On 31 August, 2017, Shardul Thakur finally got an opportunity to don the India colours, in the fourth ODI of the series against Sri Lanka at Colombo. It had been a year since he earned his call-up to the Indian squad during the tour of West Indies, and now he was chosen to be a part of the playing eleven. Understandably, it was a momentous occasion for him. And he put his best foot forward, making the opportunity count. Thakur opened the bowling, giving India their first breakthrough, sending back Niroshan Dickwella, while going for under four runs in his seven overs. A creditable debut by all standards.
But sadly, Thakur's exploits with the ball in his first international match was not the only point of discussion around him, and soon it became a lesser point of discussion. His laudable exploits were soon overshadowed by a completely unwanted and avoidable controversy. Thakur made what was apparently construed as the 'mistake' of sporting the jersey No 10. That's sacrilege, cried people on social media. That used to be the jersey number of India's cricketing God; how can a debutant possibly show that 'temerity', they asked.
Sachin Tendulkar is sui generis. He is above and beyond every Indian cricketer, past, present and, possibly, future. The only individual who could possibly even think about wearing the haloed No 10 jersey among the current crop of players is Virat Kohli, and that apart, the No 10 should never be touched. It is to be reserved, preserved and locked away in a safe, for it is not for everyone's usage. That was the general feeling.
— Shailesh kulkarni (@ssk12694) September 1, 2017
But how justified, or indeed plausible is that argument? Let's build a case against affording something as trivial as a jersey number an aura and a life of its own. Yes, when you think about jersey No 10 of the Indian cricket team, you immediately link it to the 'Master Blaster'.
Undeniably, that connection has became a part of the Indians' consciousness the same way that Tendulkar came to be identified as the emblem of a nation undergoing sweeping changes in the post-liberalisation era. And often as it happens, the prop or an equipment becomes inextricably connected to the fabled individual wielding it, and in turn, share their halo. Tendulkar's No 10 jersey is no different, as were those of Diego Maradona or Pele; or Steve Waugh's red handkerchief, or, moving away from sports, Winston Churchill's cigar.
But as identifiable Tendulkar is with jersey No 10, is it a case that if someone else uses that jersey number, Tendulkar's many feats will lose their value? Or is it a case that if someone else dons that jersey for a period of time, we will forget what all Tendulkar achieved? Tendulkar will remain perhaps the greatest player India has ever produced, if nothing else, for the sheer weight of the impact he has had on the cricket-consuming public and on cricket itself. Nobody can take that away from him. If the fear is that another player wearing jersey No 10, and more so if he is successful, will obliterate our memory of what Tendulkar had been to India, we are not qualified to call ourselves Tendulkar fans in the first place.
Has Maradona's aura faded one bit after Ariel Ortega, Juan Roman Riquelme and Lionel Messi inherited jersey No 10 for Argentina? Have we forgotten what Pele did for Brazil after a host of players from Rivelino, Zico, Rivaldo, Kaka, Ronaldinho and now Neymar have donned the jersey? The answer to that is a resounding no.
There has been a trend of teams retiring the jerseys of their famous players after the retirement of the players themselves. Chelsea did it for Gianfranco Zola, AC Milan did it for the legends, Franco Baresi and Paolo Maldini. West Ham did it for England's 1966 World Cup-winning captain Bobby Moore. Argentina tried to retire Maradona's iconic No 10 jersey in 2001, only to be denied by FIFA.
Jerseys have also been retired for players who had died on the pitch, as when Manchester City and Lens retired Marc-Vivien Foe's jerseys after the Cameroonian international passed away after collapsing on the field during the 2003 Confederations Cup semi-final.
Jerseys have also been retired as a token of empathy, as when the great Hungarian goalkeeper and 1954 World Cup runner-up Gyula Grosics' No 1 shirt was retired by Ferencvaros. Grosics' desire to play for the club in the 1960s was struck down by the communist regime in Hungary at that time. In 2008, the club signed the octogenarian, let him stand in goal for a few minutes in a friendly against Sheffield United and then retired his shirt. Apart from instances where jerseys are retired on humane or empathetic grounds, it becomes difficult to support the practice. Despite a player's feats and milestones, to reserve his jersey from future use reeks of placing the individual over the group. Now, that is something that Tendulkar himself would surely have objected to.
Former India off-spinner Harbhajan Singh made an important point when he said that Thakur donning the No 10 jersey may just be his way of paying his respects to Tendulkar, or indeed be his lucky number. "What's the poor guy's fault if he wore that jersey?" asked Harbhajan.
"That jersey will live on forever. Its respect will not go down simply because someone else is wearing it. It's the Board which must decide if it wants to retire or preserve this jersey number, and dedicate it to Sachin. And if it was to be done, it should've been done when he quit the game (in 2013). If you speak Sachin also, he wouldn't have a problem with someone wearing it," Harbhajan said.
To add to what Harbhajan pointed out, it may also be said that by calling Thakur unworthy of wearing a particular jersey is to demoralise him. Also in any case, such undue importance placed on which jersey one wears takes the focus away from what the player does on the field. Those castigating Thakur for wearing the No 10 shirt, would also possibly agree that in the last analysis what one does with the ball or bat is what matters, irrespective of the jersey one wears.
So Thakur may be facing the ire for wearing the venerated No 10 jersey, but isn't it time for us to rise above blind hero-worship and view things more pragmatically?
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