Celebrating the Sardar of Spin, on his 75th birthday

On the eve of his 75th birthday, Bishan Singh Bedi's friends from the cricket fraternity have come together to gift him a book.

Bishan Singh Bedi in his delivery stride during a Ranji Trophy contest circa 1974.   -  THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Bishan Singh Bedi loves speaking about Don Bradman. "Oh, I can never tire talking about the man. He was an institution," he says. Then, there are many admirers who just can't stop discussing Bedi, the man, the cricketer, and to those close to him, an unsung philosopher and guide.

On the eve of his 75th birthday, Bedi's friends from the fraternity have come together to gift him a book, which is essentially a collection of articles by some of the best-known names from the world of cricket. India's greatest cricketer, Kapil Dev, has written the Foreword, and Sachin Tendulkar has relived his association with the master spinner in the book titled The Sardar Of Spin and published by Roli Books.

"Among my early memories of Bishan paaji is the image of a player with his collars up and shirt buttons open. I was a kid and was watching the Duleep Trophy match between North and Central. Bishan paaji was a star. I just could not take my eyes off him. He was not an athlete but he was always busy on the field, constantly doing some exercise or the other when he was not bowling or when he was fielding in the deep. I also remember playing an Irani Cup match and watching him bowl. He made a big impression on me with his catching as he stood in the slips, and praised me for the half-century I made. The best part of that match was travelling from Delhi to Bangalore by train and enjoying his company for more than two days of travel. He had so much to share with us youngsters in the team," writes Kapil.

‘A true sardar’

Kapil sums up Bedi the man aptly: "Critics would call Bishan paaji a rebel. Wrong. To me, he was a cricketer who knew his rights well. He stood up for the cricketers, fighting for better match fees, travel facilities and accommodation. He took on the Delhi and District Cricket Association because he wanted the players to be treated with respect. He did not hesitate to clash with the Board officials when he thought they were not being fair in their approach. For him, nothing was more important than the players’ interest and he was always prepared to walk any distance to achieve his goals. True, he suffered in the process, but always emerged with his head held high. A true sardar who made Indian cricket immensely proud."

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Amongst the galaxy or writers, Bedi's daughter, Neha stands out with her beautifully penned chapter that sets the tempo for the book. She talks of Bishan Singh Bedi the father and not the cricketer. "'Observe and Absorb' is the motto of the Bishan Bedi Cricket Coaching Trust. It is also deep ingrained in me because my father, Bishan Singh Bedi, never let me forget it. The person I am today is because I have observed him every step of the way – his warmth, his affection, his belief in gratitude and ‘shukrana’, his innate ability to always look skyward to the Almighty for spiritual strength – and absorbed what I used to hear him say to the boys when he was the coach: ‘Achha insaan banna seekho beta ji, cricket toh baad mein bhi aa jayegi.’ I am not going to write about Bishan Singh Bedi the cricketer, I am writing about Bishan Singh Bedi, my father." Neha engages you with her simple writing.

Sample this reflection of her early years. "Dad was against raising ‘entitled children’. He used to say, if you can’t earn it, don’t use it. At that time, I felt so much resentment towards the way he brought us up. ‘Never indulge in self-pity,’ he would say whenever I felt short-changed by him. My brother Angad and I were the first victims of our dad’s intensive training regime. Just four or five years old at that time, we hated running. He used to hold both our hands and force us to run for hours on end in the park, bellowing, ‘Jaagte jaagte bhaagte rehna, bhaagte bhaagte jaagte rehna,’ and would scream at us, ‘Move your bloody legs!’"

‘Fiercely competitive’

Sachin Tendulkar has revered Bedi, who was coach of the Indian team on the tours to New Zealand and England in 1990. Tendulkar has fond memories of those tours and writes about his experience of facing Bedi in the nets. He recalls, "Bishan paaji was ahead of the times in terms of preparing us for the matches. The nets were conducted in a serious manner, and he would, many a time, join by bowling to the batsmen. Fiercely competitive, he would challenge the batsman to step out or hit him to a specific target. It was a great sight when he won those battles. I had the privilege of facing him in the nets and it was evident that he was still working on setting up a batsman, and I had to be at my absolute best while facing him. While giving us close-in fielding practice, I remember how he could generate a lot of power through his shoulders, and hence, would simply use his tremendous arm speed to give us fielding practice with his hands."

In a touching reference to their relationship, Tendulkar writes, "I always had this feeling that he treated me like his son. He would greet me as ‘Sashoo, my son’, and I could always feel the warmth in his tight hug. When one was down, he would try to strike a conversation and make one feel comfortable. I have had some great times with him and his family, and it is nice to see Angad doing well in his chosen profession. Anju ji treated me like her son on those tours and I will forever cherish my association with paaji’s family. I take this opportunity to express my gratitude to Bishan paaji for his contribution to Indian cricket and, also, to my development in the initial stages of my career. He has been a great teacher and a role model to revere. My best wishes to him on this special phase of his life."

 

There is a message from the legendary Sunil Gavaskar that adds to the book’s value. "Until Wasim Akram came on the scene, Bishan Singh Bedi was the best left-hand bowler I had seen. I guess, one can now say that Bishan Singh Bedi is the best left-arm spinner, and Wasim Akram, the best left-hand pacer. During the last Test match of India’s triumphant tour of the West Indies in 1971, I was floored and honoured when, in Trinidad, Bishan Singh Bedi – who had become a father during the game – decided to name his first born, Gavas Inder Singh. Gavas Inder Singh completed his Golden Jubilee in April while Bishan Singh Bedi celebrates his seventy-fifth birthday in September. I am thankful to the organisers of the celebration, and the book publishers for giving me the opportunity to send my greetings and good wishes to both on the momentous occasion."

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Bowling legend Anil Kumble and Kartik Murali have been close to Bedi. Few conversations with Bedi would end without the mention of Kumble and Kartik. In a touching chapter, Kumble writes, "We would have physical fitness and fielding sessions in the morning, with afternoons dedicated to honing cricketing skills. Bishan paaji was particular about the team lunching together because he was convinced that this kind of bonding among players was essential. He believed the team was like a family, and that a family which eats together, stays together. At the same time, he allowed me to spend time with my family – I would leave home for the hotel, where the team was staying, early each morning, spending the day with my extended family, and returning home from evening practice at M. Chinnaswamy Stadium. For someone not yet twenty, that meant the world."

Kumble remembers, "When the Sydney Test unravelled the way it did in 2008 and there were rumours that we were contemplating leaving the tour midway, Bishan paaji sent me a message. ‘Son, take a decision that history will remember you by,’ he said, adding, ‘Don’t reach a hasty decision, don’t be ruled by emotion.’ It was a great message; without saying it in as many words, he told me I had a greater responsibility towards the sport, towards our country."

Dismissing Waugh at 50

Kartik was one of Bedi's favourite students and this anecdote by him leaves you in awe of the great spinner. "I can never forget his spell to Steve Waugh at the National Stadium nets back in 1996 when the Australian team was in Delhi for a one-off Test. Paaji had been ill just a week earlier, and in fact had found himself in the ICU. But here he was, recently recovered, slightly overweight and completely out of touch with bowling. As soon as he landed up in the nets I was bowling, he nominated to the Australian manager that he would get Waugh out LBW with his 15th delivery. The first six or seven deliveries were very short, and he got pulled repeatedly. But he had always spoken about how the biggest strength for a spinner was having a big heart. This was to be a display of that trait. Despite having been hit off every ball he came to me and said, ‘Look son, at least I’m getting hit on the same side of the ball which means that my seam is going fine.’ Then just as Waugh thought he had mastered the veteran, Paaji slipped in an arm-ball that hit his pads before he could bring his bat down for the cut-shot. Just like that Paaji had claimed another high-profile victim, at the ripe old age of fifty."

Chapters contributed by former Test greats Vijay Merchant, Michael Holding, B. S. Chandrasekhar and Greg Chappell, former England skipper and friend Mike Brearley, Abbas Ali Baig, Raju Mukherji, V. Ramnarayan, Arunabha Sengupta, V. V. Kumar, Kirti Azad and Dr Narottam Puri make it a book to cherish. Contributions from W. P. Sharma and B. S. Rattan, his friends from early years, complete a fabulous list.

Journalists Qamar Ahmed, G. Rajaraman, Rajdeep Sardesai, Ayaz Memon and Clayton Murzello bring a fresh perspective with their writing. A stats section at the end by H. R. Gopala Krishna is a treat. A chapter from son Angad would have been an icing on the cake.

Published at a short notice to celebrate the occasion, Priya Kapoor of Roli Books calls it a "gift to an icon who is a family."

As Neha says, "Happy seventy-fifth, Dad. You are, and will always remain, my ‘Topman’."

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