BCCI recently rejected the new design of the Indian jersey, insisting that the team play the upcoming T20 World Cup clad in the lucky colours worn during the 2011 triumph. Arunabha Sengupta says that superstitions in cricket is not new and looks at some of the queerest in cricketing history.
“Friday the 13th, black cats, treading on cracks in the pavement and the figure 87, are all silly superstitions and pure nonsense,” thus spoke the greatest batsman of all time. For many years, Don Bradman walked his talk by occupying Room 87 on the eighth floor of an office block opposite the Adelaide Town Hall. And like most of his exploits on the cricket field, here too he was in a completely different league from others.
Because, cricketers are traditionally a superstitious lot. And the quirky beliefs and weird habits stretch beyond them to affect the umpires, administrators and fans.
Earlier this month Nike, Indian team’s clothing sponsors, had unveiled a new Twenty20 design for the upcoming World Cup – one that would display the national colours much more vividly. Several top-notch stars had also been paraded in the new outfits during the media launch.
However, an apprehensive Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) vetoed the idea, opting to stick to their lucky charm – the World Cup winning jersey of 2011.
Hilarious as this may sound – such notions laced with irrationality, charms and chants, equipment and clothing touched by faith, gestures and rituals to influence fate – all go on to add to the romance of the game.
Whoever can forget Steve Waugh’s ragged red piece of cloth sticking out from his pocket, his frayed baggy green cap – the same one since 1986 – perching on his head.
And whoever can forget David Shepherd doing his curious hop at square leg as the scoreboard showed 111 or its multiples. There were so many among the crowd who willed the score to nelson and groaned when it moved again, bringing this delightful sideshow to an end.
At crunch situations, players hold their position in the dressing room, the batsmen kiss bat handles, bowlers cross themselves a requisite number of times and spectators put on or take off their caps, judiciously position their hands – at home put the TV on high volume or mute, place their feet on the enchanted old stool ... each one doing his small bit to influence the outcome of the next delivery.
Superstitions have been part of the game since time immemorial. Given below is a list of some of the most memorable across space, time and format:
WG Grace – The father of cricket was pathologically afraid of appearing on the batting card against an even numbered position, believing that it would prevent him from getting a big score. He used to go in to open and face the first ball on most occasions, ensuring his position as number one. If that was indeed not possible, he would do his best to come in at number 3 or 5 or 7.
KS Ranjitsinhji – Be it cricket or hunting, Ranji strangely favoured the sighting of black cats. In the Badminton magazine of 1903, it is stated: “Twice in succession, he claims, has the timely appearance of a black cat been instrumental in winning a county match for Sussex.”
Victor Trumper – The legendary Trumper was scared stiff of sighting men of the cloth when going out to bat, believing it to be a sure-fire way of getting out cheaply. If the English had been wise to this, they could have stationed a hired spectator in dog collar near the pavilion specifically for putting the fear of God into Australia’s premier batsman.
Jack Hobbs – The great English opener started the ritual of putting on his left pad first, diligently mirrored by many batsmen down the years. Additionally, he dreaded the score 39 – perhaps because it equalled three times 13. In Test matches, generally he looked for a boundary from 36 onwards till he was past the dreaded score. Once during a Test at Nottingham, like a cat on a hot tin roof when on 39, he tapped the ball to short-leg and scampered across like a jackrabbit. At the other end, Percy Chapman, who had not even thought of a run before finding Hobbs halfway across, needed to bolt through like an Olympic sprinter to get to the other end. Somehow racing across, Chapman had looked at Hobbs with an expression worthy of the best of Hollywood.
Australian batsman, Jack Fingleton, once had his bat sprinkled with holy water by a Catholic priest. When he failed to get a decent score, Bradman, a Protestant, had crossed him on the way in, remarking, “Let’s see what a dry bat can do.” Bradman had gone on to score his customary hundred.
Bill Edrich emulated Hobbs by putting on his left pad first, while his partner at the crease for Surrey and England, Denis Compton, carried with him a silver four-leaf clover.
Len Hutton, the greatest English batsman of his era, used to carry five shillings gifted to him by his grandfather.
Keith Miller developed a strange dread of 87 when as a kid he watched Bradman being dismissed at that score by Harry “Bull” Alexander of Victoria. The incident took place at Melbourne during a Sheffield Shield match, and later, in club cricket, he noticed other players getting out at that score and his misgivings grew into conviction. This is strange for two reasons. The records document the Melbourne score as Bradman b. Alexander 89, and Miller later admitted that when he had last checked the scoreboard before the dismissal, Bradman had been batting on 87, and he had not really been dismissed at the score. Secondly, Alexander passed away in 1993, at the age of 87!
Frank Worrell, when out first ball against Australia in 1951, changed every stitch of clothing, dressing himself in a completely new gear. Leary Constantine wrote in his obituary of the great West Indian, “He walked to the wicket hoping that by discarding his old clothes he would change his luck. Not a bit of it! He was out for another first baller!”
When John James Warr was desperate to take wickets, he resorted to rare bursts of imagination. Such occasions were often, given that he ended up with the worst average sported by an English bowler – 281.00 for two wickets. He used to run into the pavilion and stroke the belly of a stuffed koala bear that had been presented to the team.
During long wicket-less stretches, Hugh Tayfield, the South African off-spinner, was known to kiss the springbok stitched on his cap, trying to conjure up good luck.
Sunil Gavaskar – The original Little Master used to take guard by grounding his bat before bringing his right foot in position. He is also known to have worn one new item of clothing for each Test match – a rather expensive ritual he passed on to Rahul Dravid.
Rod Marsh was plagued by the common Australian fear of the number 87. When he had 187 dismissals in his bag, which had brought him at par with Wally Grout, he had dived for a snick off Keith Fletcher and had hit his nose against the elbow of Doug Walters in the slips. Marsh believed his resulting injury was due to the black magic of 87.
Dilip Vengsarkar did not shave during the five days of a Test match. He was distinctly lucky not to have played in the era of timeless Tests!
Mohinder Amarnath famously had a red handkerchief peeping out of his hip pocket.
Krishnamachari Srikkanth insisted on walking on the right side of his opening partner while approaching the wicket. And Gavaskar always obliged. However, it is curious that the enormous difference between the scores they amassed had never prompted Srikkanth try to emulate Gavaskar and walk on the left.
Roshan Mahanama had the rather obsessive habit of kissing the bat handle every time he took guard.
Sachin Tendulkar inherited the habit of putting his left pad first from the likes of Jack Hobbs. His other contribution to the annals of superstition was during the Delhi Test of 1999, while Anil Kumble was on his way to his record ten for 74. During that entire spell, Tendulkar insisted on taking Kumble’s sweater and cap and passing it to umpire AV Jayaprakash.
Sanath Jayasuriya made it a point to touch his helmet and pads before facing each delivery. Perhaps this enabled time to catch up with his breakneck rate of scoring.
Mark Ramprakash chewed the same piece of gum during an innings. If he was unbeaten overnight, the gum would remain stuck to the bottom of his bat! One marvels at the immunity of his system.
Steve Waugh has made his red rag famous by carrying it around for more than a decade. “It started at the Leeds Test match in 1993, when I was in the 60s. I brought it out as a sweat gatherer and I went on to score a hundred.”The rag remained with him till he called it a day.
Apart from emulating Gavaskar for a while by wearing a new item of clothing for every Test, Rahul Dravid also meticulously walked into the ground placing his right foot into the enclosure first.
Lasith Malinga kisses the ball every time he comes in to bowl, unlike fellow Sri Lankan pace bowler Chaminda Vaas who crossed himself and invoked the holy trinity.
Michael Clarke listens to loud music before walking out to bat.
However, the wackiest superstition is linked to Neil McKenzie. He taps the ceiling of the dressing room with his bat before going out to the wicket. He also insists on ensuring that every dressing room toilet seat remains down while he is at the crease.
(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)