Farewell to bowler who baffled Bradman

The late Sir Alec Bedser was one of England's finest cricketers who achieved Ashes glory as player and selector
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All anybody needs to know to be certain of Alec Bedser's status as a bowler is contained in a simple sentence. "The ball with which he bowled me in the Adelaide Test match," said Don Bradman, "was, I think, the finest ever to take my wicket."

Since Bradman was the greatest batsman in the history of the game, his statistics reducing all others to innocent bystanders, the judgement can bear the closest scrutiny. "It must have come three-quarters of the way straight on the off stump," elaborated the Don, "then suddenly dipped to pitch on the leg stump, only to turn off the pitch and hit the middle and off stumps."

After 63 years it still sounds one peach of a delivery (it bowled Bradman for a duck in Australia's first innings in the fourth Test in 1947). Sir Alec Bedser, who died on Easter Sunday at the age of 91, was a pioneer of the leg-cutter, in effect a fast leg- spinner which swung in and moved sharply away on pitching. But he was much more besides: of nobody could it be more emphatically said that he gave his life to cricket.

Bedser was a truly great bowler, not of the fastest vintage but quick enough, and combining so many of the other verities such as accuracy, movement, bounce and a lion heart, as to render his speed meaningless. For 10 years he was the world's leading Test wicket-taker, and had the Second World War not delayed the start of his international career until he was almost 28 he would have held the record for considerably longer.

Shortly after he retired he became a Test selector, a post he held for 23 years, 13 of them as chairman when England lost only two of seven Ashes series. Most tellingly, with the urn slipping away and Australia 1-0 ahead after two matches in 1981, he recalled Mike Brearley to the captaincy and was rewarded with one of the most staggering series victories.

Latterly he became a poster boy for a long-ago generation of seam bowlers who stayed fit to ply their trade through bowling and more bowling and probably considered it an affront if they bowled fewer than 1,000 overs in an English summer.

When Bedser, still built like a warship and straining to be ramrod straight at the age of 89, presented Ryan Sidebottom with a leather-bound copy of Wisden Cricketers' Almanack to mark Sidebottom becoming one of its five cricketers of the year, he remarked: "People go on about bowling 90 miles an hour but they never say anything about bowling straight and that's what I like about this chap, he bowls straight."

Then, just as Sir Alec handed the book over – he had been a Wisden Cricketer of the Year 61 years previously – he said smilingly: "I'm only going to give you this book if you promise me one thing. Get your hair cut." The whole happy little scene enshrined Bedser's approach to the game he served with perpetual distinction. No nonsense, old-fashioned in a way that people too often suspect cannot have existed but did, respectful, bewildered by modern mores, or indeed any mores that pertained after about 1960.

Throughout most of his life, Sir Alec, belatedly knighted in 1996, was accompanied almost everywhere by his identical twin brother, Eric. They were born within minutes of each other on 4 July 1918 and seemed to be rarely apart thereafter until Eric died in 2006. "Our absolute and complete affinity is hard to explain," they once jointly wrote as if to emphasise their unity, "but it is true and very real to us, so much so that as long as we can remember we have never been happy apart. So far our lives have been so close that we two are, for all purposes, one."

Alec was the better cricketer, though Eric was a substantial off-spinning all-rounder in the Surrey side which won seven successive Championships between 1952 and 1958. Having played two first-class matches in 1939, Alec was kept waiting until the end of the Second World War to start bowling again. His entry into Test cricket was exceptional. In each of his first two matches, against India, he took 11 wickets.

But like every other Englishman it was the Ashes he craved. They had gone to Australia on every occasion since 1932-33 and Bedser's 16 wickets in 1946-47 (including that ball), 18 in 1948 and 30 in 1950-51 were insufficient to loosen their grasp. Then in 1953 after a gap of six series and 18 years 362 days (not that anyone was counting) England reclaimed the urn.

Bedser's contribution at 35 was that of a player remaining at his peak. He took 39 wickets, still the most in an Ashes series by an English seam bowler, including 14 in the nerve-tingling opening Test at Nottingham when his endeavour ensured that England avoided defeat.

His initial spell at the start of Australia's first innings was the stuff of legend. Of it, J M Kilburn, the illustrious cricket correspondent of the Yorkshire Post wrote: "When he put on his sweater at quarter to four Bedser had bowled 16 overs for 28 runs and five wickets and could have been declared Admiral of the Trent by public proclamation."

Controversy accompanied the end of Bedser's Test career on the next tour of Australia. He contracted a severe bout of shingles, had a careworn first Test and was then dropped, never to play again, as England, through the outright pace of Frank Tyson, won the Ashes again. Bedser returned to the county grind before finally calling it a day in 1960.

He was to have another life as a Test selector, a task to which he brought diligence, hard work, steadfastness. In the late summer of 1969, he was party to the stunning decision to leave out Basil D'Oliveira from that winter's tour of the then apartheid South Africa. He did not speak up at the meeting for D'Oliveira, a Cape Coloured cricketer who had made his home in England and had made 157 in the most recent Test against Australia.

If he could justify the non-selection on cricketing grounds it might not have helped that his politics, like his outlook on life, were deeply conservative. He was a founder member of the right-wing Freedom Association. Later in 1969 he became chairman of selectors and performed the role with enduring vigour. He must have wondered what was happening to the world when the whirlwind that was Ian Botham came along a few years after.

But Bedser survived and when in the summer of 1981 it was clear that Botham the swashbuckling all-rounder could not be Botham the incisive captain, change had to come. Botham jumped just before he was pushed as Bedser turned once more to the intellectual Brearley. It is said that he reversed the charges in a phone call to Brearley's home asking him to take the job when the hotel phone refused to take his coins.

That image somehow seems in keeping with an old-fashioned man with old-fashioned virtues who bowled the best ball ever to dismiss Don Bradman.

Bowling machine: Sir Alec's figures

236 Test wickets

At the time of his last international appearance in 1955, Sir Alec's total was a world record.

28 years of age

When Bedser made his debut for England in 1946 because of the Second World War. He took 11 wickets in both of his first two Tests, against India. His mother, when called for a comment by the press, said: "Well, isn't that what he's supposed to do as a bowler?"

12,783 overs for Surrey

Sir Alec was a notoriously hard worker. He only once left the field during play, in a heatwave at Adelaide – and he returned immediately, having been sick at the boundary's edge.

8 County Championships

Won by Sir Alec with the famous Surrey side of the 1950s. He served as an England selector after his retirement for 23 years.

17.48 average in '53 Ashes

When England recovered the Ashes after almost 19 years in 1953, Sir Alec took 39 wickets at 17.48.