With his brightly-coloured patkas and beguiling mastery of left-arm spin – ‘the most beautiful of slow bowlers’ according to Mike Brearley – Bishan Bedi brought a welcome flavour of the exotic to Wantage Road in the 1970s, at that time a somewhat frayed-at-the-edges, peeling-paint venue.
‘It wasn’t one of the fashionable clubs – the ground was poor and the facilities were lousy,’ as Bishan later told his biographer Suresh Menon. ‘They were looking for a left-arm spinner and it just happened that way.’
Signed by Northamptonshire after helping India secure an historic Test series victory over England in 1971, Bedi spent six memorable seasons at Wantage Road – claiming 434 first-class wickets in 110 matches for the County. He also enjoyed some success in limited-overs cricket and was a member of Mushtaq Mohammad’s team that lifted the Gillette Cup in 1976.
His stint with the club didn’t get off to the most propitious of starts when Northamptonshire secretary Ken Turner nearly burned down the newcomer’s house as he struggled to fire up the central heating. But Bedi claimed 75 wickets in 1972, his first County Ground summer, and played a leading role (nine wickets for 110 in the match) as Jim Watts’ side beat the touring Australians. He also returned his best Northamptonshire figures, 7-34 against Essex at Chelmsford, and was awarded his county cap.
The following year saw him become the first bowler since off-spinner Haydn Sully in 1966 to take 100 first-class wickets for the club. Opposing batters found it somewhat disconcerting to be applauded by Bedi for a good stroke off his bowling, but as he said himself: ‘I want batsmen to play shots because only then can I get them out.’ It would be another 22 years before anyone else reached the 100-wicket milestone for the county – another Indian great, Anil Kumble, in 1995.
Bedi returned some extraordinary figures in the shorter format – not least a spell of eight overs, four maidens, two wickets for two runs in a John Player League match against Nottinghamshire at the Westminster Road ground in Brackley in 1975. Probably better remembered, though, was his final over in the 1976 Gillette final off which Lancashire’s David Hughes ‘slogged’ (Wisden’s description) 26 runs. All part of Bishan’s master plan for victory? He had, of course, batted Northamptonshire to Lord’s with a boundary off John Rice which took Mushtaq’s men to a nerve-shredding semi-final victory over Hampshire at Southampton with one ball to spare.
His bowling exuded peace and serenity – what Sir Garfield Sobers described as ‘taking the weight off the ball.’ But his career was not all sweetness and light; Bishan could be outspoken to and about those in authority. When Northamptonshire decided during the summer of 1977 to release him at the end of the season, he went out and took 11-107 in a big win over Middlesex at Wellingborough School to make his point and subsequently took the club (unsuccessfully) to an industrial tribunal for unfair dismissal.
But he was, and still is, remembered fondly at Wantage Road by those who played alongside him and spectators lucky enough to have seen him in action. He was one of the original inductees into Northamptonshire CCC’s Hall of Fame when it was created in 2018, after being named in Wisden’s India Hall of Fame. In 67 Tests for his country between 1966 and 1979 – 22 of them as captain – he harvested 266 wickets, and later coached the national side.
In these days of minutely-detailed statistics and exhaustive analysis it’s easy to forget that cricket can be an aesthetic experience, a rich tapestry of lines, curves and colours. That was certainly the case with Bishan Bedi, and he will be much missed.
Words from Club Archivist Andrew Radd.