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The Holy Trinity – Bish

The Holy Trinity - Bish

I cannot remember when I first heard Erapelli Prasanna, Bishan Bedi and Bhagwat Chandrasekhar described as The Holy Trinity, but its ethereal simplicity, coupled with the air of the mystic East that the three men brought with them, meant it always struck me as a wonderfully appropriate description. Nowadays the mention of India conjures up an image of a land of contrast, between great poverty on the one hand, and hi-tech industry and cosmopolitan hustle and bustle on the other. In my youth the thoughts inspired by the country were rather different, being of fakirs, snake charmers and a mysterious and somewhat forbidding way of life.

Of the three men Pras was the oldest, and Bish the youngest, but there wasn’t much in it, their birth years being 1940, 1945 and 1946 respectively. In their day Indian cricket teams always spun for their wickets. They hadn’t had a pace bowler worthy of the name since before the Second World War, and weren’t to produce another until Kapil Dev made his bow, just as the Holy Trinity were leaving the game.

The three were a perfect contrast. Bish was a classically orthodox slow left armer. Pras was an equally orthodox off-spinner, and Chandra bowled right arm wrist spin. He was anything but orthodox, bowling at something approaching medium pace and with a whippiness to his action and delivery borne of the legacy of a withered bowling arm, damaged by childhood polio. But my favourite was always Bish. The fact that he was a Sikh, and always wore his patka and his beard, might initially have had an influence on that, but I soon realised that the sight of him wheeling away, over after over, a slow bowler in the fullest sense of the word, was one of the most aesthetically pleasing in the game. There was simply no comparison to be made with the English slow left armers of the time who all pushed the ball through, and of course Derek Underwood, by some distance the best, was all but medium pace his action highly effective, but hardly a thing of beauty.

Despite his slow and deceptively easy action what Bish also had was a fast arm, and although it remains counter-intuitive to me that a cricket ball can pick up pace after pitching, Bish certainly created uncertainty in batsmen’s minds, as however slow he looked to the spectator he often made batsmen hurry their shots. What caused that, I learned later when I was coached myself, were the subtle variations in pace, and the amount of spin that Bish put on the ball, and more particularly the fact that his particular skill was that there was never any perceptible change of action. He had a fine arm ball, that looked for all the world as if it was going to turn away from the right hander like the previous delivery, but just hurried on. There was also another variation, one that Bish himself could not explain and which he said sometimes just happened, when the ball floated in before turning away.

If Pras and Chandra were mercurial elements of the trinity Bish was the heartbeat of the Indian attack, always reliable and never easy to score from. While the others were wont to grab the headlines from time to time, for example Pras in Australia in 1967/68, and Chandra against England in 1971 and again in 1972/73, Bish was the glue that held the side together, particularly on his home pitches in India. He occasionally lacked penetration overseas, and he was particulary diappointing on his first trip to Australia, and he was very much the stock bowler in England. That is not to say that he did not have his moments on foreign fields – he did exceptionally well in Australia in 1977/78 when he was far too clever for Bob Simpson’s young side, and it was in that series that he recorded his only ten wicket match haul.

On the field and off Bish was always a true gentleman, fiercely protective of the spirit of the game, and proud of its traditions. He was noted for his habit of applauding any batsman who hit him for six, and I will always remember watching him do that three times in the final over of Lancashire’s innings in the 1976 Gillette Cup Final when David Hughes struck 26 from the over. Bish was a great believer in “buying” wickets, and there was doubtless an element of lulling the batsmen into a false sense of security, but he was always genuine. Another example of his generous nature emerges from England’s tour of India in 1972/73. India won the series 2-1, Bish and Chandra mesmerising the England batsmen, Dennis Amiss in particular having a rough time. The fact that they were opposing each other in the series did not prevent Bish taking the trouble to spend time with Amiss in the nets, helping him with his technique.

But despite his usually smiling countenance and sunny disposition Bish was not a man to fall out with. He was strongly principled and fearless if he felt he had been wronged. He was no stranger to litigation and to my certain knowledge has figured in three cases. The best known was in relation to his claim for compensation for Unfair Dismissal after leaving Northamptonshire in 1976, but there were two subsequent cases in Australia.

After emerging with great credit from a tour of Australia with a World XI the previous winter Bish joined Northamptonshire in 1972. He was immensely popular and only the second Indian player, after Farokh Engineer, to fire the imagination of the English public. In six seasons with the county he took 434 First Class wickets at 20.89. By the 1970s a bowler getting one hundred wickets for a season was rare, and in 1973 Bish’s 105 victims propelled one of the cinderella sides of the County Championship to third place.

Despite the mauling by Hughes in that final over Bish was a part of the winning side the 1976 Gillette final, the first trophy the county had ever won. That winter Tony Greig captained England on the sub-continent, and Bish was at the heart of the “vaseline” incident in the series between England and India. Despite playing at home the Indian batsmen gave their spinners nothing to bowl at, the English seamers, and Essex left armer John Lever in particular, enjoying themselves. Whether the vaseline impregnated gauze that Lever wore to keep the sweat out of his eyes was really an excuse to add shine and lustre to the old ball is not entirely clear. But it certainly offended Bish who told the media It is disgusting that England should stoop so low

Back in the Championship in 1977 Bish, still only 30, took 68 wickets at 22.85 and was as successful as anyone at the County Ground, but he wasn’t invited back for 1978. Two years earlier they had told him he could stay as long as he liked, and the volte face offended him. He himself pointedly said he hoped that the “vaseline” incident had nothing to do with the decision, although many in India openly linked the two.

According to the county there were three reasons for their decision. First Bish’s standards were slipping and he wasn’t the bowler he had been. As his wickets in ’77 cost less than in any of the three seasons since the heady days of ’73 that assertion must be open to question, albeit as we all know statistics do not ever tell the whole truth. The second reason given, a rather more straightforward one, was that budgets were tight and Bish was the county’s most expensive player. There was some merit in the third reason too, that being that in ’79, with a World Cup and a series against India afterwards, Bish would barely be available.

The conspiracy theorists can also point towards a remarkable event that summer, an investigation by Lord’s of a suggestion that Bish threw. The committee charged with looking at as silky smooth an action as the game has seen unsurpringly reached “no adverse conclusion”. Bish was furious, and understandably so – the last time the MCC had filmed him was when he had first arrived in England. On that occasion the purpose was to encourage aspiring left arm spinners to endeavour to replicate his action.

Bish was no stranger to injustice as, a couple of years previously, he had been left out of the Indian side for the first Test against West Indies in November 1974. It is not entirely clear what his sin was on that occasion. Wisden described his suspension as being on flimsy disciplinary grounds. What had he done? Certainly he was interviewed by Peter Walker, the former England and Glamorgan all-rounder, and then BBC presenter, following the disastrous tour to England in 1974. He also spoke on a children’s television programme, Magpie. The fact that those interviews were not given with the prior approval of the tour management seems to have been in breach of contract, but I cannot find any report to the effect that Bish said anything controversial in either interview. It may also have been relevant that early on during that 1974 tour there was a flaming row between Bish and his captain, Ajit Wadekar. So angry was Bish that he threatened to leave the tour and go back to Northants. Wadekar apologised, but the legacy of the row doubtless contributed to India’s lacklustre performances.

The report in The Cricketer states that Bish apologised after being dropped, and although that is strictly true there was a little more to it. Bish had upset the Board President personally, and the entire episode was brought about by unilateral action on his part rather than by the board as a whole. The perceived slight was Bish refusing to sign a receipt for his full tour fee when he had not been paid it. None of the players received everything that had been promised, although for all but Bish they got a sum close enough for them to give up on the balance. Public opinion in India was firmly on Bish’s side and the apology was part of an overall settlement that paved the way for Bish to return for the second Test and allow the world to concentrate on the cricket.

It may also have been relevant to the 1974/75 incident that at the time there was a lacuna with the captaincy, the successful man of the early 70s, Ajit Wadekar, having retired after the disappointing 1974 trip. Bish and Farokh Engineer were thought to be the leading candidates, but then the Nawab of Pataudi was appointed despite not having been in England in ’74 – perhaps the “suspension” was linked, as it nicely ruled Bish out of the running.

After Pataudi’s swansong against West Indies India had no more Test cricket for over a year, at which point they and their new skipper, Bish having by now been appointed, had a brief tour of New Zealand followed by what proved to be a highly controversial tour of the West Indies. I have already told the story of that series here, and how it was marred by a series of injuries to India’s batsmen which resulted in their being all out with just five wickets down in the fourth and final Test. Bish had much to say at the time and later about the first incarnation of the four pronged pace attack, and he did not hold back.

Returning after that digression to the unfair dismissal claim, that was heard over three days in the summer of 1978. The first argument was as to whether or not Bish could even bring the claim. In England there has always been a qualifying period of continuous employment that an employee must have in order to pursue such a case. Its length varies with the colour of the goverment. It is two years now, but under old Labour in 1978 it was a mere 26 weeks. Northants argued that as Bish only ever worked over the summer he could never get that 26 weeks under his belt. On that point Bish won, for the benefit of cricketers everywhere. But he lost on the merits, the Tribunal deciding that Bish’s form was no longer what was to be expected of an international star. Today I suspect the result may have been rather different, not because an Employment Tribunal in the 21st century would have been any more willing to make judgments on a cricketer’s form, but because the procedure the club adopted was so deeply flawed – there was no fairness at all to how the decision was reached, Bish not even being allowed to address the committee that took over six hours to reach its decision not to offer him a further contract.

In truth Bish’s form had dipped since his best days. In his youth he had been a slim and athletic figure, but he had become rather more portly as his career progressed. He did not offer much with the bat, and although he had a safe enough pair of hands he would never have claimed to be an asset in the field. To avoid the risk of damage to his shoulder he had stopped throwing the ball in from the outfield some years before his shoulder did start to trouble him, and once that happened, and it had done so by 1977, some of that famous nip off the pitch, his greatest asset, left him. That much conceded whatever the state of his shoulder what cannot be argued with is that in his last season Bish was as successful on the English county circuit as ever.

What hurt Bish as much as anything was the fact that the county had failed to honour its promises to him, that those commitments had not been made in writing was neither here nor there to a man like Bish, whose word was his bond and whose loyalty was unquestioning. In 1977/78 he had led India against Bobby Simpson’s World Series Cricket ravaged Australia, and had played a full part in producing a series that the Australian public chose to watch in preference to the product that Kerry Packer had created for them. A year later, when a number of his teammates were ready to take the Australian tycoon’s lucre, it was Bish who stood firm; I refuse to let Packer use my shoulder to fire his gun from. Bish had no great love for the establishment, and support for them was not his motivation. His words and actions were prompted by his enormous respect for the game itself, and its precious traditions.

Despite his fine showing in Australia the end of Bish’s time was nigh. Nine months later India toured Pakistan, lost heavily and Bish’s six wickets cost him almost 75 runs each. After that it was back to India for a six Test series against West Indies. Ater the defeat by Pakistan Bish was replaced as skipper by Sunil Gavaskar, and after the first three of the six Tests that made up the West Indies series, during which he was only marginally more successful than against Pakistan, Bish lost his place in the side. He came back for a last look at England in 1979, when he played his final Tests. Northamptonshire’s decision was, by now, clearly a sound one, on cricketing grounds at least.

Bish played for two more seasons with Delhi. He led them to victory in the Ranji Trophy in 1979/80, and to the final again the following year when Bombay, defeated the previous year, had their revenge. There was internal strife in Delhi, Bish at one stage being dropped, an action that was a catalyst for a walk-out by others. It was a surprise in the circumstances that they got to the final. Less so the ease with which Bombay won, even though the captaincy by then was back with Bish. He didn’t play for Delhi again, and two games in Pakistan for an International XI in late 1981 were the end.

Bish was still only 35, no great age for a spin bowler, but the extravagant talents seemed to have gone. Despite that Bish still felt he was good enough to do a job for India, and he blamed Gavaskar for what he saw as a premature end to his international career, and for a while a very public spat between the two was played out in the sporting press in India.

Early 1982 saw Bish involved in court proceedings again, suing a Tasmanian club for not honouring a contractual commitment. The start of the case was noted in the May 1982 edition of The Cricketer, but the story is never returned to. Bish’s claim, I believe, was frustrated by the parlous state of the finances of the club in question.

His playing career over Bish remained in the game. He coached, commentated and wrote about the game. He was one of those who takes the credit for the selection of the side of all-rounders who so unexpectedly lifted the 1983 World Cup. He remained combative and controversial, his cricinfo profile reiterating a famous story that in 1990, whilst national coach, he threatened to dump the Indian cricket team in the sea after a poor series in New Zealand. That wasn’t exactly what he said, but the cricinfo version makes a good story. Later in 1990 he made the headlines again, after being extremely vocal in his criticism of Gavaskar rebuffing an invitation from the MCC to become an honorary life member. The two had never really stopped sniping at each other in the media, and their petulant exchanges this time were doubtless a factor in Bish’s tenure in his high profile role coming to an end soon afterwards.

Since then Bish has concentrated on coaching at all levels, and the Bishan Bedi Cricket Coaching Trust has played a role in the development of more than fifty First Class cricketers. But Bish hasn’t kept quiet, and in 1994 became embroiled in litigation again. He issued proceedings in Australia against The Age for libel. The paper had reported on his habit of rubbing his hands on the wicket in order to help him get a better grip on the ball. Bish felt that cast an imputation of ball-tampering. The bringing of the case was reported in The Cricketer in September 1994. No updates were published, so presumably the case was quickly settled, before the legal profession could make too much out of it.

In recent years Bish has hit the headlines most frequently as a result of his condemnation of the action of Muttiah Muralitharan, which he has likened to that of a javelin thrower. His most frequently quoted comment is if Murali doesn’t chuck then show me how to bowl. There has been talk of legal action between the pair as a result of these comments, but I suspect that was something talked up by others on Murali’s behalf. As Bish said every time the subject was raised there was nothing personal in his remarks, which were motivated by his views on what the laws of the game should reflect. The fact that he was barely less voluble about his countryman Harbhajan Singh amply served to confirm that. Murali had every reason to be annoyed by the remarks, but clearly had more sense than to air his grievances in court. Bish is also known to be fiercely opposed to T20 cricket, which he describes as the most vulgar expression of cricket, although in his pomp, complete with “nip”, I suspect that he would have been rather good at it.

There is, hopefully, plenty of time yet for Bish to carry on ruffling feathers, but in a couple of generations time I hope that what he did on the cricket field will be what he is best remembered for. Sir Donald Bradman, who knew a bit about bowlers, once described him as a connoisseur’s dream – to those of us fortunate enough to have seen him bowl there is no better way of describing Bish.


Looking forward to this. Love Bedi.

Comment by Monk | 12:00am BST 7 May 2014

Bedi’s control of the ball trajectory and speeds was famed. It has always seemed incredible to me that the most versatile and talented spin bowling attack ever assembled in test history was not more successful away from the sub-continent. It was like having O’Reilly, Verity and Laker together. India’s batting let them down too badly perhaps for them to win anything significant abroad.

Comment by harsh.ag | 12:00am BST 13 May 2014

To be fair they did win in England and West Indies in 70/71, and then didn’t play another away series until 1974!

Comment by fredfertang | 12:00am BST 13 May 2014

A really enjoyable piece as usual, Martin.

You’re not doing a feature about Venkat then, mate?

Comment by garethb | 12:00am BST 16 May 2014

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