Bedi, the youngest and most colourful of India’s great spin quartet, turns 75 this week
You tend to remember where you first met your heroes. Of India’s great spin quartet, I met Erapalli Prasanna and Bhagwat Chandrasekhar at the KSCA while attending a camp for schoolboys. Venkatraghavan I met at a movie theatre (showing Murder on the Orient Express, with Albert Finney as Poirot).
But I can’t pinpoint where I first met Bishan Bedi. It’s as if I have known him all my life. In any case he treats you as if he has known you all your life too, so beginnings don’t really matter.
I have been fortunate to watch and report cricket while some of India’s greatest players, from Tiger Pataudi to K.L. Rahul have been in action. The spin quartet was always special, and I was privileged to work in the cities where they lived and spend hours and hours in their company.
Bedi, the youngest and most colourful of them, turns 75 this week. A book of essays in his honour is being released, but celebrations will be muted. There are the Covid restrictions for one, while Bedi’s health as he recovers from a stroke will not allow him to party.
This is a pity because he is the most sociable of cricketers, happiest in the company of other cricket people, and with a wealth of anecdotes to share. It is never difficult to tell where Bedi is in a crowd — it is where the laughter rings the loudest.
Not only is Bedi a wonderful story-teller himself, he is at the centre of other people’s stories too, many apocryphal. He has become the generic author of anything spoken against authority; the man most likely to have said something aptly funny, and therefore by extension the man who actually said it.
Yet for all his gifts, Bedi has one quality that outshines others but is seldom commented upon. He venerates cricket, and feels physically hurt if someone or something interferes with the purity or integrity of the sport.
In his book, cricket is played a certain way, and players who do not adhere to this have no place in it. Skill is to be admired, of course, but even more so is an attitude of reverence towards the game.
Grace in motion
Those who never saw Bedi bowl — the YouTube videos don’t do him justice — have missed one of sport’s great sights. His action had all the elements of high art — balance, rhythm, pattern, unity, variety, deception, consistency — all put together like a symphony by a master. The gentle loop sometimes ended in vicious pace off the wicket, the apparently quick delivery came to you long after you had played the drive.
If the quartet were a group of bank robbers, Prasanna would be the one with the plan, Venkat the one who would draw the map pointing out where the dangers lay and how to get past the cameras, Chandra would be in charge of the explosives. Bedi would be the one with the plans to distract the authorities, tricking them into looking in the wrong place.
They brought their various gifts together not for harm (except to a few egos) but to provide the sport with some of its most delicious treats. Batsmen sometimes appeared transfixed when the ball didn’t appear where it was meant to or went the wrong way or trapped them in front of the wicket at a speed that remained in their nightmares.
Post-retirement, Bedi was the glue that held the quartet together. He is an inveterate letter writer; he calls up friends regularly. The arrival of social media made it all so much easier. He wrote and wrote. All four were protective of one another. When I once wrote something mildly critical of Venkatraghavan, Bedi berated me, mildly but firmly. I am not sure if Venkatraghavan minded so much, but Bedi certainly did.
When someone asked Prasanna at a function who he thought was the best batsman in his time, he named the England player Tom Graveney, and gave this as his reason: “For me the best batsman is the one who played Chandra best.”
Chandra often said, “Pras is like an older brother to me,” while Bedi “saw god in Chandra.” Venkat was the intellectual, the only one to make time to visit Mohenjo-daro on the quartet’s first visit to Pakistan.
“You cannot think of us singly; we were a group,” Bedi once said. And it’s true. As players they did their best work together, after all.
When boyhood heroes age, they remind us how we have too. But Bedi has never lost touch with his inner child, full of fun and mischief and a love for sweets. One year he took me to the Golden Temple and explained things with a deep understanding. Bedi the bowler was great, but Bedi the man is greater still.
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