Playing the number game

The Asian Age.  | R. Mohan

Sports, In Other sports

They may be the best at their game but they believe a little bit of superstition can give them the edge.

Even in the age of reason and science, the pull of superstition proves an irresistible force; (left to right) Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Telangana CM K. Chandrashekar Rao.

The Telangana chief minister swears by his lucky number six. The timing of his meeting and the date of his calling for dissolving the Assembly were to do with the number. Even at the height of the age of reason and science, which is hoping to put man on Mars, the pull of superstition proves an irresistible force.

Politicians are probably poor examples for arguments in favour of the scientific temperament because they believe intensely in luck. They are at the mercy of the voice of the people, even in the age of the social media when the Russians are thought to be clever enough to swing US elections.

Another class of people equally conscious of the play of numbers is from the sporting arena. You would imagine someone in the silkiest class of sporting skills like the 20-time tennis Grand Slam winner Roger Federer would have no faith in numbers. As a master of the angles, maths and geometry do touch his play on the rectangular court, but numbers?

The Swiss master who plays with the famous precision of his country’s watches says he constantly ponders the significance of the number eight. “I’m born on the 8th of the 8th in ’81. I like that number,” he said at the US Open. Those were rare words from a player of sublime skills who suffered none of the eccentricities of his fellow great Rafael Nadal for whom even the bottles of water and energy drink has to be on the precise side of his chair by the court.

Even the greatest of them all was, however, to be denied a shot at another US Open crown. It was not his skills or his lucky number but the heat of the autumnal New York night in global warming days that got to the 37-year-old. Sweating buckets and changing clothes twice in the match did not help Federer’s cause against Tillman.

Federer is not the only one who ponders the power of eight, a number the Chinese love the most while it is somewhat feared in most other parts of the world. But not in science where they are suddenly realising the true impact of the number eight, which they believe now is of greater import to mathematics than even the magical number nine.

The theory is so abstruse it leaves you even more confused. His opponent who downed him famously — John Millman — thought he had an OCD about his game when he was a tweenager in Brisbane. “When I was, like, 12, I was crazy. I think I was super OCD,” he said. “Now it’s more about routines. I like to take my drinks in certain orders and all that. I don’t want to go back to when I was a little kid. I was really in my head back then,” he said at the US Open.

Cricketers are an even greater superstitious lot, maybe because they have even more time to ponder all this in a game that moves slower than most, with the exception of the modern T20s, of course. A tug on the peak of the cap or grill of the helmet, a tug on the left pad, then a tug on the right pad, a twirl of the bat, then a tap, tap, tap in the blockhole and only then a batsman would settle into his stance. Enormous example of OCD you would think. But this is just a superstitious routine in the willow game.

Players love their routines to the extent of wearing the same ‘lucky’ clothes when out in the arena. Mohinder Amarnath took it to the extremes in washing his favourite white shirt every evening and drying it overnight before wearing it again. Sometimes he had to take blood off them from the brutality of the experience of facing the old West Indian fast bowlers in the Caribbean. Many other colleagues were forced to ponder on the factor of luck while being frequent visitors to West Indies hospitals.

Sachin Tendulkar, the greatest of the modern masters who made a century of centuries, would invariably put his left pad on first. Sportsmen derive comfort from such rituals even if success and failure evens out in the end with regard to the specific routine followed. Career-long idiosyncrasies do, however, take on a whole new meaning from the sheer longevity in case of the legends.

Before he serves, the 32-year-old Rafael Nadal will pick at his shorts, brush his eyebrows, caress his nose while Novak Djokovic would bounce the ball so many times before service that he would leave opponents fretting over whether he would serve at all. Nadal’s routines had no effect on a big day as his knee buckled and he lost, leaving Djokovic and Del Potro to play the final.

Federer tends to shrug off all the superstitious stuff of his fellow players with the comment “I can still play tennis” although a question mark building around that statement could ask — How much longer though? It appears both ageing players Federer and Nadal are fighting to stay relevant in all the Grand Slams this season but the bigger number that tends to determine sporting careers — age — seems to be playing games on their body and mind now.

The politicians have longevity on their side as it is one career option which bestows favours even on geriatrics. Giants from both ends of the superstition and rational pendulum, however, passed away recently in Tamil Nadu, with Jaya having represented the extreme of favourite routines, colours, numbers rituals and M. Karunanidhi the opposite with little concern for such concepts.  In the end, superstitions go down with the mortals only to resurface in younger people, politicians and sportsmen, most of all.