Bishan Singh Bedi took 266 Test wickets. One of them remains etched in my memory, because it illustrates how spin bowling is as much a cerebral art as a physical one.
The wily old fox was bowling to the twinkle-toed Kim Hughes, a batsman unafraid to step out of the crease to meet the ball. Bedi had at first kept the young Australian rooted in his crease, making him a bit edgy.
Bishan-Portrait of a Cricketer : By Suresh Menon, Penguin India, 236 pages, Rs 299.
Then the magical over began. The first ball was tossed up in the air. An impatient Hughes finally saw his chance, stepped out and hoisted the ball over Bedi’s head for a six. The next ball was also given air. Hughes drove it away for a four. The third ball was pitched slightly short of a good length. An overconfident Hughes leaned back to cut for another boundary.
But the ball was not a slow turner. It dipped sharply, hurried off the pitch and crashed into the off stump—an armer. Bedi had planned the elaborate sequence, a mind game against a very talented batsman. Hughes walked off, a slightly wiser man.
Watching Bedi bowl was an aesthetic pleasure: the minimalist trot to the wicket, the swivel of the body across the ample girth, the arm held beautifully straight, the eyes looking at the batsman from over the right shoulder, the fluid delivery action. In a well-known remark, the great English off-spinner Jim Laker has said that his idea of heaven was a summer afternoon at Lord’s, with Ray Lindwall bowling at one end and Bedi at the other.
Twirlymen—The Unlikely History of Cricket’s Greatest Spin Bowlers: By Amol Rajan, Yellow Jersey Press, 400 pages, £16.99 (around Rs 1,300).
Such a combination of deception and beauty has been a hallmark of every great spinner: lulling the batsmen into a false sense of comfort, beating him both in the air and off the wicket, the endless variation in deliveries. Bedi was one of a great quartet of spin bowlers that served India with distinction in the 1960s and 1970s. Bedi, Erapalli Prasanna, Bhagwat Chandrasekhar and Srinivas Venkataraghavan were central players in the emergence of India as a team that could win Test matches. It was Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi who first saw the potential of building a winning bowling attack around outstanding spinners.
Suresh Menon’s new biography on Bedi does full justice to the legendary bowler. Bedi wanted to be a fast bowler, till Gurpal Singh, his college captain in Amritsar, convinced him to turn to spin. He owed his strong and supple fingers to the games of marbles he played as a boy in the streets of his hometown. Add to that the long hours of practice in the nets every day, which gave him immense variety. “He could pitch six balls in an over on a fifty-paisa coin, but the batsman seldom realized that each time it came from a slightly different direction,” writes Menon.
Give it a twirl: Spin legend Bishan Singh Bedi.(Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
The spin quartet had its detractors, who pointed out that they bowled on wickets tailor-made for their art and whose bowling averages are yet not out of the ordinary. Menon himself points to criticisms about how an earlier trio of Vinoo Mankad, Subhash Gupte and Ghulam Ahmed would have been as impressive if they had better catching support from butter-fingered fielders and more helpful wickets than the flat tracks from the defensive 1950s.
The art of spin bowling is inadequately appreciated. The spectator who sits in the stands does not realize that the ball tossed innocuously in the air has immense potential. It can be held back as if by an invisible string or can gently swerve in the air before spinning the other way or dip a few inches short of where the batsman expects it to. It can turn viciously or not at all. A great spinner can make the ball float in the air but pick up considerable pace once it hits the ground. The sheer variety can leave batsmen trapped in doubt. There is also pain, thanks to the act of gripping a hard cricket ball across the seam and giving it a vigorous tweak. Spinners often end the day with bleeding fingers. But that vigorous tweak also ensures that the batsman can hear death approaching, as the ball whirrs ominously in the air.
Amol Rajan brings the art alive in Twirlymen, his magnificent history of spin bowling. Rajan was a spin bowler himself, but one who never made it to the top grade. He brings the natural admiration of a cricketer who knows how difficult it is to bowl top-class spin. Rajan has deep knowledge about spin bowling, describing both the intricacies of how the ball was gripped by various masters and also the tactics they brought to the bowling crease.
Shane Warne, at the vanguard of cricket’s spin revival. (Hamish Blair/Allsport/Getty Images)
Spinners have been among the most innovative cricketers, and Rajan provides a delightful tour of innovations such as the googly, the flipper, the carom ball and the controversial doosra (which is a chucked ball, going by traditional parameters of what constitutes fair bowling). On the way, he also questions the widely held beliefs about who was responsible for these innovations. For example, he shows that there were bowlers before B. Bosanquet who bowled googlies.
Rajan also writes with charm about the greatest bowlers, including the incomparable Sydney Barnes, of whom John Arlott wrote: “A right-arm fast-medium bowler with the accuracy, spin and resource of a slow bowler”. Barnes bowled at a brisk pace, and spun the ball both ways. His bowling record is as unmatched as the batting record of Don Bradman: 189 wickets in 27 Tests at an average of 16.43 and 1,432 wickets at 8 runs per wicket over 22 seasons for Staffordshire.
My one grouse against what is otherwise one of the finest cricket books in recent times is the relative neglect of many Indian spinners. There is no mention of P. Baloo, the star of the 1911 tour of England. Mankad gets less space than he deserves. And, considering the space given to some of the lesser English and Australian spinners, Rajan would have done well to at least mention superb spinners such as Padmakar Shivalkar, V.V. Kumar and Rajinder Goel, who were unfortunate to be bowling at the same time as the great quartet.
What about the future? Spin bowling was considered dead in the 1980s, but then came Shane Warne, Muttiah Muralitharan, Anil Kumble, Daniel Vettori, Graeme Swann, and (till their skills went into inexplicable decline), Saqlain Mushtaq and Harbhajan Singh. A new generation of spin artists will continue to thrive even in this era of heavy bats, short boundaries and Twenty20 mayhem.