More than just a number: A tribute to sporting icons | Crickit
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More than just a number: A tribute to sporting icons

Dec 16, 2023 01:06 AM IST

Jersey numbers are synonymous with certain athletes, so much so that a host of jerseys have been officially retired as a mark of respect for the athletes.

It’s not official, but Sachin Tendulkar’s No. 10 and MS Dhoni’s No. 7 are jersey numbers now out of bounds for Indian cricketers — as a mark of respect for their stellar contributions to the game.

Dhoni, who led India in two victorious World Cup (ODIS and T20s) campaigns, has never been fussy about keeping a number to himself.(Getty Images)
Dhoni, who led India in two victorious World Cup (ODIS and T20s) campaigns, has never been fussy about keeping a number to himself.(Getty Images)

Examples of teams retiring shirt numbers are relatively few in cricket, but the tradition has long existed in other sports. It is a practice that can be traced back to 1934 and ice hockey, when Canadian Ace Bailey’s No. 6 was retired by the Toronto Maple Leafs. It is in North America that this tradition is most prevalent, with multiple NBA teams no longer using the numbers of several of their greats.

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For instance, neither No. 8 nor No. 24 is active at LA Lakers as a tribute to the late Kobe Bryant, the only player to have two numbers retired by the same team. Michael Jordan’s No. 23 is sacrosanct for the Chicago Bulls. Miami Heat also don’t hand out that number even though the American legend never played for them. In fact, a common site in all NBA games are the retired jerseys that hang from the rafters above the court.

In club football, too, there are many examples. Paolo Maldini’s No. 3 at AC Milan, Roberto Baggio’s No. 10 at Brescia and Diego Maradona’s No. 10 at Napoli are all retired. At Manchester United, the No. 7 became iconic because it was worn by George Best, Eric Cantona, David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo across generations. To be sure, not all United No. 7s are regarded as greats — the jersey is now worn by Mason Mount.

Though the BCCI hasn’t made its decision to retire Tendulkar and Dhoni’s shirt numbers “official”, players learned when they inquired that they couldn’t wear No. 10 or No. 7 anymore. In 2017, four years after Tendulkar’s retirement, Shardul Thakur did wear No. 10 on his ODI debut, but the trolling that he encountered ensured he quickly changed it.

Dhoni, who led India in two victorious World Cup (ODIS and T20s) campaigns, has never been fussy about keeping a number to himself. “A lot of people thought that 7 is a lucky number for me. But I chose the number for a very simple reason. I was born on July 7. So, it’s the 7th day of the 7th month, that was the reason,” Dhoni had said at a Chennai Super Kings event.

“Rather than getting to all the different things as to what number is a good number and all, I thought I will use my date of birth as the number. Then whenever people kept asking me, I kept adding to the answer. (19)81 was the year, 8-1 is again 7, 7 is a very neutral number. People actually kept telling me, I started absorbing it and I started telling it to others in the same way,” he added.

During Tendulkar’s early years, players didn’t have any number on their coloured jerseys. The practice gained popularity through the mid-1990s and became common after it was introduced for the 1999 World Cup in England. In that tournament, the captain was given the No. 1 jersey and the rest of the 15-member squad were asked to pick from numbers 2 to 15.

Tendulkar tried several jersey numbers from 99 to 33 during his career before ultimately settling for No. 10, reportedly on astrological advice.

India head coach Rahul Dravid once said in jest that he chose No. 19 during his playing days so that he could remember his wife’s birthday.

In Rohit Sharma’s case, No. 45 was chosen by his mother. Virat Kohli has said No. 18 was simply given to him during his U-19 days. Later in his career, the number became an important part of his life. He made his international debut on August 18, 2008. His father passed away on December 18, 2006.

“Two of the most significant dates in my life happened to be 18. There has to be a cosmic connection with this number,” he once said.

With the stardom Kohli and Sharma enjoy, could their jersey numbers be next in line if Indian cricket continues this practice? As the IPL becomes a more mature property, it’s a practice that’s likely to be extended to the T20 league as well. It won’t be the least bit surprising if Dhoni’s No. 7 at Chennai Super Kings is also retired once his IPL career comes to an end.

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