From the handshake to the airplane

Players' celebrations of milestones and wickets are now full-blown, thought-through routines that range from the extravagant to the embarrassing

Osman Samiuddin

On a high: Brett Lee gets some air while celebrating a wicket © Getty Images

Don Bradman pulled Bill Bowes' first ball onto his stumps in the second Bodyline Test and, just briefly, the world stopped. Sixty-four thousand people united in a sudden, silent sigh. Bowes stopped short in his follow-through, in bespectacled, unsmiling contemplation rather than crazy-eyed celebration, and began a downbeat shuffle back to his mark. His fielders were unmoved.

This in a series unmatched for combustibility. Granted the crap met the fan a Test later, but nothing? A peep, a shake of hands at dismissing a man deemed a mortal threat to Empire itself? Bradman was king even then, 19 Tests old, 112 average, every inch primed for greatness. Only Douglas Jardine at mid-on did a little jig, according to David Frith: typical, given that Jardine's own often doubted whether he was, in fact, one of their own.

It wasn't only then, and it wasn't always only the stiff English, who so refrained, though clearly they led the way. Derek Underwood once watched footage of the 1956 Laker Test and was bemused. "But they don't seem pleased about taking wickets!" And an elderly gent once wrote to Mike Brearley, gently chiding him: "When you skippered England, why, oh why didn't you discourage this ridiculous backslapping and cuddling? It was reprehensible and inexplicable."

Until even the early 1980s, when West Indies came to town, celebrating a wicket or a hundred was not unheard of, just not really done. Indeed, India and Pakistan were champions of the apologetic celebration: a little sheepish hop in the follow-through, an awkward clap of hands, a handshake, then back to positions. Batsmen twirled bats, doffed a cap, smiled and moved on. Spectators celebrated more than the players.

Today even not celebrating is actually a celebration. They are patented; Shoaib Akhtar's airplane; Fidel Edwards' "You can't see me"; KP and his helmet foreplay; Sachin Tendulkar's serene mid-pitch pose; Andrew Flintoff's topless sprint and Sourav Ganguly's bare-chested, bling-ridden response. They are surging bursts of spontaneity; emotional releases so great everyone is taken along.

Some, dreamt up by Chris Gayle, are bizarre. Younis Khan, who bench-pressed his bat, did some push-ups and unveiled a little sign for the cameras ("Moti I miss you") upon reaching three hundreds this year, is a category unto himself.

Richie's role
Richie Benaud is some man. As captain, he brought to cricket a smile and wink in the early '60s, when the preceding decade had been mostly a bored frown. Keen as mustard was captain Benaud, and of a fresh mind: Neil Harvey says Benaud even pioneered the structured team meeting before matches. Others say he started match-eve practices when he became captain in 1958.

His eagerness was most apparent on-field, especially when wickets fell. He would run to congratulate bowler and fielder. Before him was Tony Lock, who once had a pop at a fielder for dropping a catch. "I couldn't face another one of your kisses," was the fielder's excuse. But Benaud was likely the first to make such shows of emotion a persistent - and useful - trait.

It was conspicuous enough to cause comment. Qamaruddin Butt, the late Pakistani writer, noted Benaud's exuberance in 1959, when Harvey helped Alan Davidson dismiss Saeed Ahmed. He decided it wasn't a bad thing: "In sheer delight Benaud scampered to the wicket to give Harvey a gentle pat at the back. This is usual with Benaud, for whenever his side gets a wicket, he cannot restrain himself and is the first to congratulate the bowler… This has a healthy spirit for it encourages the players and serves as a morale booster."

Butt saw Benaud's celebrations as they were likely conceived. His players didn't mind it; certainly not Harvey, who thought Benaud "instilled more team spirit than had ever been done before". And Benaud's sides - undefeated in a series - are not remembered only for being good and popular, but for also reviving the joy of playing.

As with most innovations, gentle approval went hand in hand with suspicion. Men were still men then, stoic till the last. Keeping yourself in check was a virtue; today it's a sign of being "emotionally crippled". So, in an essay on Benaud, Ray Robinson captured well this tangent, finding that Benaud's "bubbling over-keenness was lapped up by his players". But "breaches of unemotional he-man tradition caused many older onlookers to say the next thing would be kissing, and they found fervid embraces repugnant, as if bordering on homosexuality".

Robinson remained an approver: "From a practical standpoint I thought the only issue was whether rapture inspired bowlers and fieldsman to do better. Don't tell me it didn't."

That 70s show
It took time. Ian Chappell, one of cricket's straighter-talking products, led the more forthright sides of his era, who played, partied and sledged hard. Forthright but, Chappell says, not as boisterous as is remembered. "We played when society was changing rapidly and younger people were openly displaying discontent [think Vietnam protests]. We were just part of that change.

"I don't think we were a lot different in our celebrations to previous Australian sides. I have seen footage of [Bob] Massie taking 16 wickets at Lord's and our celebrations are pretty muted. It was the way we carried on most of the time. We got excited by the odd dismissal - when [Geoff] Boycott was dismissed at Lord's in '72 we got a bit excited, and maybe more in 1974-75 when we hammered England."

Even in 1976, Michael Holding doesn't remember going crazy when hundreds were scored or wickets fell - unless it was Tony Greig's; that usually prompted a leap or two, hugs and handshakes, only to be cut short by mild crowd invasions.

Rudi Webster, who helped shape West Indies' domination during a World Series stint in the late 70s, says celebrating was frowned upon. "During World Series they became a highly disciplined and professional unit and such demonstrative behaviours were uncommon. They were not encouraged. Players of that era will tell you that is when dominance really started."

But after Packer, after TV, after money, when boys became men, were becoming stars, began an era of serious Caribbean ass-kicking. They didn't play like others did. They bowled faster, hit harder, fielded better. On the field they made merrier, so that as world domination began, so too did its celebration.

The captain, Clive Lloyd, was undemonstrative, but others made up. When wickets fell Viv Richards would head straight from slip to bowler for happy mid-pitch high-fivin' and jivin'. The best involved Joel Garner, some 123 feet from toe to finger-tip, waiting, arms raised, as Gus Logie and others not as vertically gifted rushed to slam-dunk high-fives. "I can't remember teams doing as much celebrating of wickets as us, certainly not before we started doing it," says Holding. "And the high fives were certainly our trademark."

They were unscripted and free-spirited, not the result of any planning, a captain or coach's ploy to manufacture spirit. It was simple, says Holding: the more they won, the more they celebrated. "It developed naturally as we became more and more successful, and of course the joy of winning became more and more regular and commonplace."

"I say, that's rather splendid, old boy": England congratulate Pat Pocock on his first Test wicket, in 1968 © Getty Images

Pride, perhaps a sense of injustice, fuelled the joy. "We wanted to show the world we could win under all circumstances, playing at home or abroad. Although we were winning regularly, there were portions of the press that tried to downplay our superiority," says Holding. "They would imply that four fast bowlers and the way they were employed was not 'fair play'. That's why we played so ruthlessly, because we always had to prove ourselves and we knew it."

Here the tide turned. High fives became the bare necessities; hugs, helmet-kissing, hair-ruffling, elaborate gestures the essential accoutrements. Cricket was never the same again. But then, neither was the world.

Celebrating the individual
There may be nothing more to all this than the inevitable change in man and the world he inhabits. Humans have stepped out of inhibited skins into more expressive landscapes. Feelings, emotions, none should be bottled up, in relationships, at work; not in life, not in sport.

Cricket is not unique in this. Football's goal celebrations have evolved from handshakes and pats to J-Lo routines. Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth's home-run record in 1961 and was greeted with handshakes and 40 seconds of applause. Mark McGwire broke Maris' record in 1998, cueing bear hugs, high fives and nine minutes' applause.

Today the individual is king, despite the coaching-corporate mantra that there is no "I" in team. At cricket's heart lie individual battles: celebrating a wicket or a hundred is the assertion of individual personality within that of a group, even if it has no effect on the team result. "Before, such behaviour was not encouraged or rewarded - 'showoffs' were not valued or appreciated as much as quiet achievers," says Webster. "In today's world we glorify the individual and often ignore valuable contributions from members of the team."

Where cricket is unique is in the bastardisation of itself, from five days to one to an evening. This compression is not just of the game's skills, or flow; it is a squeezing of pressure and tension built over five days into much less. That kind of pinch affects player behaviour.

In The Art of Captaincy, Mike Brearley writes: "One-day cricket aims precisely at tension, excitement and results. For a county team, a month of the season will include anything from four to nine one-day matches. At least half these matches will be close... In the 1950s, before all this started, perhaps one or two of 24 days would contain this sort of tension."

The consequences of a shortened game and heightened drama are obvious. And fine. "Shared, overt pleasure in a team-mate's success has always seemed acceptable and enjoyable to me. Cricketers have not yet gone in for widespread kissing, but hugging is not unusual and I have seen cheeks chucked."

Disappointment turning to sulk is a danger, sure. And sports psychologists who believe that excessive celebration can lead to a loss in concentration are plentiful. How often does a team concede a goal soon after scoring one? Or, asks Webster, "a batsman get out after reaching a century or a bowler's line and length suffer after taking a valuable wicket?"

It's all entertainment
It is the belief of many, not just crazies, that just behind money lurks television as the root of modern-day evil. Whatever TV may or may not have done, that it has changed cricket and sport - and how it is played, perceived, followed - cannot be doubted.

Sport is no longer just that. TV has made it - and much else besides - entertainment, to be portrayed as such by actors and consumed as such by viewers. The celebrations, the aggression, the emotion: these are necessary tools. "Professional sport," says Dr Sandy Gordon of the University of Western Australia, "is now part of the entertainment industry with its trappings and cultural expectations of behaviour on the part of 'actors'. Self-expression comes with that expectation package. TV feeds off drama."

Gordon was responsible for India forming celebratory team huddles during the 2003 World Cup - a practice that became the stick with which Holding and others bash TV's role. Like Benaud, Gordon's intent was noble, though even he is unsure about the version en vogue today. "The original suggestion was mine but what you see today isn't what I had in mind. At a senior player meeting I suggested that to improve communication between all players at the fall of a wicket they get together midwicket to celebrate and discuss incoming batsmen and tactics.

"Because of the noise at such times I felt doing so would significantly improve both communication and morale. Subsequently the players themselves decided to 'huddle', and apparently they now use it for other purposes."

High fivin' and jivin': Viv Richards gets airborne before running up to congratulate the bowler © Getty Images

What these "other purposes" are is clear, at least to men such as Holding, besides women such as Madonna. These are material, self-obsessed times and few avenues are as smooth to material heaven as TV. "The more television coverage you can get, obviously the higher commercial value for the individual," reasons Holding. "That's why you see some, not all, celebrate the taking of wickets or centuries as expressively and joyously when their teams are heading for defeat as when heading for victory. It's about attracting the cameras."

The ground warm-ups, the huddle, playing other games as warm-up: this "bullshit", according to Chappell, is what attracts those cameras, and is done purely for show. It isn't said but fist-punching - so forced, where a batsman putting on his gloves will be waited upon by his partner, fist up, like an idiot boxer waiting to be punched - can probably be added to Chappell's list.

Where to now?
In March 2006 the NFL banned excessive touchdown celebrations, after complaints that kids were aping elaborate routines. What constituted excess was vague, though the moves of Joe Horn of the New Orleans Saints after a 2003 touchdown can safely be described as such. Once in the end zone, an ecstatic Horn took out a cellphone hidden in the goalpost padding and called home. His team was penalised; he was fined.

It still seems unthinkable that cricket will be spoofed the way the NFL was on The Simpsons, when Homer became an Athletic Dance Celebration Choreographer, hired by stars to create outlandish celebrations. But who's to say about the future? Men celebrated each wicket in the recent Stanford 20/20 as if they had won a million dollars, which is precisely what they had done. Men such as Andre Nel, who would sledge a brick, and Sreesanth, who dances when he hits a six, complete a cycle of sorts. By their own admission they are more expressive on the field than off it. Increasingly, this might be the template for modern athletes - the field a platform for emotional release.

The game gets shorter, the tension greater, the money bigger, the stakes higher and the role of the broadcaster more pervasive: is this not a recipe for such change? A problem in the NFL - the thinning line between celebrating and taunting - is one cricket is already grappling with.

It's still not so bad watching fusty, ancient cricket, so rubbish for modern life, catching up in modes, codes and behaviour to other sports. It's mildly comforting. At least until the day Younis pulls out his iPhone, hooks it up to the big screen and plays the ditty he composed the night before, to celebrate another hundred.

Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo