Bishan Bedi, slow left arm and the World Cup | Crickit

Bishan Bedi, slow left arm and the World Cup

By, New Delhi
Oct 25, 2023 09:57 PM IST

Bedi regarded one-day cricket as “anti-spin-bowling”, but this World Cup has served his craft very well, writes Rahul Bhattacharya.

The thirty-first over of the innings and Aiden Markram has his eye in at the Wankhede. Looking to loft Shakib Al Hasan, he finds the ball not quite there, his one-handed swing is caught at long-off. Who can you think of but Bishan Singh Bedi?

File picture of former Indian captain and legendry spinner Bishan Singh Bedi, who passed away at the age of 77, on Monday (ANI)
File picture of former Indian captain and legendry spinner Bishan Singh Bedi, who passed away at the age of 77, on Monday (ANI)

Slim Keshav Maharaj wheeling away under lights, varying his pace but never losing his length, ten overs on the trot for 32 runs. Where must the mind alight but on Bishan Singh Bedi? He lives on in the posters around the ground. Some pay homage to the Sardar of Spin. Others read like a heartfelt text message: Miss u Bedi.

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We all do, those who knew him and those who did not, those who have watched him bowl and those who only know the stories. Bishan Singh Bedi is part of our ancestral memory. If he did not exist it might have been necessary to create such a beau ideal, looping the ball in exquisite deceit, applauding the batter when hit for six, laughing when he undoes him, afterwards drinking with his victim into the wee hours, slapping the fellow’s thighs as he regales him with cricket anecdotes, risque jokes and philosophical insights alike. Bishan Bedi was beauty, generosity, a full life, all we wish sport to be.

To recall him during a limited-overs World Cup is perhaps off key. Bedi regarded one-day cricket as “anti-spin-bowling”. He himself played only ten ODIs, ensured he never corrupted his bowling style for those, and averaged 48 despite the extraordinary figures of 12-8-6-1 against East Africa in the inaugural World Cup. If limited-overs cricket must exist, he preferred that the impressionable stay away. After the breakthrough 32 wickets against Australia in 2001, he advised Harbhajan Singh against playing one-day cricket, and afterwards had the same recommendation for young spinners and T20.

But this World Cup has served Bedi’s craft very well. Near the top of the wickets table is New Zealand’s Mitchell Santner, not quite a Bedi carbon. Bedi’s leading arm was high, side-on, pristine, supple fingers of the right hand briefly kissing the ball in the left before delivery. Santner’s is stiff and not extremely participatory, thanks to a teenage back injury. He is a terrifically clever bowler. He keeps his eyes on the batters, he says, not the spot he is looking to bowl at, and he constantly mixes up his pace – “fast fast slow” or “slow slow fast” as Nasser Hussain puts it. At times, as he showed Virat Kohli even in the foggy evening conditions of Dharamsala, he can let it hang in the air and bite past the edge. In three matches out of five he has gone for less than four an over in his full quota.

More economical still has been Ravindra Jadeja, who has the most efficient bowling action known to humankind and is as quick as Bedi was stately: through the air, through the over, across the field. In his match-winning performance against Australia in Chennai, he spun one past Steve Smith’s bat with such speed and sharpness it could be booked for rash driving. More often, like the best of his kind, Jadeja depends on immaculate control.

Left-arm orthodox is the least sexy spin in the modern game. It does not hold the wicked, collapse-perpetrating promise of wrist spin. Neither has it developed the tricks of right-arm finger spin. Santner has up his sleeve “the claw”, a carrom ball, but generally the stunts Ravichandran Ashwin and Maheesh Theekshana perform, SLAs don’t try at home. They rely on conventional arm-balls and undercutters for variety. This the classicist Bedi would approve of. He was suspicious especially of anything involving the elbow in the slightest – a cricketing sin that prompted him, unfairly if without agenda, to hound the great Muttiah Muralitharan.

Left-arm spinners work in ways we cannot see. At the Wankhede, ESPNcricinfo’s Mohammad Isam, himself a slow left-armer good enough to have given Kevin Pietersen in his prime a workout in the nets, tells me that Shakib’s rudder is his right toe. When he started, Shakib was all natural variation; he could not tell whether the ball would turn or carry straight on. Now, says Isam, this modern master with nearly 700 international wickets can control whether to turn it this much or that much, which one will jump on to the thigh pad, which one will skid through.

These SLAs are exceptionally athletic; Jadeja and Santner are sensational fielders, two of the best in the game. No doubt their training encompasses every body part with specialist equipment for each.

Bedi paid special attention to his wrist and fingers. He did it by handwashing his clothes. He also replied to letters, forty to fifty a day while captain, and those must have kept the fingers going too. Strong, artistic fingers, beautifully captured in pictures by the world’s best cricket photographers, uncalloused fingers, since he gripped and released the ball from the tips, privileging flight over turn. “His flight. Really, the flight,” as his great spin partner BS Chandrasekhar said in these pages.

Despite his disdain for the short game, despite his diet and mobility, I’m betting Bedi would have found a way today if he wanted to. Sure, there are things the modern spinner contends with that he did not have to. He did not have batters reverse-sweeping or switch-hitting him, but they did charge him and he liked them to. One such was the brilliant Australian Kim Hughes. On YouTube you can watch Hughes hoist Bedi for a tremendous six, followed by a scorched-grass straight drive. Then the bowler gives him a quicker arm ball that sends the off stump clean out of the earth. Sublime. Bishan Singh Bedi, how can we not think of you?

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