Bedser: a link to a bygone era
Posted in England
As with so many great players, Alec Bedser has a match named in his honour.
The opening Ashes Test at Trent Bridge in 1953 went down in cricket folklore as ‘Bedser’s Test’, after his haul of 14-99 helped set up an improbable victory bid for England.
That the Test was drawn mattered little in the grand scheme of things; England ended the summer with the Ashes in their possession for the first time in 20 years, and Bedser with an astonishing 39 wickets at an average of 17.49.
You could take your pick of matches from that series - Bedser took eight wickets at Lord’s and seven at Old Trafford and Headingley - or, indeed, a sizeable chunk of the 51 Tests he played.
But it is worth dwelling on that Test in Nottingham for a moment, for it takes you back to an era almost unrecognisable from today.
Bedser took 7-55 from 38.3 overs in a first innings which saw Australia make 249 from 140.3 overs. Just two days ago Chennai Super Kings smashed 246 off just 20 in the Indian Premier League. Can there be a better illustration of how the game has changed?
I never saw Bedser bowl - I, like many others, must rely on snippets of grainy footage and the lucid memories of his contemporaries - but I did meet him, in my guise as a young autograph hunter, and my abiding memory is the size of his hands.
Those gigantic mitts and long fingers enabled him to exact great purchase on the ball, helping him master a vicious leg-cutter which, by all accounts, was his most dangerous delivery - particularly on uncovered pitches.
It was certainly too good for Donald Bradman, who was bowled by one that pitched on middle and leg and hit the top of off in Adelaide in 1947. It was, according to Bradman, the best ball he ever faced.
Bradman fell to Bedser twice without scoring and six times in total. No bowler enjoyed more success against the game’s greatest batsman, who labelled Bedser the finest England bowler he faced.
Bedser made no claims to be quick - he described himself as fast-medium and, bowling off 10 or 12 paces, preferred the wicketkeeper to stand up to the stumps - but a combination of great skill, remarkable accuracy and unremitting stamina earned him a then record 236 Test wickets at 24.89 apiece.
More than half a century after his retirement, there are now just six England players ahead of him, and only two - Fred Trueman and Brian Statham - who boast a better average.
As well as his huge hands, Bedser was blessed with a solid 6ft 3in frame and imposingly broad shoulders - both in a literal and metaphorical sense.
His workload in the 1953 Ashes - 264 overs in five Tests - exceeded the next busiest England bowler by more than 100 overs, and his haul of 39 wickets was three times that of any of his team-mates.
Only 11 other post-war players have managed more than Bedser’s 1,924 first-class wickets - at a hugely impressive 20.14 apiece - although one wonders how many he would have taken had the Second World War not lopped six years off the start of his career and delayed his England debut until the age of 28.
By taking 5-25 in his final first-class game for Surrey, the county he served with such distinction, a 42-year-old Bedser suggested he could easily have carried on playing.
Bedser and hard graft went hand in hand - he said he left the field only once in his nine years in an England shirt, during a heatwave in Adelaide - and he thought nothing of working before and after a game with his twin brother Eric at their office equipment business.
What he would make of the modern trend of resting players probably doesn’t require much guesswork.
Never less than trenchant, Bedser served the game in the roles of England selector, chairman of selectors, MCC committee member and Surrey president after his retirement in 1960. As ex-Prime Minister John Major, himself a former Surrey president, said: “Few people have served cricket better.”
Bedser bowled more than 15,000 overs for Surrey and England, a telling statistic in an age when youngsters come into the game knowing they will send down a mere four in a Twenty20 match.
Murali Vijay’s brutal 56-ball 127 for Chennai against Rajasthan Royals at the weekend was a stupendous innings in many ways, and, though a traditionalist by nature, I am not shortsighted enough to claim cricket was better in Bedser’s day (a run-rate of 1.77 in Australia’s first innings at Trent Bridge in 1953 would make a mockery of such a suggestion).
But it would be instructive to learn how many of the 22 players who took the field at the MA Chidambaram Stadium on Saturday - or in any of the countless other IPL games for that matter - know of Bedser and his astonishing feats.
With his death, another bond to a bygone era has been broken. The issue is not clinging to the past, rather an appreciation of it.
We will never see the likes of Bedser again. We need to make the most of them while we can.