Sahiwal, November 1978. Indian cricket team is facing its Pakistani counterpart in a one-day international contest. This series is the first engagement between the neighbors 17 years. In the interim, the two had been engaged in hostilities twice – with the last leading to creation of Bangladesh, the former East Pakistan.
Pakistan had dominated the 3-match test series, winning 2-0. India managed a win in the 1st ODI with the hosts squaring it in the 2nd match. For India, the decider is their last chance to leave with some cricketing honor. And it looks promising. In response to Pakistan’s total of 205 in 40 overs, Anshuman Gaekwad and Surinder Amarnath produced a 119 run 2nd wicket stand to take India close to victory. Even when Amarnath fell with 43 needed, India kept their heads. With 3 overs to go, they needed 23 with 8 wickets in hand. And then things unraveled fast.
The 1st ball of the 38th over by Sarfaraz Nawaz sailed over the 6 feet+ Gaekwad’s head into the gloves of the keeper. Gaekwad looked at the umpire but the latter gentleman stood still. Next ball, a repeat of the same. 3rd and 4th ball – same thing. Sarfaraz bowled bouncers above the batsman’s reach and the home umpire refused to signal a wide. Gaekwad and Vishwanath helplessly looked at the dressing room. There stood their leader – a burly Sardar. By then, he had had enough. Of the dirty tricks by Pakistan and of the connivance by the Pakistani umpires. He signaled his team to come back to the pavilion and conceded the match – a first ever instance in international cricket. That man was Bishan Singh Bedi – India’s captain on that tour, a giant of Indian cricket, who breathed his last a couple of days ago.
If anything defined Bedi saab more than his amazing craftiness with the ball in hand, it was his ability and courage to call a spade a spade. Two years earlier, at Kingston, Jamaica, a similar situation had unfolded. Unable to take Indian wickets, West Indian captain Clive Lloyd had instructed his bowlers to bowl at their bodies. Three Indian batters were forced to retire hurt with Gaekwad hospitalized from a head injury. Just like at Sahiwal, the West Indian umpires refused to do a thing about. Bishan Bedi declared the Indian first innings at 6-down, in a protest against the vile tactics of Lloyd. It was largely thanks to Bedi saab’s continuous protestations that eventually ICC woke up and introduced the 1-bouncer per over rule that we see today.
Born on 25th September, 1946 in Amritsar of then undivided-Punjab, Bishan Singh Bedi took up cricket rather late – around the age of 13. But his prodigious talent soon shone bright and he made his first class debut at the age of 15 for Northern Punjab. In 1969, he moved to Delhi and became a stalwart of cricket in the capital. He also represented Northamptonshire in English country cricket and his first class haul of 1560 wickets is more than any Indian cricketer has achieved till date.
Having made his India debut in the New Year test against Sir Gary Sobers’ West Indies in 1966-67, Bedi saab played 67 tests picking up 266 wickets. He also featured in 10 ODIs. In several test series, Bedi saab played a pivotal part:
• India vs. Australia 1969–70: 21 wickets at the average of 20.57
• India vs. England 1972–73: 25 wickets at the average of 25.28
• India in the West Indies 1975–1976: 18 wickets at the average of 25.33
• India vs. New Zealand 1976–77: 22 wickets at the average of 13.18
• India vs. England 1976–77: 25 wickets at the average of 22.96
• India in Australia 1977–78: 31 wickets at the average of 23.87
In 1976, he succeeded Mansur Ali Khan, the last Nawab of Pataudi, as captain of the Indian team. India’s world record breaking chase of 406 vs. West Indies at Port of Spain in 1976 came under Bedi saab’s captaincy – a win that incidentally prompted the vile tactics by Lloyd in the next match.
But to measure Bedi saab by numbers will be a cardinal sin and akin to evaluating Akiro Kurosawa by box office numbers. If there ever was a magician with a cricket ball, it will be Bedi saab. As he rolled in to bowl, it was like poetry in motion. As he twirled the red cherry in his hand, it was like Picasso fiddling with a brush before producing a flourish of genius. There was no greater joy in the game than witnessing the master of craft lulling batsmen into a fall sense of security, allowing them to hit a few big blows before producing a moment of magic that left the poor batsman like a deer caught in a car’s headlights.
Off the field, he was a kind, boisterous and large hearted man who loved to live a life. But whenever he spotted an inequity, he would stand tall in protest. During an unofficial test vs. Sri Lanka (before the islanders were granted test status) in Nagpur, the Indian team was put up in a MLA hostel instead of a proper hotel. In the freezing Nagpur winter, only the rooms of Bedi – the captain, and the manager had hot water. Furious, Bedi let it go at the local cricket officials and was rewarded with a stinging reprimand by a BCCI disciplinary committee and then was informed no arrangements had been made for him to travel from Bombay to Chandigarh, where he was to feature for North Zone in a Duleep Trophy match. With no train tickets available, the captain of the Indian cricket team was forced to travel in luggage compartment and then take a bus to the venue!
But this did not deter the man. To his last day, he remained outspoken and critical when it came to his favorite game being maligned in any way. Today, from Virat Kohli to Cristiano Ronaldo to Novak Djokovic – the modern day sports icons are defined by peak physical fitness. Yet, Bedi saab’s stint as manager of Indian team in 1990 was cut short because players complained about him being a hard taskmaster when it came to matters of fitness. The man who always wrung and washed his own clothes because it made his fingers stronger and suppler had correctly sensed that the sport was evolving and soon, fitness would become a strong differentiator. Alas, powers that be of Indian cricket chose to get rid of Bedi saab instead.
As this giant of cricket leaves us permanently, he leaves behind wonderful memories – both on and off the field – and an unparalleled legacy. One sincerely hopes that mandarins of the present day cricket board fare better than their predecessors in protecting this legacy.
Rest in spin Sir.
Based out of Kolkata, Trinanjan is a market researcher by profession with a keen interest in Indian history. Of particular interest to him is the history of Kolkata and the Bengal region. He loves to write about his passion on his blog and also on social media handles.
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