The recent death of the legendary Indian spinner, Bishan Bedi, reminded me of one of the most riveting passages of play that I have ever seen – live, that is. As the 1973 county championship entered its closing stages, it was becoming increasingly evident that there were only two realistic candidates to be champions – Hampshire and Northamptonshire. Towards the end of August, the two teams met in a winner-takes-all, shoot-out at the top of the table for the honour of taking possession of the championship pennant. The match was at home (for us), Southampton, the rickety, ramshackle headquarters of the club in Northlands Road, now sadly – to all of us former players, who loved the old place – a housing estate.
Now, it was not unheard of back in the day for groundsmen to produce a wicket favourable to the home side. It sort of went with the territory. Think of those outgrounds in Kent (Maidstone, Tunbridge Wells, Dover, Folkestone, Sittingbourne, Gravesend, Gillingham, Dartford) all tailor-made for Derek Underwood, and the greentops at Trent Bridge in the 1980s, specifically prepared for their fast-bowling duo of Clive Rice and Richard Hadlee. But I can never recall an occasion when a groundsman has prepared a wicket to suit the needs of the visitors. That would be taking hospitality one step too far.
Imagine our consternation when we walked into the ground at Southampton on that Saturday morning in August and strode out to the middle to inspect the wicket. Several of our number, more experienced wicket-readers than me, gave an audible gasp. Some of the more printable comments ran along the lines of “won’t last two days”, “thank you, -----, you’ve just handed them the championship”, “might just as well have played them at Bournemouth – on the beach!”. Why was it that our groundsman’s name was mud (quite apposite, as that was the colour the pitch most resembled)?
Hampshire had probably the finest batting side in the country at the time, but the bowling attack was not blessed with spinners. At least not in the same category as that of the Northants side. Bishan Bedi and Mushtaq Mohammad, Test players both, were probably licking their lips at the prospect of bowling on a spinners’ paradise, a ‘bunsen’, as we termed them (bunsen burner/turner in Cockney rhyming slang). To add insult to injury, we lost the toss, which would condemn us to bat last on a rapidly deteriorating pitch…and to probable defeat.
Once the captain had delivered to me the wholly expected news that I was not in the XI but would be acting as 12th Man, he gathered his troops together and more in hope than expectation, he said, “Right, chaps, bowl ‘em out by lunch!” That raised a titter but my goodness, when Northants were reeling at 56-8, we were wondering whether Richard Gilliathad a crystal ball in his cricket bag. It was not lunch but sometime after when Northants were finally dismissed for 108. A lowish total, but how low? You can never tell until the other team have batted.
All started so well. Barry Richards and Gordon Greenidge, the most feared opening partnership in world cricket, took on the Northants attack and we all settled back to watch the battle royal between them and the world’s finest left-arm spinner, Bishan Bedi. Both batsmen eschewed caution, running down the wicket to pierce the off-side field or to loft the ball over the bowler’s head. Bedi just stood there and politely clappedas yet another boundary was struck. Then disaster. Both batsmen were stumped in quick succession….by yards.
In all the years that I shared a dressing room with him, I only heard Barry Richards admit twice that the bowler had got the better of him. One was Jeff Thomson (“Jeez, that guy’s seriously quick!) and the other was now. Unusually, he sat there, head in his hands, still with his pads on, muttering. “How did he do that?” The game moved swiftly forward, as it always does on a poor wicket. Hampshire were dismissed for 167 and then bowled Northants out for 148. Nobody on either side had managed a fifty.
This left Hampshire with a mere 90 to win, and with it, in all likelihood, the championship. I quote from the match report of the local rag, the Evening Echo: “They did it with ease by 6.16pm, thus earning themselves a day’s rest.” I have never read a more misleading press article in my life. To those of us nervously biting our nails in the dressing room, nothing could have been further from the truth. For a start a small target is sometimes inexplicably hard to achieve. Furthermore, the wicket was now a brute to bat on. Bedi was the master at exploiting such conditions. Only Underwood could be considered his equal on a wicket that was breaking up. It was going to be a struggle; we all knew that.
None more so than Barry Richards. In the first innings, he had decided on attack as the best means to combat the spin. “If it doesn’t bounce, it can’t spin,” had been his mantra to take on Bedi. That had met with only partial success. Now he adapted his technique. He would play Bedi from the crease, playing the ball as late as possible and smothering the spin with soft hands and a watertight defence. The tussle between the world’s finest spinner and the world’s finest batsman was the most nerve-wracking 30 overs I have ever experienced in a cricket match…and I wasn’t even playing! Basically, Barry blocked us to victory. It wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t a triumphant charge towards victory, but it was what was required, and it got us there in the end. Later, we all agreed that the contest had been totally absorbing and felt privileged to have witnessed it.
Barry had scored 37 not out and it had taken him 30 overs to do so. Normally, if he had batted for 30 overs, he would have been in triple figures. “I just knew,” he said later, “that if I got out, we would lose. It was as simple as that.” He always applies a formula – he calls it LOD, Level of Difficulty - when assessing the merits of any innings. You have to judge the state of the game, on a knife edge in this case. You have totake into consideration the surface on which you are batting, in this case a minefield. And you have to evaluate the standard of bowling, in this case, the very best. So, let there be no doubt, this was one of his greatest innings, certainly one of his most valuable…and it had not been achieved “with ease”.
“Bedi was such a fine bowler,” Barry told me when I was writing his biography, “He could adjust the length from wherever you played him from. He ‘did’ me in the first innings. I wasn’t going to let him ‘do’ me again in the second. But it was bloody difficult, I can tell you.” The shame of course is that it was ‘only’ a county match. Bedi had a long and distinguished Test match career, something that was denied Barry because of his South African birth, apartheid and his country’s isolation from international competition. That is all a long time in the past now. But for one afternoon 50 years ago, those who saw that battle of wills shall never forget it.