Controversial Englishmen abroad

The Barmy Army, first seen in Australia last year, have invaded South Africa. Despite their image, they are a force for good, says John Cassy in Durban
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The Independent Online
In the East Stand of the Kingsmead cricket ground in Durban two Santas sporting Union Jack capes, sunburned stomachs and Castle Lagers leap up to beat bongo drums and sing the England football supporter's anthem "Let's all have a disco".

In response, the bank of about 100 Africans to whom they are performing break into a chorus of the traditional Zulu song Shosholoza. The Santas quickly become their conductors. Spectators in other parts of the stand join in until the singing ends in fits of laughter and the Santas conga off in search of more lager.

For the Santas it is just another day at the cricket as part of the self- styled "Barmy Army" following England's progress throughout South Africa. For the English cricket establishment it is typical of one of the most embarrassing things to happen to the game in years.

Even the torrential rain has not stopped them. They huddle under the stands for a while and then head for the down-town bars to enjoy themselves.

Formed during last winter's Ashes tour of Australia by a group of 40 like-minded cricket fans travelling on a tight budget, the Barmy Army have quickly become a phenomenon. Usually no more than 50 or 60 in number, but stronger in voice with their incessant chants of "En-Ger-Land," and "Give Us A Wave Thorpy, Jacky etc", they have established themselves as an unmistakable feature of England matches.

While much of the English media has tended to dismiss them as little more than football hooligans, the local Durban press and television were last week full of features on the friendly invasion of the city's beach- front bars by the colourful England fans making the most of a favourable exchange rate.

The all-drinking, all-chanting, football-shirted Barmy Army members have found it a difficult contradiction to live with. Dave Peacock, 28, the "General" and driving force of the Army, insists there is nothing sinister in the drunken flag waving and singing that have become the Army's trademark.

"We're not hooligans and we're not out to cause trouble. To say we are is rubbish. Most of us are professional people - there are civil servants, solicitors, policemen in our ranks - who have saved hard or given up our jobs to come away. Nearly all of us are members of county clubs and keen players too. Basically we're just out to watch the cricket and have a laugh like anyone else."

In Durban, the nearest they come to confrontation is when they turn in unison to chant. "We're going to nick your sweets and lollipops" at a group of children beating drinks cans against the advertising hoardings in time with the bowler's steps. Instead of being met by parental anger and reproach, what they got was a whirring of Dad's camera and squeals of delight from the children themselves.

For Allan Freeman, a 41-year-old from Leicester who takes temporary jobs between tours, this sort of reaction is indicative of the reception the Barmy Army gets abroad. "On the grassy banks there's lots of banter, banner waving and laughing. Both sets of supporters join in generating a superb atmosphere and the local paper even offers a year's supply of beer for the best banner of the day. Yet in England we're still told it's not cricket," he says.

However for Peacock, one year on since taking voluntary redundancy from National Power to follow the Ashes tour, the Barmy Army is now about much more than just atmosphere and having a laugh. The small group of friends has evolved to become a limited company selling a variety of trademarked accommodation and match tickets. Its organisation now occupies most of his time and will subsidise his trip, which he estimates will cost him in the region of pounds 2,500 for three months.

The massive Barmy Army T-shirt sales that have accompanied the group's rise are an indicator of its popularity. More than 10,000 have been sold since the first few were printed in Australia last year and, with nearly 5,000 England supporters expected at the final Test in Cape Town in the New Year, Peacock is anticipating another surge in sales.

"The demand for the shirts has been incredible", he says. "We've sold them through the individual cricket unions and have had all sorts of people buying them, including South Africans, Kiwis and Aussies. Even some of the more established English guys on the traditional tours have bought them."

The decision to start organising package tours was not taken lightly but Peacock says there is a big market to be exploited. "Cricket's still an establishment game and there are loads of cricket fans who have always wanted to follow England abroad but have never had the opportunity because of the cost. Now people at home are seeing us having fun cheaply and are coming out to join us."

About 40 people are booked on to the first official Barmy Army package- tour which takes in the Port Elizabeth and Cape Town Tests after Christmas. The emphasis will be on budget travel and having a good time: accommodation will be in pounds 4.50 a night backpacker hostels or university digs, transport will be laid on and heavy nights will be de rigeur. The total package will undercut some of the more established equivalent tours by between pounds 500 and pounds 1,000.

Add to this a scheme that donates one rand to Soweto Cricket Club for every Barmy Army T-shirt sold on the tour, and a friendly fixture at the Soweto Oval scheduled for mid-January, and it seems the Barmy Army is, in its own way, quickly becoming an established part of England Test cricket. Whether it will ever be a universally accepted part is another matter.