A video doing rounds on social media during the week that went by showed clippings of the function organised by former Indian cricket team captain Kapil Dev to celebrate the 75th birthday of the legendary left-arm spin bowler Bishan Singh Bedi. The event was attended by many of Bedi’s former teammates as well as by cricketers who were mentored by him. Speaking the occasion, an emotional Kapil said that Bedi was his first skipper in international cricket and lauded the large heart with which he lived and played the game.
Watching the short yet elegant video brought back memories of the golden days of the 1970s when the spin quartet of Bedi, Bhagwat Chandrasekhar (Chandra), Erapalli Prasanna and Srinivas Venkataraghavan (Venkat) were the monarchs of Indian bowling. Incidentally, Bedi was the youngest of the four, having been born on September 25, 1946, and also the last to make his appearance in Test cricket, which he did on December 31, 1966. His skipper Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, who possessed an impish sense of humour, brought Bedi to bowl for the first time in Test cricket at exactly the same time as the clock struck 12 times to signal noon! One does not know whether the attempt at humour was lost on Bedi or not but the bowler soon made his mark by dismissing Basil Butcher and Clive Lloyd, two of the leading batsmen of the West Indies, in quick succession.
Prasanna was the first among the quartet to play Test cricket, which was not surprising as he was born a clear six years before Bedi. He made his bow against England at Chennai in January, 1962, at Chennai and was a member of the squad that toured the Caribbean in 1962. After playing in a solitary Test there, he decided to take a break from the game to complete his engineering degree, to keep a word given to his father who had left for his heavenly abode. This self enforced break from representative cricket led to his loss of place in the national side and he could make a comeback only in the last Test of the series against the West Indies in 1966-67.
Chandra and Venkat were both born in 1945, within a few weeks of each other. Chandra, though younger, made his debut first, in January, 1964, against England at Mumbai. Venkat had to wait for one more year, as his first appearance in international cricket took place in February, 1965, against New Zealand at his home town of Chennai. Venkat had an excellent debut series as he bowled India to a win in only his fourth game, with figures of 8/72 and 4/80 in the last Test of the series played at Delhi.
Thus, it can be seen that the quartet came together in the national side only in 1967. The tour of England that took place during the summer of this year was the first time all four of them travelled together. It was during this series that all four of them played together in a single match, which happened in the third Test at Birmingham. Chandra suffered an injury during the twin tours of Australia and New Zealand that followed in 1967-68 and was sent back home. Surprisingly, he was not considered by the national selectors during the eight Tests in the home series against these two countries in 1969-70 and for the tour of the West Indies in 1971. He had to wait till the tour of England in 1971 for a recall and soon proved his weight in gold by spinning India to a win in that series.
From June, 1971 till November, 1978, when Prasanna was dropped from the side after the series against Pakistan, these four spinners were an integral part of the national squad. As none of them could bat well enough to classified as an allrounder, space could be made only for three of them in the playing eleven. This invariably meant that it was a toss up between Prasanna and Venkat, which was unfair to both, as despite being off-spinners, their bowling styles were vastly different. While Prasanna believed in giving the ball plenty of air and deceived the batsmen by subtleties of turn and flight, Venkat’s forte was bounce and the sharp turn he was able to impart to the ball. Though Venkat was helped by the fact that he was a superb fielder at gully, Prasanna was preferred more by captains as he was an attacking bowler, who could be relied upon to take wickets.
Though it is the tour of Pakistan in 1978, that is considered as the series that delivered the death blow for the spin quartet, the signs of their decline were in evidence even earlier. When England toured India for the Test series in 1976-77, our spinners could not make much of an impact on the visitors, despite the pitches being prepared to help them. Nor could they help to win the series against a young and inexperienced Australian side in 1977-78. However, these failings were brushed under carpet, which led to their shortcomings being exposed in such a devastating manner by Zaheer Abbas and other Pakistani batsmen during the series in 1978.
Prasanna was the first among the four to be dropped from the side, which happened after the second Test against Pakistan in November, 1978. Bedi and Chandrasekhar played in some of the Tests against the West Indies during the matches at home that followed, but were left out after the tour of England in 1979. Venkat went out of the side during the home series against Australia in 1979 but returned for the tour of the West Indies in 1983, only to be axed during the series against Pakistan later that year.
Three out of these four led their respective sides in Ranji Trophy, with only Chandra staying out of the captaincy stakes. Though Prasanna made history by breaking the stranglehold of Mumbai in the national championship and leading Karnataka to their first ever title triumph in 1974, he was not considered by national selectors as a potential skipper. Venkat was appointed as deputy to Ajit Wadekar for the tours of West Indies and England in 1971 and led the side against West Indies at Delhi in December, 1974, only to be dropped from the playing eleven in the next game! He also led India in the first two World Cups and the series against England in 1979. Bedi led the national side in 22 Tests, winning 6 matches and losing 11 and was at the helm for three years, starting from November, 1975.
Chandra, true to his reticent nature, faded away from the game after his playing days were over. Other than being the manager of the side that won World Championship of Cricket in 1985, Prasanna also stayed out of cricket for the most part after retirement. Bedi became a national selector and was also a prominent coach-cum-manager of national side during the late 1980s and early 1990s. But his tendency to speak his mind and rub people the wrong way ensured that his services were soon discarded by the authorities. Venkat, on the other hand, had a successful second innings in the game as a highly respected umpire and was in the international panel till he retired at the age of 60.
Temperament wise also, all four were different. Chandra was more of a loner, preferring the songs of Mukesh to the company of others. Prasanna interacted more with the players and public and even penned an autobiography titled “One More Over”. Venkat was a tough taskmaster, one who inspired awe and fear among his colleagues. He did not suffer fools gladly and was harsh on those who did not measure up to the expectations. These traits ensured that he was never a popular person nor a leader of men despite his superior intellect and impressive personal accomplishments.
Bedi was the only one among the four who could be considered as warm, friendly and outgoing. He was always willing to offer advice to young cricketers and talk cricket to anyone interested in listening. He wore his heart on his sleeve but his habit of not mincing words while expressing his opinion won him more enemies than friends. Many of those he mentored and supported turned their backs on him but Bedi did not allow himself to be deterred by such acts of small men. As Kapil said he had a large heart, which could not only take some stick while bowling but also take criticism and disloyalty in his stride.
Best wishes to Bedi for many more happy and healthy years ahead and three cheers to Prasanna, Bedi, Chandra and Venkat for their contributions to Indian cricket.
(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)