The Gloss of His Spin

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This is not the usual mishmash of quotes and anecdotes. Suresh Menon’s biography of Bishan Singh Bedi gets under the master bowler’s skin, says Dileep Premachandran

Deft sport Writer Suresh Menon
Deft sport Writer Suresh Menon
Photo: Sanjay MD

THE BEST description of  Bishan Singh Bedi comes from the biographer himself. “Like most larger-than-life figures, Bedi wasn’t just one personality,” writes Suresh Menon in the preface. “Which Bedi do we focus on? Bedi the player, Bedi the man, Bedi the public image, Bedi the private individual, Bedi the rebel or an amalgamation of all these?”

Bishan Singh Bedi
Bishan Singh Bedi
Photo: Getty Images

To his credit, he explores every facet of a man who was so much more than the beau ideal of a spin bowler. A younger generation may associate him with controversial TV shows like Match Ka Mujrim and outspoken remarks about Muttiah Muralitharan — “If Murali doesn’t chuck, then show me how to bowl” — but for the connoisseur, Bedi was the constant in a decade when Indian cricket first stood up and was counted on the world stage.

Menon deftly describes each tour, what transpired on and off the field. But what makes the book especially readable are the insights it provides. In an age when the cricket biography has come to mean a mishmash of reportage and mundane quotes, it’s refreshing to see a proper writer get under the skin of his subject while making no attempt to gloss over the flaws and idiosyncrasies.

“Bedi never does things by halves: there is black and there is white in his philosophy, seldom any grey,” he writes. “Like the poet Walt Whitman, Bedi can claim that he is large, he contains multitudes. He makes friends easily and enemies, even more easily. He can be childish and mature in the same breath, infuriating and comforting all at once.”

Bedi was the common thread that linked India’s maiden victories in New Zealand in 1967-68, the West Indies and England in 1971 and Australia in 1977-78. Through all the ups and downs, though, he had an inflexible view on his craft — an attitude that sometimes left his captains clutching their heads in despair. “I get a greater thrill out of beating a batsman like Viv Richards in the air than in clean bowling a tail-ender,” Bedi once said, and Menon expands on that theme as he explores the philosophical differences with Ajit Wadekar, the captain, that so undermined India’s tour of England in 1974.

Menon’s insights make the book especially readable. He makes no attempt to gloss over Bedi’s flaws and idiosyncrasies
Menon’s insights make the book especially readable. He makes no attempt to gloss over Bedi’s flaws and idiosyncrasies

This is not just a Bedi chronicle, though. It’s the tale of the legendary spin quartet that finished with more wickets (853) than the fearsome pace foursome that Clive Lloyd unleashed in the late 1970s. It’s the story of a young boy who wanted to bowl fast, but who was persuaded in another direction by Gurpal Singh, his captain at Khalsa College — “I looked at this thin lad who didn’t take up much space, and told him as gently as I could that he didn’t have the potential to be a fast bowler.”

From the early years under Tiger Pataudi’s captaincy to the mid-1970s, when he became an outspoken advocate for players’ rights, Bedi the bowler evolved into one of the all-time greats. “Like a jazz artist, he used the orthodoxy to improvise, to discover new themes and to lull the batsman into thinking he has heard the music before, only to have it change pitch and leave him looking foolish,” writes Menon. “Bedi could pitch six balls on the same spot and make them do different things, or pitch them at different points and make them do the same thing.”

It all ended at age 33 with 266 wickets from 67 Tests, and the best moments here are the reflective ones. “Quite often I catch myself wondering even today how it all happened,” says Bedi. “How a quiet little boy from Amritsar became an India captain and all those things.”

Menon provides a suitable answer. “Jim Laker once remarked that his idea of heaven was Lord’s in the sunshine, Ray Lindwall bowling at one end and Bishan Bedi at the other.”

Menon’s insights make the book especially readable. He makes no attempt to gloss over Bedi’s flaws and idiosyncrasies

With a foreword by Anil Kumble and a flow that makes it as easy to read as Bedi was to watch, this is a cricket book worthy of a place on the shelf.

Premachandran is associate editor, Cricinfo.


Murder They Wrote

This serial novel between 14 writers like Agatha Christie and GK Chesterton makes for a superb puzzle mystery,  finds  Zac O’yeah

Many herrings Agatha Christie
Many herrings Agatha Christie
Photo: Getty Images

I’VE BEEN wanting to lay my hands on this book for a while but the fact that it was originally published in 1932 made the chances of finding it slim. But suddenly here it is — in a beautifully-designed Indian hardcover edition.

The corpse of Admiral Penistone floats in already in Chapter One, as it should in a classical detective novel, although it is mysteriously drifting upriver. Inspector Rudge uncovers puzzling clues (and the mandatory red herrings) while interviewing a dodgy vicar who was the admiral’s neighbour across the river, an apparently frigid niece who may be a lesbian (if not a man dressed as a woman), a suspect business traveller and so on. Nothing unfamiliar so far. What makes The Floating Admiral unique is that it is a collaborative effort — a so-called ‘serial novel’ written by several authors, including some of the foremost names of early 20th century British detective fiction such as Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, GK Chesterton and Ronald Knox. This novel could, therefore, be said to mark the zenith of the Golden Age of puzzle mysteries.

Few other genres would allow for this kind of a literary relay race — I’ve only heard of two others, both American and in the more hardboiled vein: The Black Moon (1989) that counted Ed Gorman among its co-authors, and Naked Came the Manatee (1996), written by Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiaasen among others. This is how it works. Each writer is entrusted with the task of writing a chapter to bring the plot forward, starting with the discovery of the corpse. Where one author signs off, the next carries on. To prove that their writings aren’t random, each author also provides a sealed envelope with the proposed solution to the crime. (The contents of these envelopes have been added as a fascinating appendix.)

The Floating Admiral
The Floating Admiral
Members of the Detection Club
Hachette India
310 pp; Rs 39

The novel illustrates the parlour game nature of the puzzle mystery; the difference being that these top writers perform the game in plain view of the reader. So one author might ask — why is the manila rope used for mooring the boat cut instead of being untied? The next might suggest that the tide holds a key to that and several other mysteries, only to find that yet another author notices the rope wasn’t only cut but that two feet and three inches of it are missing! What that means is again left to the next writer to deal with.

While this may sound like the makings of a terribly inconsistent novel or a post-modern jigsaw puzzle where the pieces not only don’t fit but barely make sense, the amazing fact is that while reading this book, one barely thinks of the shift from one author to the next. (Except when one is tempted to refer to the many possible solutions laid out in the appendix.)

At some point, I began to pity the author who was supposed to pull off the final chapter and wrap up the staggering investigation, what with all the bizarre clues entered into the game. But, in the end, all is neatly tied up by Anthony Berkeley, in a chapter aptly titled ‘Clearing Up the Mess’!

O’Yeah is the author of Once Upon A Time in Scandinavistan

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