In a recent international game at Feroz Shah Kotla, Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) temporarily named one end of the ground after Ashish Nehra who was playing his last game for India. It was a touching gesture for a fast bowler who had served the game for the best part of two decades. A day before that, Delhi & District Cricket Association (DDCA) showed its gratitude to another stalwart of the game, Virender Sehwag, by naming a gate at the Feroz Shah Kotla ground after the swashbuckling former Indian opener. Competitive Sports is often reduced to winning and losing, but gestures like these are a reminder of the human side of the game.
Cricket as a sport takes its history and symbolism quite seriously. A day of Test cricket at Lord's still begins by ringing the famous bell. Boxing Day in Australia will always be reserved for a Test match at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG). Such traditions serve as a reminder of the great game's history.
Another important part of cricket's tradition, especially for the players, are clothing and equipment. Australia's baggy green is revered by its players, especially since the days of Steve Waugh. The coloured clothing of limited-overs game hasn't enjoyed such cult status traditionally, but team colours are often rallying points and war cries for the fans. So New Zealand cricket fans call themselves the Beige Brigade, symbolic of the colour of their original One Day Internationals (ODI) jersey and Indian fans simply Bleed Blue.
Coloured clothing was introduced during Kerry Packer's World Series Cricket (WSC) in 1976 and became an instant hit among the fans. 1992 Cricket World Cup was the first instance where players wore coloured clothes in a World Cup. Those 1992 jerseys are still highly sought after by the fans and are termed by some as the best cricket jerseys ever.
While team colours had more or less become an essential part of team's identity by mid 1990s, there was no way to recognize the jersey worn by one player from the other. They carried name of the player on the back of course, but still lacked the uniqueness of say, a football jersey wore by Maradona famous for its number 10.
Taking a hint from other sports, shirt numbers were first introduced in cricket during 1995-96 World Series Cup. Subsequently, during the 1999 World Cup, ICC introduced jersey numbers and from there on they became a permanent thing on players' shirts. Initially, it was common for players to use different jersey numbers from one tournament to another, but with kit sponsors and broadcasters starting have more say in the game, most of the boards decided to make jersey numbers permanent.
The number on the jersey often holds a special significance for the player. It could be a landmark, like Gayle's 333, his highest Test score, or just a lucky number like Dhoni's 7. Dhoni's 7 is so ubiquitous in all his business endeavours that it's hard to separate the man from the jersey number now.
Still the most iconic jersey number in Indian cricket is Tendulkar's number 10. You look up for pictures of Sachin Tendulkar scoring his double hundred or his hundredth hundred, and you find the Number 10 staring back at you. He wore the same jersey during his IPL stint for Mumbai Indians. Coincidentally, even his surname starts with the letters Ten, making the number even more synonymous with the Indian legend.
It wasn't surprising then that a number of cricket fans cried foul when they saw the famous Number 10 on the back of Shardul Thakur's jersey in a recent ODI game against Sri Lanka. It wasn't just the fans but also fellow cricketers that were a little bemused. Rohit Sharma posted a tongue in cheek tweet asking Shardul his jersey number.
Shardul corrected himself in the next game when he wore a different jersey number, much to the relief of Tendulkar fans. One must realise that fans view Tendulkar as irreplaceable in their hearts. Even after his retirement, it’s not rare to hear chants of “Sachin, Sachin” in any stadium across India.
India’s biggest fan Sudhir Kumar Chaudhary who travels everywhere with the team, still wears “Miss you Tendulkar” along with Number 10 on his tri-colour-painted body. For people who grew up watching Tendulkar, he is Indian cricket’s mascot, deity and soul. He is hailed as the God of cricket and anything associated with him is nothing short of divine for the fans. The game survives on fans’ sentiments and respecting them is one of the main jobs of its administrators.
There have also been those like Harbhajan Singh, who defended Shardul, saying it was his way of paying tribute to the great Tendulkar. But whatever one's opinion be on the matter, BCCI realised that it's in no one's interest to have this debate and has decided to unofficially retire Tendulkar's Number 10 jersey just like Mumbai Indians had done it for their club last year.
The only other instance in cricket of retiring a jersey comes from Cricket Australia who retired Phil Hughes' jersey number 64 in his remembrance. Since ICC doesn't provide a provision to retire a jersey number, BCCI has done it unofficially as an agreement between the board and the players.
In retiring a jersey number, cricket is just following the tradition of other sports where retiring a jersey number is a common practice. In football, some teams even retire Number 12 permanently to honour the fans who serve as their “Twelfth Man”. In NBA, Kobe Bryant's Number 24 and Michael Jordan's Number 23 are retired by their respective clubs. AC Milan retired Paolo Maldini's Number 3 jersey with a curious caveat that it can still be worn by one if his sons if he decides to play the game professionally.
There is one major difference though between an NBA team retiring a jersey and BCCI doing it. There is no place to literally and figuratively “hang it from the rafters” as BCCI doesn't have an official sports arena to call its home, unlike sports clubs. Perhaps that's the next logical step BCCI can take if it wants to continue this practice. An official BCCI sports memorabilia museum that will be home to, among other memorabilia, jersey number of its star players, will be a pilgrimage to many a cricket fans.