Rab C Nesbitt at the crease

The boorish 'Tartan Army' got a lesson in sportsmanship from West Indies supporters last week
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IT IS QUITE a nice irony that one of the first steps Scotland should take on the world stage, following the inauguration of its brand new Parliament, should be on to a cricket pitch. But Scotland's participation in the present World Cup has put its sports fans in the odd position of following the game most identified with the auld enemy. Worse, when their team went to Leicester on Thursday to play the West Indies, the game represented something more than a charming clash between a rank underdog and a cricket superpower.

So far as the West Indies is concerned, Scotland is every bit as much the auld enemy as England. Many of the older factories and plantation houses in Jamaica and Barbados are called Mackenzies or Macdonalds, after the Scottish imperialists who left their mark there. If the Scots were expecting a fiesta in the sun with their calypso brethren, united by a grudge against the English jackboot, then they were in for a nasty shock.

Cricket is a global game these days. The hoardings at Grace Road promoted Emirates airlines, Pepsi Cola, Daewoo, Panasonic and Hero Honda, who do not even operate in this country. Many Scottish fans wore baseball caps with their kilts.

It would be lovely to be able to report that they brought their own special brand of colourful good humour to the occasion, but the Tartan army has (like all armies) a coercive, bullying flavour. As someone remarked during the last football World Cup, it was hard to find a single fountain in France that didn't have a couple of yelling Scotsmen in it. And in Leicester, too, there was a boorish side to the seemingly jaunty costume drama.

The kilts, tartans, ginger wigs and Braveheart merchandising provided window dressing for some routinely aggressive emotions.

Since the game itself gave Scottish supporters so little to cheer - the West Indies bowled them out for 68 and knocked off the runs required in 45 minutes - they swiftly fell back on the old stalwart: "Stand up if you hate England." The locals smiled wearily and one or two West Indians climbed to their feet. But they soon sat down when the lads sang an obscene version of "Winter Wonderland" at the West Indies' captain, Brian Lara, the fast bowler Courtney Walsh, and ex-England captain Bob Willis during the presentation ceremony. As a waggish variation they shouted, to the time-honoured conga tune: "Ambrose is a rentboy, la-la, la-la."

One or two Caribbean mothers clapped hands over their children's ears. No one could say the Scots hadn't "added something" to the tournament.

The effect on England's cricket fans was predictable. Nationalism begets nationalism, and almost to a man the English wanted the West Indies to give the Scots a thumping. "I couldn't get tickets for the England games," said one fan. "So I thought that watching the Jocks get hammered was the next best thing." This was a near-universal view, and gave an interesting twist to the infamous Tebbit test of patriotism. The West Indians, who for years have delighted in the superiority of their cricket team over the old imperial rulers, were surprised to find themselves so fondly supported.

"I hadn't thought of it going both ways," said one. "I thought the English would support the Scots. They like underdogs, don't they?" But the West Indian followers have their own tense nationalisms to contain. "I'm not sure that's quite right," said one, glancing at someone wearing a Jamaican football shirt. Others wore the insignia of St Kitts or waved Barbados banners; some even sported Ronaldo's Brazilian strip. Cricket is the primary unifying force in a region of competing national identities, and some were sad to see it fragmenting into mere island loyalty. "It's so important we stick together," said one. "The whole area is getting so Americanised. Cricket is what makes us different."

Of all the dents the Leicester match put in the narrow Tebbit formula, the most cheering came when the West Indians began to shout for Scotland. "Come on, Gav!" they called to Gavin Hamilton, the only batsman able to withstand the fast bowling assault. "Take it easy, Amby," they yelled, begging Ambrose not to take another wicket. "We don't want to go home early." All they wanted was a decent game and a good day out. So the winner, in the end, was cricket.

How very English.