The Barmy Army, that noisy crowd that follows the England cricket team wherever it goes, will be marching into battle this weekend minus a trumpet.
Billy the Trumpet, whose playing is arguably the only component of the din that comes out of the Barmy Army enclosure that is at all pleasing to the ear, has been banned from the Headingley ground, where the fourth test begins tomorrow.
The ban also applies to Vic Flower, the beanpole Jimmy Saville lookalike, who acts as the army’s chief cheerleader – if he brings a flag.
Their absence will please some of traditional lovers of the game who share the sentiments of The Independent’s commentator, Dominic Lawson, whose column in Tuesday was a tirade against the “boorish chauvinism” of this famous section of the England crowd. But it will come as a cruel disappointment for the 1,000 fans who booked tickets via the Barmy Army in anticipation of a loud and crazy day at the cricket.
The Headingley ground, in Leeds, has recently been having serious crowd problems. When England played South Africa there last year, 81 people were ejected. This year, on professional advice they are clamping down on distractions that might cause spectators to pay more attention to what is happening in the crowd than to the game.
That means the two quintessential components of barminess, the trumpet and the man in the silly hat, are out.
A disappointed Billy the Trumpet, otherwise known as Billy Cooper, was on holiday in Spain yesterday, hoping that other cricket grounds do not follow Headingley’s lead. He is not the average hard drinking cricket lout, but a classical musician trained at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, who earns his living playing in various orchestra and west end shows.
His membership of the Barmy Army originated with the 2004 Test series, when he and friends from the world of music decided to go to the Caribbean to watch the Test. He took his trumpet for practise, and lost it in Barbados.
Luckily, it was handed in and when he went to reclaim it, he played a few bars to prove that it was his. Some of the Barmy Army heard him, and pleaded with him to accompany them to South Africa that Christmas, offering to pay his fare. “I was a bit dubious at first, but they were giving me a free holiday,” he said yesterday.
“I don’t think I have done anything personally to provoke a ban,” he added.
“I think that when things are getting a little bit fruity, singing a song to the sound of a trumpet can change the atmosphere, and make it less edgy. But they’ve obviously taken the decision to tackle the problem of crowd behaviours, and once they’ve decided that, they’re going to stick to their guns.”
Vic Flower could not be contacted yesterday, but Katy Cooke, who has organised the Barmy Army for nine years, described his reaction to the ban.
“He was incandescent with rage. He takes these things very personally. But I explained to him that they don’t want distractions, and he is a distraction because he’s such a character. People recognise him and want his autograph.
“It’s very disappointing for us. I’ve got 1,000 people who have bought their tickets through the Barmy Army, and they’re going to come away thinking this was a poor man’s Barmy Army. We’re going in with a couple of limbs missing.”
An ECB spokesman said, however, he would be allowed in if he turned up with a ticket but no flag.