Sir Alec Bedser: Pillar of English cricket, as a player in the 1950s and later as a selector
Tuesday 06 April 2010
Alec Bedser would have been instantly recognisable had he turned up in Twelfth Night or Pickwick Papers or Lucky Jim. He was as English as bitter ale, cheddar cheese and misty drizzle. "Who", he would ask, "was the last English bowler to be knighted?" Before anyone could try a guess he would answer himself, with a huge grin: "Sir Francis Drake." When the US, or the Soviet Union, was playing politics with international sport, he passed in front of the press box at Sydney Cricket Ground bearing an Australian broadsheet that proclaimed across the front page: "Olympics Boycott". Pointing to the headline he chuckled: "Look what he's buggered up now". He never minded being called "Eric" when confused with his twin until the questioner realised that he was talking to the more outspoken – in public at least – of the Bedser brothers.
The twins were born at their grandmother's house in Reading in 1918, Eric the elder by 10 minutes. Their father was serving in the RAF – in which they too would serve together through the Second World War. "We were taught to expect nothing for nothing and that no one has rights until he's proved his worth," Alec once said.
When England resumed Test cricket against India in 1946 they were without Ken Farnes, their fastest bowler in 1939, while Bill Bowes was a shadow, returning after four years in a prisoner-of-war camp. Six years of war, with hardly any cricket played, had delayed the next generation.
Alec had made his Surrey debut in 1939 and at the end of the war he was, as he said, "Mature and strong. If I had started at 22 they might have worn me out." In 1946 he took seven wickets in his first Championship match. Such form was irresistible to harassed selectors and he was accordingly selected for the Test trial in June. At the time he had a pulled thigh muscle but told no one: "I thought I might not get another chance. I bound myself up with Elastoplast and risked it."
He bowled 37 overs and took the wickets of Hutton and Hammond, England's then two premier batsmen. He won England's cap before Surrey's, taking 24 wickets in a three-match series against the visiting Indians. For the next nine years he was the first name on the selection list while the England selectors, season by season, sought regular partners, a position not filled until the advent of Trevor Bailey in 1949 and the emergence, soon afterwards of Statham and Trueman. In 1953, Bedser's 39 wickets in five Tests enabled England to reclaim the Ashes for the first time since the Bodyline series of 1932-33.
In nine years as a Test player he bowled more than 10,000 overs and was also the spearhead of the Surrey team that won seven successive Championships in the 1950s. He developed into a medium-fast bowler of great stamina and sustained accuracy, expert in using the seam and shine on the ball in all English conditions. He developed a world renowned leg-cutter, or fast leg break, as the shock variation to his standard inswing, that won the very rare distinction of praise from Don Bradman (the last man alive to have taken a Bradman Test wicket, he twice bowled the Australian for a duck). Above all, Bedser had heart and bowled his overs at an average rate of two and a half minutes; modern fast bowlers take around five minutes.
He retired in 1960, taking 5-27 against Glamorgan at the Oval in his last match. His 236 Test wickets, in 51 Tests at 24.89 runs each, were then a record for an Englishman. He was not the quickest nor the most nimble of fielders but his huge hands held 290 catches and he was a useful tail-ender.
He was a selector for 20 years, 13 of them as chairman, and had an arrangement whereby he would make himself available to be telephoned at home on Friday evening by cricket correspondents. He would then answer questions on the possible make-up of the next Test team, to be chosen on the Saturday and announced on Sunday morning. He was as good as gold, always there, courteous and helpful, always willing to "steer" you in the right direction.
Until, that is, on Sunday morning when it turned out that Bill Bloggs, apparently a certainty on Friday night, had been left out. Challenged, Bedser was unflappable: "Well they don't know what they're doing, do they?" He managed three England tours abroad and when he stood down, cricket writers, in a rare gesture of respect and affection, took him to dinner.
He was as much a chauvinist as John Bull; political correctness was a concept unfathomable to him – he was a founding member of the Freedom Association, and was one of the England selectors when Basil D'Oliveira was controversially omitted from the side to tour South Africa in 1968-79 – and he was often derisive about modern training and treatment for cricketers. "Motivation?" he would ask. "The only motivation I ever needed was to be asked to play for England." One pundit nominated the defining moment between the old and new cricket as when Bedser, as chairman of selectors, came into the England dressing room at the close of play and asked about a strange noise.
"Its's so-and-so's hairdryer [naming a debutant]," was the reply. "A hairdryer ?" roared Bedser. "What's wrong with a bloody towel?"
He became president of Surrey in 1987, the club he joined in 1938 as a groundstaff boy. He received the accolade of a knighthood far too late, in the time of John Major, a fellow cricketer and man of Surrey. In 2004 he was selected in "England's Greatest Post-War XI" by The Wisden Cricketer.
He was never paid much as a cricketer but, with Eric, a near-England-class all-rounder who also played for Surrey, he built up a successful office equipment business from Woking. He was disturbed by Kerry Packer's incursion into cricket, much though it did for cricketers' income round the world. He feared what money might do for the game's integrity and said some words that have considerable significance today: "It will be a sad thing if the administration of the game gets out of the hands of the amateurs - I mean those who haven't a vested interest in what's happening. We want people who are above that."
Alec Victor Bedser, cricketer and selector: born Reading 4 July 1918; played for Surrey 1939-60 (won seven County Championships), England 1946-55 (51 Tests); member, England Cricket Selection Committee 1961–85, Chairman 1968–81; OBE 1964, CBE 1982, Kt 1997; died 4 April 2010.
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