The Sardar of Spin

Published: 2021
Pages: 235
Author: Bajaj, Sachin (Editor)
Publisher: Roli
Rating: 3.5 stars

It isn’t going to be all that often that a book warrants a title and two sub titles, but this is one of those rare occasions. The first sub title is A Celebration of the Life and Art of Bishan Singh Bedi and, just in case any further confirmation of the reason for its publication was needed, the second is On the Occasion of his 75th Birthday.

A biography of Bishan Bedi, penned by Suresh Menon (who is one of the contributors here) was published a decade ago, but the acclaimed left arm spinner has never actually gone into print himself. Perhaps as part of his rehab from his recent health troubles he should get together with a writer to do so? There is plenty of scope for a book to be written by or on behalf of one of the game’s most interesting figures.

With The Sardar of Spin Sachin Bajaj has edited a fine anthology on the subject of the man who is, perhaps, India’s greatest national treasure. There are 34 numbered chapters, and as many forty men have contributed to the book. Most of the names, particularly of the Test and First Class cricketers, are familiar as are some of the professional writers, but for those who are less well acquainted with them one of the nice touches to the book, along with an excellent selection of photographs and some decent statistics, is a brief introduction to all the contributors, including those who don’t really need one.

The drawback with collections like this is that, to a certain extent, everyone wants to write the same thing and the editor’s main difficulty is to avoid too much repetition. Some is, of course, inevitable, but a choice of writers who cover a broad range of perspectives help. Unsurprisingly and entirely appropriately most are Indian, but an Englishman (Mike Brearley), two Australians (Greg Chappell and writer Mike Coward), a West Indian (Michael Holding) and a Pakistani (journalist and author Qamar Ahmed) also contribute.

The pages of The Sardar of Spin are, as the reader would expect, full of descriptions of Bedi’s bowling, something considered a thing of beauty the world over. Also featuring at length are his much loved personality. There are many examples throughout the book of Bedi’s generosity of spirit, and almost as many of his high principles and the rather spikier aspects to his character. Some famous spats from the past are remembered, and their stories told.

As an Englishman I found the references to one of Bedi’s disputes particularly interesting, that being the furore that surrounded his ‘sacking’ by his English county, Northamptonshire in 1977. The case was an interesting one from both a cricketing and legal standpoint and I recall as a law student in the early 1980s having cause to study the case. The legal issue was whether Bedi, only of course ever employed on a contract that covered the summer months, could ever establish the 26 week qualifying period* that was a pre-requisite for any employee pursuing a claim for unfair dismissal.

On that question Bedi was successful, but having succeeded in getting his case heard the Tribunal then dismissed it on its merits, accepting the club’s arguments that the reasons for the dismissal were that it was believed Bedi was past his best anyway, had had his effectiveness as a player reduced by injury and was the club’s most expensive player. Thus, the argument went, given the club’s troubled financial situation, it was reasonable to decide to dispense with his services. Bearing in mind I did actually study the case, that has always been my recollection of the way events were reported.

Cricket is no different from other areas of life in that conspiracy theories abound, and often they do not crop up until years afterwards, but those who write about this episode in The Sardar of Spin seem to conflate events at Northampton with another controversy and thus, because the book will sell well, it is going to change the game’s history a little.

The earlier incident took place during the previous winter’s England tour of the sub-continent, when an Indian side led by Bedi were, rather surprisingly, defeated by Tony Greig’s England, whose triumph was in no small part due to the left arm swing bowling of John Lever. Of course Lever famously had a bit of help in his endeavours thanks to the Vaseline he used to keep in place the strips of gauze that were intended to keep the sweat out of his eyes.

Unsurprisingly, and quite rightly, Bedi called England out on what they were up to and in doing so managed to offend the sensibilities of some in the English establishment. That those noses being put out of joint was the motivation for the ludicrous suggestion that was made in the following summer of 1977 that Bedi’s action was in some way unfair is a given, but the suggestion that the Lever incident in some way contributed to the action that Northamptonshire took is not supported by any contemporary evidence and certainly does not strike a chord with those today who are well acquainted with the history of the county. It remains a good story though, and Bedi remains the one person to emerge from it with credit and his integrity unquestioned. 

Inevitably some of the pieces, which vary in length considerably, are better than others. If I had to single out just one it would be that of Clayton Murzello, but the lengthy extract from Rajdeep Sardesai’s Democracy XI is not far behind. A word also for Arunabha Sengupta who, with twenty pages, weighs in with what is comfortably the longest essay in the book. In it he does dwell on Bedi for a couple of pages, but the bulk of his writing introduces the other great orthodox left arm spinners who have graced the game, before using that background to look at Bedi’s achievements.

There can be no cricket lovers anywhere in the world who do not appreciate the contribution that Bishan Bedi has made to the game, so this is certainly a book that should sell well wherever cricket is played. If I may be forgiven one small expression of disappointment that is, in respect of the man whose bowling action was certainly ‘poetry in motion’, that there is not a single poem on show, so shall I close with one:-

Bishan, silent killer with the ball

Chuckling quietly as one by one they fall.

Gentle executioner, they called you

A spin wizard, thru and thru.

Weaver of dreams, here you stand

A poet with red cherry in hand.

Not white or pink for you, only red

That beautiful arc, leaving batsmen stranded with feet of lead.

Flights of fancy, luring them to their doom

Like a spider to a fly, cramped for room.

Like a vision in white, you appear in a dream

No finer sight on a cricket field has ever been seen.

Lion of Punjab, you call a spade a shovel!

No fear in your heart

Now halfway through the seventh decade of your life.

Yes, Bish you turn 75 today

But for millions of your fans around the world, you remain immortal**

*In the fifty years since an employee’s right not to be unfairly dismissed  was introduced into UK law by, perhaps surprisingly, Ted Heath’s Conservative administration, his rather less enlightened successors have pushed the qualifying period back to two years.

**Tempted as I am to attempt to pass these words off as my own I shall be honest and give credit where it is due, to Gulu Ezekiel.

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