © Getty Images

If we look at the left-arm spinners of all time, we find him right up there with the best of the modern era. Along with Derek Underwood, he was the greatest left-arm spinner of his generation – and considering that Underwood bowled close to medium-pace, Bedi was the only great left-arm spinner of the period cast in the classical mould. Underwood, Tony Lock, Johnny Wardle, Iqbal Qasim and Bedi form the five greatest slow left-arm bowlers since the Second World War.

Left-arm spinners across history with more than 100 wickets

 

Bowler 

Period

Mat

Wkts

Avg

Eco

SR

Bobby Peel

1884-1896

20

101

16.98

1.97

51.6

Johnny Briggs

1884-1899

33

118

17.75

2.35

45.1

Colin Blythe

1901-1910

19

100

18.63

2.45

45.4

Johnny Wardle

1948-1957

28

102

20.39

1.89

64.6

Hedley Verity

1931-1939

40

144

24.37

1.88

77.5

Tony Lock

1952-1968

49

174

25.58

2.03

75.5

Derek Underwood

1966-1982

86

297

25.83

2.1

73.6

Wilfred Rhodes

1899-1930

58

127

26.96

2.49

64.7

Iqbal Qasim

1976-1988

50

171

28.11

2.21

76.1

Bishan Bedi

1966-1979

67

266

28.71

2.14

80.3

Alf Valentine

1950-1962

36

139

30.32

1.95

93.1

Dilip Doshi

1979-1983

33

114

30.71

2.25

81.7

Rangana Herath

1999-2012

40

154

31.72

2.79

68

Vinoo Mankad

1946-1959

44

162

32.32

2.13

90.6

Paul Adams

1995-2004

45

134

32.87

2.98

66

Monty Panesar

2006-2012

42

142

33.33

2.79

71.6

Phil Edmonds

1975-1987

51

125

34.18

2.13

96.2

Daniel Vettori

1997-2012

112

360

34.42

2.59

79.6

Phil Tufnell

1990-2001

42

121

37.68

2.42

93.2

Paul Harris

2007-2011

37

103

37.87

2.65

85.5

Ashley Giles

1998-2006

54

143

40.60

2.86

85.1

Mohammad Rafique

2000-2008

33

100

40.76

2.79

87.4

Ravi Shastri

1981-1992

80

151

40.96

2.35

104.3

Nicky Boje

2000-2006

43

100

42.65

2.96

86.2

In spite of the increase in the number of Test matches in recent times, there are still only 15 spinners who have managed to take 200 Test wickets. Bedi figures quite high in this list as well.

Spinners with more than 200 Test wickets

 

Bowler 

Tests

Wkts

Avg

Eco

SR

Muttiah Muralitharan

133

800

22.72

2.47

55.0

Clarrie Grimmett

37

216

24.21

2.16

67.1

Shane Warne

145

708

25.41

2.65

57.4

Derek Underwood

86

297

25.83

2.10

73.6

Richie Benaud

63

248

27.03

2.10

77.0

Bishan Bedi

67

266

28.71

2.14

80.3

Stuart MacGill

44

208

29.02

3.22

54.0

Lance Gibbs

79

309

29.09

1.98

87.7

Anil Kumble

132

619

29.65

2.69

65.9

Bhagwat Chandrasekhar

58

242

29.74

2.70

65.9

Saqlain Mushtaq

49

208

29.83

2.64

67.6

Harbhajan Singh

98

406

32.22

2.83

68.1

Abdul Qadir

67

236

32.80

2.71

72.5

Daniel Vettori

112

360

34.42

2.59

79.6

Danish Kaneria

61

261

34.79

3.07

67.8

Bishan Singh Bedi: The man who turned left-arm spin bowling into a fine art

BIshan Singh Bedi… poetry in motion © Getty Images

How would have Bedi fared today?

It is a difficult question.

In his day, Test matches were considerably fewer — and he had to share his wickets with the likes of Chandra and Prasanna. Besides, there were no Zimbabwe and Bangladesh to boost one’s numbers.

However, let us try to propel his career forward by 30 years, and assume he played from December 1996 to August 2009.

During this period India played 127 matches. Given that Bedi played 67 out of the 75 matches played during his playing days 1966 to 1979, a similar ratio generates 113 matches he would have been likely to play in the current era.

Of these considering the number of matches India played against Zimbabwe and Bangladesh during the period and assuming the same ratio, 13 of his 113 matches can be assumed to be against the minnows.

In the 100 matches against genuine sides, the number of wickets Bedi would have been likely to take is approximately 397.

In the remaining 13 matches against Zimbabwe and Bangladesh, we can safely assume another approximately 60 wickets – using a measure of success that lies between the rates of Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh.

That would have given him 457 wickets in 113 matches.

Using these rough calculations, if we list the modern spinners, we have the extrapolated modern version of Bedi just below the top bracket of Murali and Shane Warne:

Rough approximation of Bedi’s record if he played between 1996 and 2009

 

Bowler 

Tests

Wkts

Avg

M Muralitharan (ICC/SL)

133

800

22.72

SK Warne (Aus)

145

708

25.41

BS Bedi (India) – extrapolated to modern times 

113

(estimated)

457(estimated)

27.56 

(estimated)

SCG MacGill (Aus)

44

208

29.02

A Kumble (India)

132

619

29.65

Saqlain Mushtaq (Pak)

49

208

29.83

Harbhajan Singh (India)

98

406

32.22

DL Vettori (ICC/NZ)

112

360

34.42

Danish Kaneria (Pak)

61

261

34.79

In Photos: Bishan Singh Bedi’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://twitter.com/senantix)