Sachin Tendulkar’s retirement has brought forward some extraordinary tributes and sentiments. One of the many such interesting stories involves Mumbai Indians’ decision to retire the No 10 jersey he wore for them right from their inception. This is probably a first in cricket but there are innumerable examples from various sports from all around the world, where the jersey numbers of famous sports personalities have been retired. Shrikant Shankar writes about the significance of the jersey number in sports and why they were made eternal.
What’s so special about a number that has been worn by a player on the back of his or her jersey?
The answer to that question lies in which sport one is discussing. Numbers on the back of the jerseys have had a lot of significance in sports like football and rugby. In the early 1900s, players from these sports wore jerseys according to their positions. This could change every match and there were no names on the back of the jerseys. One of the main reasons for this was to identify a player during a match. If a player commits a foul, he would get a card (yellow or red) and the referee would note his number down. But from the 1993-94 English Premier League (football) season, player’s names were printed above the number. In rugby, though, names have not exactly caught up.
So, what does a jersey number have to do with cricket? Well, not that much. The proper use of jersey numbers in cricket came about in the mid-1990s. In the 1999 World Cup, each team used jersey numbers for the first time. This only happens in one-day and Twenty20 cricket. Tests, however, follow the age old tradition of plain white clothing. There is no real significance of jersey numbers in cricket.
Whether necessary or not, jerseys have resulted in fans finding an emotional connect with players in any sport. When fans flock stadiums and grounds supporting their favourite stars, they usually wear a replica jersey. Now, the active numbers are usually from 1-11. But one can find fans wearing jerseys, which have some unusual numbers. Shane Warne, David Beckham (football) and Michael Jordan (basketball) made the No 23 very famous in their respective sports. So, when fans can be seen wearing the No 23 in those respective sports, it is simple enough to understand who is the player that inspired them to wear the jersey.
Now there is another importance to a jersey. To mark respect for a player who may have performed admirably for a particular team, the hierarchy will decide to retire his or her jersey number. This means that no other player in the future will be allowed to wear that jersey number unless the player, who was honoured, permits it. There are other reasons as well as to why a player’s jersey number might be retired. If a player died prematurely or suffered a career-threatening injury, the team the player played for might retire his or her jersey number.
Cricket has never actually seen such an act where a player’s jersey number is retired. Obviously there are firsts and who better than Sachin Tendulkar to begin the process. His retirement from the game has prompted Mumbai Indians to retire his No 10 jersey. It is a great gesture to a man who has defied time and belief to achieve some of the most remarkable heights. Tendulkar’s No 10 jersey is probably the most common in cricketing history. His name also coincidentally has the syllable ’10’. His name and jersey number have been branded many times as ’10dulkar’.
There is also a debate among fans that his No 10 should be retired from the national team. Whether it happens or not, is not important. What is important is that Tendulkar has associated himself with that number and the fans cannot come to terms with anyone else wearing that number.
There have been many cases in other sports where a player’s jersey number has been retired due to the player having a memorable career. Football has had many jersey retirements, especially in club football. The most famous players to have been bestowed this honour are Pele of Brazil and Diego Maradona of Argentina. The two are widely considered to be the greatest footballers of all-time. Although, their jersey number cannot be retired from international football due to FIFA rules, the clubs they played for have unanimously made their numbers eternal. Incidentally, their preferred number was No 10 — like Tendulkar’s.
There have been many more cases in football. Italian side AC Milan is famous for retiring the jersey numbers of two players, who are considered legends. The first was Franco Baresi (No 6) and then Paolo Maldini (No 3). England’s Chelsea retired Gianfranco Zola’s No 25 jersey as he is considered one of their greatest players ever. In football, fans are considered to be the 12th man, so, sometimes clubs retire the No 12 so as to show their appreciation to their fans.
The process of retiring a jersey number is more common in North American sports — baseball, basketball, gridiron football and ice hockey. In basketball, Chicago Bulls retired Michael Jordan’s No 23 jersey.
Everyone can see the significance of a jersey number in sports. It is more than just a number. So, Tendulkar’s retirement proves that cricket is not far behind in this process. It may not happen in international cricket, but in franchise-based cricket there is a high possibility in the future. Seeing this, other Indian Premier League teams may also follow suit. But Tendulkar was the first.
There is another interesting fact about the No 3 jersey of Maldini. AC Milan retired the number, but will make it available to one of his two sons, if they were to play for the club. Mumbai Indians have made no such promises. But who is to say that the next time the No 10 jersey will be worn by a Mumbai Indians player, it will not be Arjun Tendulkar.
(Shrikant Shankar previously worked with Mobile ESPN, where he did audio commentary for many matches involving India, Indian Premier League and Champions League Twenty20. He has also written many articles involving other sports for ESPNSTAR.com. You can follow him on Twitter @Shrikant_23)