The Smoothex commercial featuring Richie Benaud; Steve Waugh’s iconic red rag, cut out of a towel © Getty Images
The Smoothex commercial featuring Richie Benaud (left); Steve Waugh’s iconic red rag, cut out of a towel © Getty Images

May 25, of course, is Towel Day — celebrated by those who believe in the meaning of Life, the Universe, and Everything. This is the day when people celebrate the whooshing sound of deadlines, get over the double-illusion of lunchtimes, and stop trying to solve major problems with potatoes. In honour of the great man and to celebration of Towel Day, Abhishek Mukherjee looks back at the most iconic towels in the history of the sport.

Cricket is, as we all know, big. We just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. We may think football or tennis or badminton or golf is big, but they’re just peanuts compared to cricket. That is something we live and learn. Even if we do not learn, at any rate, we live.

But some people don’t believe it. Prove it to them and they still won’t believe it. But then, one must remember that these were probably the same people who were angry when the Universe was created, and regarded the event as a bad move.

However, this does not concern these people. This is about towels. A towel, as Douglas Adams had let us know, “is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have.”

Cricket and towels have gone hand in hand. Let us, then, list the most iconic towels in the history of the sport.

Richard Daft (purpose: defence)

The first famous use of a towel was also one of the most tragic ones in the sport. MCC were playing Nottinghamshire at Lord’s, one of the more dangerous venues in 1870. People were injured on a regular basis from balls that shot up awkwardly. It was like driving a Porsche in London or bringing a Ming vase to a football game.

The tourists were chasing 157. George Summers walked out with the score on 23 for 1. John Platts, an MCC round-arm fast bowler making his First-Class debut, bowled a bouncer that hit Summers on his face before the batsman scored a run. He had to retire hurt. The next batsman, Nottinghamshire captain Richard Daft, walked out with his head wrapped in a towel.

Daft batted brilliantly, scoring 53 and taking his side to a two-wicket victory against Platts, WG Grace, and Thomas Hearne. Summers took the train back to Nottingham once the match was ever. He passed away four days later.

Joe Darling (purpose: wrestling)

Stanley Jackson and Joe Darling, both born August 21, 1870, led their respective sides in The 1905 Ashes. It remains the only example of opposition captains in a series being born on the same day.

Jackson won all five tosses and batted first all five times, both for the first time in the history of Test cricket (which probably says a thing or two about astrology). England won the series 2-0. Darling was not amused.

Darling took his men to the Scarborough Festival match, and much to his dismay, he found that Jackson would be leading the opposition, CI Thornton’s XI. Desperate to bat first, Darling approached the home dressing-room, a towel wrapped around his waist. At least he did not try to use potatoes to solve the problem.

“I’m not going to risk the toss this time, except by wrestling,” were the exact words Darling used. Yes, he was serious. Jackson, never to back out, agreed — only on the condition that George Hirst would duel Darling in the bout.

They eventually decided on the more conventional and mundane method of flipping the coin. Jackson tossed the coin and said “we’ll bat” without having so much of a look at the outcome. Yes, he had won the toss again.

Vic Richardson (purpose: Jardine-bullying)

Remember Adelaide Oval, January 14, 1933? Bill Woodfull was hit on the chest; Bert Oldfield, on the skull; and the usually peaceful Adelaide Oval was baying for the blood of Douglas Jardine and Harold Larwood. Woodfull’s quote to Plum Warner is part of cricket folklore now.

During the Test, an Australian fielder called Larwood a bastard. Jardine paid a visit to the Australian dressing-room. The inimitable Vic Richardson, one of the greatest sportspersons Australia has produced, answered the door. Jardine asked for an apology.

Picture this. Richardson, tall, strong, and imposing, standing with only a towel around his waist in the same way that coffee-mugs aren’t: his gaze turned from Jardine to the dressing-room, arrogant disdain in his eyes: “Hey, which of you bastards called Larwood a bastard instead of Jardine?”

Richie Benaud (purpose: commercial)

Richie Benaud was no Keith Miller or Denis Compton, but he was successful, charismatic, and handsome in his early days. He bowled with his shirt buttons open, he appealed with gusto, and ran to his teammates to hug them when wickets fell — a rare occurrence those days.

Benaud appeared in several advertisements, the most famous being the Smoothex shaving cream commercial where he appeared in only a towel. It caused quite a stir. After all, it can hardly be a coincidence that no language on Earth has ever produced the expression “as pretty as Richie Benaud in a towel”.

Steve Waugh (purpose: lucky charm)

Wally Hammond and Mohinder Amarnath used handkerchiefs, but Waugh’s “rag” was cut out of a towel. It was a rare hot and humid day at Headingley, 1993. With perspiration dripping out of his helmet, Waugh asked the 12th man to fetch some cloth. The substitute fielder cut a piece from a red towel the players were given for their showers.

Waugh scored 157 not out. He added 332 in 305 minutes with Allan Border (200 not out). Waugh and the rag became inseparable pairs till his retirement. “It [the rag] would accompany me for the next ten and half years, becoming a security blanket and somehow easing my mind whenever I pulled it out to wipe my brow. At times it became a cloak to conceal my worries because it gave me a few seconds’ grace to gather my composure.”

In a way it turned out to be a major innovation — more significant than the cat-flap and the milled-edge coin.

Marlon Samuels (purpose: lucky charm, reloaded)

Samuels was marked out as a prodigy in his early days, but he was yet to make his mark. He kept on insisting Waugh gave him a piece of his rag: “Hey, maan, give me some of your red rag, I need some luck.”

Marlon Samuels kept the legacy of Steve Waugh’s rag going. Photo Courtesy: Youtube screengrab
Marlon Samuels kept the legacy of Steve Waugh’s rag going. Photo Courtesy: robelinda2 via Youtube (screengrab)

Waugh eventually parted with a few threads of the rag. Almost on cue, Samuels scored his first ODI hundred against India at Vijayawada — and out came the rag in celebration!

Elsewhere, Waugh was dropped from the ODI squad shortly after the towel-shifting took place. He had forgotten that if one tried to take a rag apart to see how it works, the first thing he has on his hands is a nonworking rag.

S Sreesanth (purpose: not very sacred)

Readers of the current era will perhaps recall S Sreesanth’s towel more than any other. Playing for Rajasthan Royals against Kings XI Punjab on May 9, 2013, Sreesanth bowled with a towel visibly tucked into his trousers. The towel was apparently a device to send out messages to the bookies (most sources say he was supposed to concede 14 or more runs in the over he would bowl with the towel).

The inevitable happened. Blackness swam toward Sreesanth like a school of eels who have just seen something that eels like a lot.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is the Chief Editor and Cricket Historian at CricketCountry. He blogs here and can be followed on Twitter here.)