For an adolescent cricket lover there could not have been a bigger occasion. Rank outsiders India, who had won only one match in the two previous editions of the tournament, had entered the final of the World Cup and were taking on the mighty West Indies. Television had just made its entry into Kerala and Thiruvananthapuram was the only city in Kerala on the Doordarshan map. So cricket lovers from all over the state descended on the capital city and, invited or otherwise, camped in the houses of relatives, friends, acquaintances etc who owned a television. Excitement had reached fever pitch by the time Joel Garner thundered in and bowled the first delivery of the match to Sunil Gavaskar.
India did not fare too well against the West Indies attack and were dismissed for a paltry 183. After opener Gordon Greenidge was dismissed early, Viv Richards strode in and straightaway started attacking the Indian bowlers. He was in a murderous mood and was sending the ball to the boundary with such ease and frequency that we all despaired that the match would get over soon. At this juncture as Madan Lal, who had been treated like a club bowler by the West Indian maestro, started a fresh over, a friend stepped out for a smoke muttering “no point watching this; better enjoy the cigarette and fresh air”. Hardly had he taken the first puff when Richards miscued a pull and Kapil Dev held a brilliant running catch to turn the game on its head.
Our man quickly stubbed out the cigarette and tried to reenter the room only to find that none of the others were willing to let him inside. “Your moving out and lighting the cigarette brought good luck for India; so you stay there and keep smoking” was the unanimous decision. So he was forced to stay outside the room, chain smoking cigarettes, without watching the game till Mohinder Amarnath trapped Michael Holding leg before wicket to end the West Indian innings with the score at 140.
Cricket analysts would offer many reasons of India upsetting West Indies to win the World Cup in 1983, but to those of us who watched the match in a crowded room in Thiruvananthapuram, our friend staying put outside the room with a cigarette dangling from his lips was as important as the cricketing ones. Such is the deep impact that superstition has on the mindset of cricketers and fans that this game can justifiably claim to be the sport most affected by irrational thoughts and beliefs. Some of the practices followed by players might appear ridiculous to those uninitiated to the nuances of the game, but would be seen as perfectly natural for those who have played or followed it.
Ramprakash's strange habit
Mark Ramprakash was one of the most talented young players to emerge from the English county cricket during the last two decades of the twentieth century. However, despite scoring tons of runs in first class cricket, he could never transform his talent into runs at the highest level. This might have contributed to the streak of superstition that ran through him. He had the habit of chewing the same gum during an innings and in those instances where he was not out at close of play on a day, he would stick the chewing gum to the top of the handle of his bat. He would take it from the there and start chewing it again when he took guard the next day. Though not the most hygienic of habits, this nevertheless helped him score more than 35,000 runs in first class cricket.
When India toured England in 1971, Alan Knott, the wicketkeeper of the host side, was in great form with the bat and used to chip in with valuable contributions in every innings. During the first innings of the last Test at Oval, he scored a doughty 90 which helped England reach the first innings total of 355. Eknath Solkar, the brilliant Indian fielder who used to stand very close to the bat at forward short leg, observed that Knott would after taking guard, touch the bails on the top of the stumps with his gloves before facing the first ball. When Knott walked out to bat in the second innings, Solkar informed Indian wicketkeeper Farokh Engineer about this habit of his English counterpart. After Knott took guard, he turned towards the stumps to touch the bails only to find that Engineer had cupped the top of the stumps with his gloved hands. After waiting for a couple of seconds to see whether Engineer would move his hands, Knott took strike without touching the bails. He was dismissed soon afterwards, caught by Solkar diving full length off the bowling of Venkataraghavan for just a single. Was Knott’s early exit on account of not being able to touch the bails before taking strike? At least Solkar believed that this was so since this story was told and retold by him on umpteen occasions.
Lucky charm of Mohinder and Waugh
Mohinder Amarnath and Steve Waugh were two of the most courageous batsmen to play the game. While Mohinder had taken on the West Indian pace bowlers in their prime during the early 1980s, Steve Waugh displayed the audacity to look Curtley Ambrose in the eye and ask him to bugger off. In addition to utter fearlessness bordering on outright stupidity, both these great cricketers shared the habit of keeping red handkerchiefs in their pocket. Waugh used to call it as his “security blanket” while Mohinder never disclosed the reasons for the presence of this colourful article of clothing on his cricketing attire.
Sachin Tendulkar was created to play to this game and is still revered by many as the “God of Cricket”. Everything that he did at the crease had elegance written over it except for the ungainly habit of adjusting his abdomen guard at frequent intervals. Was this just a habit or a superstition?
Sanath Jayasuriya of Sri Lanka took this to the next level by touching every piece of equipment before facing a delivery. Viv Richards, that destroyer of bowling, never repeated any of the articles of apparel a second time during a cricket season while Mohammad Azharuddin was reluctant to use new clothes for fear of bringing bad luck. Spectators would remember English umpire David Shepherd, whose portly persona made him a popular figure, standing on one leg whenever the score reached 111 or its multiples!
Another common superstition pertains to the seats that cricketers have inside dressing rooms and in team bus. Sunil Gavaskar has recorded that he used to have a permanent seat in the dressing room of the Mumbai Ranji Trophy team at the Wankhade Stadium where he was always a member of the host side. After his retirement he went inside the dressing room once when Mumbai was playing to see who was occupying his seat. A chastened Gavaskar found that it was allotted to the 12th man, entrusted with the task of carrying drinks!
It would not be an exaggeration to state that this practice is not limited to players and followers of the game, but to administrators as well. When India, the ultimate “no-hopers” stunned the cricketing world to lift the World Cup in 1983, the manager of the side was P R Man Singh, secretary of the Hyderabad Cricket Association. Those were the days before advent of professional coaches and the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) used to appoint managers for looking after the administrative aspects relating to the tour. Such appointments were usually handed out as rewards to favoured officials. Though Man Singh had nothing to do with the victory achieved by “Kapil’s Devils” on the field, he was the choice of BCCI for managing the side during 1987 World Cup also. This time Man Singh’s good fortunes did not help the side progress beyond the semifinals and he was not nominated as manager again.
Why is it that cricketers tend to be more superstitious than players of other sports/games? One would say that it is the very nature of the game that is responsible for this. Though cricket is a team sport, in practice it pits one player (batsman) against 11 opponents who are determined to dismiss him. The job of the batsman is to guard his wicket by baulking the efforts of these 11 players, while simultaneously tackling the numerous variables, such as pitch, weather, umpires etc over which he has no control. Even the best of batsmen would find it difficult to tackle a rank “shooter” if he has the rotten luck to receive it soon after arriving at the wicket. On the other hand, only the very fortunate ones get the benefit of dropped catches. Further, the “ifs” and “buts” that are an integral part of any cricketing discussion and the innumerable possibilities that invariably come to mind after every dismissal only serves to make the game a fertile hunting ground for the superstitious ones.
Cricket is a game wherein some of the traditions have become so deeply embedded that they have been made into laws governing the game (toss for innings, lunch and tea break, appeals etc). These traditions not only provide a link between the past and the present, but also helps to maintain its spirit. Similarly superstitions followed by cricketers have become part of the folklore of the game. Cricket is embellished with elegant prose and enthralling anecdotes and these superstitions only lend an added charm to them.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)