In New Zealand’s first Test, played against England at Lancaster Park in 1930, the home side had fallen to 86 for 6 before Tom Lowry found an ally in George Dickinson. The pair had put on 25, and New Zealand were within a run of their first innings total, when Dickinson fell. Without adding another run to the score, Ted Badcock would come and go for a duck. The score when Dickinson and Badcock were dismissed? 111. Also known as ‘Nelson’.
‘Nelson’ is the cover star for cricket’s superstitions and rituals. But what’s the story behind it, who fears it, and is it really that bad?
Horatio Nelson led England to many victories but never captured the Ashes. In fact, it’s not clear that Horatio had much to do with cricket at all. Admiral Nelson was a British naval commander who lived from 1758 to 1805, dying amidst the Battle of Trafalgar which the British famously won. During his esteemed naval career, injuries led to him losing one eye and one arm. There are many stories about him also losing a leg, losing something much more delicate, or that he liked one lump of sugar in his tea. These all combine to leave us with 111 (one eye, one arm, one whatever story you prefer) which, as a cricket score, has been named after Horatio. Why the link to cricket? Well, it’s hard to say emphatically, but there are stories that bankers and darts’ players had references to the number 111 as ‘Nelson’. With that in mind, it seems it’s the number, not the game, which is key.
Umpire David Shepherd was the man who gave ‘Nelson’ a face or, more accurately, an action in the game of cricket. While officiating, Shepherd took up the habit of standing on one leg whenever the score was at 111. He held no favour for either team, only respect for the score, and could often be seen hoping from foot to foot if the scoreboard didn’t move for a prolonged amount of time. Shepherd’s approach came from a Gloucestershire tradition (which some say he started himself while playing for the county) and has been adopted by the Barmy Army in recent years, with some success.
The ‘Nelson’ superstition is a very English thing but, with cricket being a colonial sport, it has been adopted into other countries. In New Zealand during the 2015 Cricket World Cup, the city of Nelson marketed their games by asking fans to ‘do the Nelson’ and stand on one leg whenever the score reached 111. In a strange quirk of fate, when Nelson (the city) made their First Class cricket debut, against Wellington in 1874, they were dismissed for 111 in their first innings. Outside of ‘Nelson’, there are other score superstitions, with 87 being an ominous number in Australia and many international players holding their own unique beliefs.
Statisticians have looked in to the relevance of ‘Nelson’ and found there to be no overwhelming evidence of wickets falling more on that score than on any other. If there was any chance that ‘Nelson’ would become an issue for New Zealand cricket after our first Test, the numbers put that to rest: no other New Zealander would fall with the score at 111 until March 1964, 34 years and 62 Tests after the first occurrence. The insignificance of the number in our cricket history is further emphasised by the WHITE FERNS who have never lost a Test wicket with the score on 111.
On the other side, if there’s any argument that New Zealanders should be wary of Nelson, we’ll give you just one stat: in the 2015 Cricket World Cup final Ross Taylor and Grant Elliott’s partnership was worth 111.