Column | Sportspersons & superstitions

Sachin Tendulkar
Sachin Tendulkar made it a point to wear left pad first. File photo: AFP/Jewel Samad

A few days ago one came across a post on cricket in social media platform WhatsApp. The post showed a picture where Gary Sobers, Ajit Wadekar and Sunil Gavaskar could be identified. Its stated that during Indian cricket team's tour of the West Indies in 1971, Sobers scored an unbeaten 108 at Barbados in the third Test and followed up with 178 in the next game at Bridgetown and made 132 in the first innings of the final match at Port of Spain. Wadekar noticed that Sobers had developed the habit of coming to the Indian dressing room and touching the shoulder of Sunil Gavaskar, then playing his first Test series, before the start of each day’s play for good luck. Wadekar instructed Gavaskar to go and hide in the toilet when Sobers came to the Indian dressing room on the last day of the Test at Port of Spain and hence the great man had to take the field without performing this ritual. When the West Indies started chasing a target of 302, Sobers came in to bat at the fall of the wicket of Rohan Kanhai, with the scoreboard reading 50/3. However, Sobers was clean bowled by Abid Ali off the very first ball he faced that kept low. The post thus gives credit to Wadekar’s action in hiding Gavaskar in the loo for getting the prized wicket of one of the greatest cricketers ever, rather than to the skills of the bowler or the vagaries of the pitch!

The sceptic may ask many questions while reading this. Did Sobers, whose brilliance as a batsman remains unmatched, really need the help of such superstitious beliefs to score runs? Further, if Sobers had indeed wished to touch the shoulder of Gavaskar, he could have walked up to him when the latter was at the batting crease when play began on the last day and touched his shoulder. Incidentally, Gavaskar was batting on 180 when play started on final day and went on to score 220 runs before he was finally dismissed. Thus, Sobers had ample time and opportunities to do this ritual if he was very particular about this, but he did not try this when the players were on the field. 

This story shows the importance attached by players to certain practices that help to boost their confidence. My favourite story in this regard relates to an incident that took place in the third Test of the series against England in 1971, which was played at the Oval in London. This has been told and retold many times in the past, but is worthy of being recounted one more time. The two sides went into this match after the first two Tests had ended in draws. England took a comfortable lead of 71 runs in the first innings and were looking for quick runs when they started batting a second time. However, the Indian spin bowlers Bhagwat Chandrasekhar (Chandra) and Srinivas Venkataraghavan (Venkat) put a spoke in their wheel by taking quick wickets to reduce them to 49/4 when Alan Knott walked in to bat.

Knott had been a bugbear for India through the series coming up with gritty performances with the bat, which helped his side out of many a difficult situation. In the first innings of the Oval Test, he had rescued  England, who were in a bit of trouble at 175/6, with a 103-run stand for the seventh wicket with Richard Hutton. Knott was unorthodox in his methods and employed the sweep shot effectively against the Indian spin bowlers, which threw them off their length. Hence it was important to dismiss Knott early to retain the advantage that Chandra and Venkat had given them. 

Eknath Solkar, who used to field very close to the batsman at forward short leg, had noticed that Knott had the habit of touching the top of the stumps with his hands after taking guard but before facing the first ball. Solkar passed on this information to wicket keeper Farokh Engineer and they decided to prevent Knott from performing this ritual. Engineer placed his gloved hands on top of the stumps when Knott walked in and did not remove them from there. When Knott turned to touch the top of the stumps with his hands after taking guard, he found Engineer’s hands covering the wicket. So Knott faced the first ball without performing this ritual. Knott did not last long at the crease as he was caught by Solkar who dived full length to pick up a faint edge off the bowling of Venkat for just four runs! Solkar and Engineer claimed credit for this wicket, not so much for Solkar’s terrific catch but of foiling Knott’s attempt to touch the top of the stumps!

There are stories aplenty about superstitious habits of cricketers. Many top cricketers have such fads such as keeping handkerchiefs, scarves etc as lucky charms in their dress while some prefer to wear a trusted piece of apparel. A former Aussie fast bowler even went to the extent of saying that his performance with the ball peaked whenever his wife wore under garments of a particular colour!

Once jerseys with numbers were introduced, all cricketers from club level upwards have their lucky number emblazoned on them. Many of them (notably Sachin Tendulkar) make it a point to wear left pad first, while a few swear by the fact that getting out of the bed from a particular side helps to have a good day in the field! Almost all top cricketers have a fixed place in the team bus and dressing rooms and they all go through a strict routine before they step out to play. 

Pele celebrates after scoring the opening goal against Italy in the 1970 World Cup final. File photo: Action Images/Sporting Pictures via Reuters

It is not cricketers alone who are prone to such practices. Pele, arguably the greatest footballer of all time, once gifted his jersey to a young fan. However, when he found that his prowess with the ball was not up to his expectations during the next game, Pele urgently sent a message to a friend that this jersey be located and brought back to him. This friend was able to find the fan who was having this prized possession and convinced him to return it. Pele wore this jersey as soon as this was received and immediately regained his form! Johann Cruyff, the Dutch star and father of “total football”, used to slap his goalkeeper Gert Bals in the stomach just before kick off, after which he would move to the opposite half of the field and spit his chewing gum! David Beckham, on the other hand, did not have any such routines on the field; however, he would ensure that all condiments in the fridge were arranged in a perfect manner and nothing was out of place, before he stepped out of the house for a game. 

Michael Jordan, arguably the greatest professional basketball player of all time, had the habit of wearing his University of North Carolina shorts under his player’s uniform in all important matches. To hide this, he started wearing long shorts over them, which soon became a fashion statement with many youngsters imitating this style! Bjorn Borg, who won five Wimbledon titles in succession from 1976 to 1980, always wore the same “Fila” T- shirt during this championships, till his luck ran out in 1981. Serena Williams had the habit of bouncing the ball five times before her first serve and twice before her second, in addition to wearing the same socks during a tournament and bringing her  bathroom slippers with her to the court. 

Serena Williams
American tennis great Serena Williams. File photo: Reuters/Mike Segar

Interestingly, these habits are not restricted to players, but extend to coaches and managers as well. Jerry Tarkanian, a successful basket ball coach had the unique habit of chewing a wet towel when his team was playing, while football coach Les Miles used to pick up grass from the turf and chomp on it! Barry Fry, who was manager of the football club Birmingham City, used to pee on the four corners of the home stadium, apparently to ward off evil spirits! Apparently, this did not work out well as the side lost many matches, leading to his removal from the post. 

But there are some sad stories also on account of such practices. A football coach once ordered all members of Midlands Portland club, a football side in Africa, to take a dip in Zambezi river after a series of bad games, in order to cleanse themselves. The part of the river chosen for  this cleansing process was prone to strong undercurrents and infested with crocodiles. The treatment proved to be worse than the malady as one of the players drowned and the side promptly lost the next match. One does not know the fate that befell the coach who ordered this purifying ceremony.

Why do players and officials, right from the greatest to the most ordinary, resort to such practices? All sportspersons, irrespective of the events they specialise in, are also showmen in that they have to perform on the big stage with a huge audience scrutinising all their movements closely. Even the smallest of mistakes on their part get amplified and carry the potential for triggering a catastrophe. It is this need to stay constantly on top and remain ahead of competitors and rivals that prompt sportspersons to settle into a routine. Some elements of these practices may have their origins in superstition. But more often than not, it is the comfort of doing something familiar that drives them to do so and their absence carries the potential to cause deep discomfiture, which can be critical in deciding the levels of their performance in the event ahead. So rather than scoff at these practices as superstitions aimed at courting the super natural, it will be more prudent to place them in the category of routines, the absence of which carry the capacity for adverse outcomes. 

The beauty of sporting events lies in their objective nature and ability to produce unexpected results. The practices as described above add to the allure of sports and contribute to the fascinating array of stories which enrich not only the event but also the literature surrounding it.

(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)

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