Playing an aggressive brand of cricket, Virat Kohli’s young Test team is presently breaking fresh ground in West Indies. Off the field, Indian cricket is going through a momentous churn as it crawls to implement the changes ordered by the Supreme Court. As a former India captain, one-time national team manager and a die-heard cricket romantic who never minces words, Bishan Singh Bedi’s views on Indian cricket’s transition carry weight. An incisive reader of the game, the grand old man of Indian cricket is known to have the foresight to judge the potential of budding cricketers and also intentions of officials governing the game
SANDEEP DWIVEDI: The West Indies series is on. You were part of the team that won the first Test against West Indies, in 1971. How do you see the change in cricket since then, both from the perspective of India and the West Indies?
I feel very sorry for the West Indians. The kind of cricket that they played, ‘calypso’ cricket… Recently, I read in your paper, ‘collapso’ cricket. It’s very sad, unfortunate. When I made my debut against the West Indians… I had many friends among them as well… I used to revere some of them… If you really want to know how things have changed… The perception of cricket today amongst the players and spectators has changed. But the game is still the same. I suppose the actors, directors and producers have changed.
SANDEEP DWIVEDI: Their fast bowling was quite impressive then. In the current series, the pace of Indian bowlers is being appreciated. How has our bowling changed over the years?
We are looking very good as a side. Let’s not forget that the opposition that India is facing now — Sri Lanka, West Indies or South Africa — is not up to the mark. Indians have a done a magnificent job, capitalised on every opportunity. They have shown remarkable commitment. I may not be a great fan of Virat Kohli’s captaincy or his behaviour on the field, but I have enormous respect for his commitment and intensity. I can’t think of any other Indian today, in any walk of life, who is as intense as Virat Kohli.
SANDEEP DWIVEDI: How do you rate him as a leader?
I think he is a great individual player and it would be awfully difficult to expect the rest of the guys to reach to his standard of commitment and intensity. There are guys who are reasonably laid back and for them to reach to his level of fitness, eating habits… Not everybody can do it.
SANDEEP DWIVEDI: It seems that Virat Kohli can get the coach he wants, the team he wants, the playing 11 he wants. Is that good for Indian cricket?
The captain is supposed be a co-opted member of the selection committee. I can’t think of another captain who has enjoyed so many perks. Perks in the sense, so much freedom to do and get what he wants. Not even Tiger Pataudi (Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi, former Indian captain).
SANDEEP DWIVEDI: Has any other captain enjoyed such power?… Maybe in Pakistan?
Pakistan, yes, Imran (Khan). When he was captain, he didn’t bother about selectors. But he was a totally different leader. I can’t imagine Virat Kohli jumping into politics and becoming prime minister. That won’t happen. Imran could do it.
SANDEEP DWIVEDI: How tough is it to be India captain? Has it become more difficult now?
It appears so. Virat is taking everything in his stride, and he is doing a wonderful job. He seems to be in control of just about every situation. He is backed up very nicely by the head coach. He is himself delivering as a player.
SANDEEP DWIVEDI: In 1978, you went to Pakistan on a friendship tour. Can you tell us about your experience?
It was goodwill tour. The then prime minister, Morarji Desai, tried to fire the gun from the cricketers’ shoulders. We didn’t know what lay ahead of us until we got there and discovered for ourselves how tough it was. They were a better side; much better prepared than us. We lost to a better team, but we also lost in a very, very hostile atmosphere, terribly hostile. The crowd, the media, everybody.
This game we played in Rawalpindi, a three-day match. I remember I had taken the day off. Sunil Gavaskar was captain. On the third day, something happened on the field between him and Sarfraz Nawaz (Pakistani cricketer). Sunil just killed the game, he decided not to declare. In the evening we had a meeting with the then Pakistan president General Zia-ul-Haq. It was our first meeting. We had lined up in the presidential palace. He had been briefed that Indians are spoilsports, rondu hain, they have not come here to play but only to cry.
Zia was a very grim man. He came walking, it was a wooden floor. Tak, tak, tak (the sound of his walk). From a distance he yelled to me, ‘Bedi sahab, why didn’t you declare? No, No, No… If I was captain I would have declared at 12 o’clock.’ I told him, ‘General, I wasn’t even playing the game.’ Then we shook hands and he moved on. I called him back again. I said, “General, excuse me, I don’t know how I could have declared at 12 o’clock… Terribly delicate timing for me.’ He had a massive laugh. The whole hall couldn’t believe that this man had a sense of humour. After that, the media got after me. They wanted to know what I had said to him that made him laugh so much. I said nothing. But then they pestered me, I said, I just asked the General, ‘Sardar banana hai (Do you want to become a Sardar)?’
From then onwards, we became decently good friends. After that tour got over, when I went to Pakistan again, I got an opportunity to read the Dawn newspaper in Karachi. There I read a small story about somebody asking for blood. It was my blood group. I rang him up. I told him if you do not have any problem with taking blood from an Indian, you can take my blood. The doctors came and asked me if I wanted to tell the media about it. I said no, I am a donor, you can just take my blood. But the news was flashed all over Pakistan.
General Zia was very impressed… Just by donating one pint of blood, I had the entire Pakistan at my feet, literally. The taxi guys didn’t take money from me. People did not let me pay when I bought things from their shops. Somebody told me, you are so popular here, if you fight an election, you will win. I asked, do elections happen here (laughs)?
On one occasion, when India was playing Pakistan in a Test match in Jaipur, General Zia decided to come and watch the game. Rajiv Gandhi wasn’t prepared to receive him, but he came. He sat in a small VIP box. He got to know that I was in the press box. I was writing then, I think, for The Indian Express. He met me and hugged me. He told me, ‘Arre Bedi sahab, you have greyed.’ I said it was a very natural phenomenon that when you grow old you grey, unless you are president of India. At the time, Giani Zail Singh was the president of India. He wanted to laugh but stopped because of protocol.
SANDEEP DWIVEDI: You also had a good equation with Indira Gandhi. You sent her a telegram after she won an election…
When we beat Australia for the first time, in Melbourne, the first telegram I got was from Mrs Indira Gandhi. She was very alert. The whole team was very happy. Then when we were in Pakistan, we got the news that she had won in Chikmagalur. I sent a telegram. It backfired. We sent it without any political inclination. But we lost (the match in Pakistan)… When we landed in Bombay, there was no welcome, no salaam-dua… I was asked why did you need to send the telegram? I said which telegram? Then I was told that since I had sent the telegram, I had been removed from the captaincy.
SANDEEP DWIVEDI: What do you make of politicians being involved in cricket? Are they important for the ecosystem?
Politicians in sport, not just cricket, are a necessary evil. By and large, they have created such a situation that everybody, cricketer, badminton player, footballer, everybody has to come to their door. Earlier we were slaves of the British, now we are slaves of our own hukmaran (rulers). This slavery is not leaving us.
SANDEEP DWIVEDI: Should there be a line drawn somewhere when it comes to politicians in sports?
How do you decide the line? Who decides? Justice (retd) R M Lodha tried. How many years has it been since those recommendations? It’s stagnating. For all the recommendations that Justice Lodha made, he deserved the highest civilian award in the country. He went into great depth, studied the constitution of all cricket boards in the world. What was the result?…
I feel for the country at times. We are so helplessly hopeless, or hopelessly helpless… kya kare insaan (What does one do)? Then, there is this chalta hai (everything goes) concept which allows us to go with the tide instead of stepping up. We allow that to happen.
MIHIR VASAVDA: What do you have to say about sportsmen, not just cricketers, often toeing the government’s line, not raising questions?
I don’t think they are pro-establishment, but they give the impression that they are. They will say something in front of you, another thing behind your back. When they are playing, they are looking up to officials, and even when they are done playing, they are looking for some crumbs to be thrown at them by the officials.
I am not terribly enamoured with my own fraternity. In fact, when I was called to meet Justice Lodha, my opening sentence to him was, ‘Your field is judiciary, my field is cricket. I see you guys are trespassing into my territory.’ Justice Lodha said, ‘No, Mr Bedi, No.’ I said, ‘Hang on sir, I haven’t finished. My fraternity has given you sufficient reason to do so. I am ashamed.’
DAKSH PANWAR: What is your view on the proposal to rename the Feroz Shah Kotla stadium in Delhi after the late Arun Jaitley?
I haven’t seen anything more preposterous — the ground will be called Kotla and the stadium Jaitley? What is Jaitley’s contribution to Delhi cricket? I don’t wish to be unkind to a person who is no more. But since you have asked me… This is so stupid.
Not too long ago, I was a member of the selection committee that declares the Arjuna Awards. That particular year, we were told that there is also going to be a Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna Award. I had raised my dissent at the meeting then. Rajiv Gandhi may have been a good human being, I knew him on first-name basis. He was a good pilot, might have been a good politician also, but what was his contribution to Indian sport, and why should the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna Award be over and above the highest sports award, the Arjuna Award? When I registered my dissent, I was removed from the selection committee. They had the right to do it, but I didn’t lose anything. I didn’t have to compromise on the issue…
Wankhede Stadium, Chinnaswamy Stadium, Chidambaram Stadium… none of them is (named after) cricketers. Maybe a stand will be named after a cricketer. It is very unfortunate.
DAKSH PANWAR: But, like you said, this is not the first time that a stadium is being named after a politician. Why is there an outcry now?
When are we going to face the reality head on? Today, this stadium will be made, then there will be a stand named after Virat Kohli, and the announcement will be made at Nehru Stadium. And at the function, the Home Minister will come…
SANDEEP DWIVEDI: You have played with some of the biggest names in Indian cricket, including Tiger Pataudi. Can you tell us about your experience?
I was very fortunate to play cricket with Tiger Pataudi. He was by far the best leader we have had. He gave us a lot of national pride, lot of Indianness. We now hear of togetherness in the Indian dressing room — it is Tiger Pataudi’s legacy. He would tell us in our team meetings that we are not playing for Maharashtra, Punjab or Delhi, we are playing for India, so think India. He was the first captain to do it… I don’t think he got his due.
PRAVEEN DOGRA: Recently, questions were raised over the cricketing experience of chief selector M S K Prasad. Do you think selectors should have extensive cricket experience?
I think it definitely matters… I have had a word with the present selection committee and the previous one as well. I asked them how do you select a side? Are you looking at the score book only? What other factors are you taking into consideration?… There are five members in the selection committee. If three members agree, the player under consideration is in the team. And if three disagree, the player is out. There is no debate about why someone is dropped or selected. When Chandu Borde was the chairman, Hanumant (Singh), Kripal (Singh) and I were in the selection committee, we used to debate why a player was chosen or dropped…
SANDEEP DWIVEDI: There was also the nationalism debate when M S Dhoni wore the Army insignia on his gloves.
You can wear nationalism on your sleeve with your deeds, not literally with your attire.
PRAVEEN DOGRA: Recently, when Navdeep Saini debuted, Gautam Gambhir tweeted, tagging you and Chetan Chauhan, for writing him off. What were your reservations about Saini?
I had no reservations. I am not obliged to react to any nonsense. If he (Gambhir) wants to say something, he can say it. If I am reacting, I am giving importance to that statement. In any case, I have stopped reacting. I respond.
RAVISH TIWARI: In all these years, how do you think the Indian cricket team has evolved in terms of its mental strength?
It is a very individual (matter). (During our time), nobody could talk to Sunil Gavaskar. He would go into a cocoon. He used to shut himself off. That is preparing yourself to do what you want to do… You can excel but you cannot be perfect. If you become perfect, no one can get you out. So we can excel, and excellence involves mental strength in any walk of life… Not all Indian players have evolved over the years… There are two or three players who excel and carry the others along. There are average cricketers also. We have such cricketers in the Indian team as well. They are enjoying the fruits by being in the shadow of two or three excellent players.