James Lawton: Players' support should not be the last word in the Barmy Army debate

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You might say that the great Ricky Ponting displayed unusual grace when he singled out the Barmy Army for praise this week, categorising this bunch of mind-numbing exhibitionists as the best of all sports fans. Or you might suspect that on this occasion at least he could well have been the owner of a nose to make Pinocchio's look like a flimsy item indeed.

The theory here, certainly, is that Ponting was merely playing the straight bat that has been adopted by almost all his fellow professionals since the Army first organised themselves into taking over some old cricket ground and filling it with a banality so extreme, so seamless that most victims down the years have at least briefly questioned their will to live – and still more their capacity ever to endure the ordeal again.

When the first of these atrocities was committed is probably enshrined in the records of a body that, from time to time, takes itself very seriously indeed, not least when the great Ian Wooldridge greeted their arrival with something less than enthusiasm and was immediately besieged by an "official delegation". His position, he said, was not negotiable. It was something along those lines, at least.

The Army believe that the old role of the spectator to watch and appreciate skills of a very high order, to express emotions that flow naturally from the action, long ago became redundant in face of a more pressing need to participate.

What we know for sure is that the Barmy Army have been celebrated perhaps more than any body of sports fans since the denizens of Liverpool's Kop first emerged as both genuine humorists and fine and subtle observers of football.

The result, as Dominic Lawson pointed out with pinpoint accuracy on these pages in the wake of some quite scabrous behaviour at Edgbaston earlier this week, is a culture of the terraces that seeks to create an alternative universe – one in which dressing up, as a most obvious example, is considered a standard device offering endless possibilities of self-advertising and, best of all, moments of television exposure.

But of course we are told that, far from being offended, the players who at all times are supposed to occupy centre stage hugely value the presence of the Barmy Army, and especially the robotic chanting.

England's Jimmy Anderson this week went one step further when he said that the booing of Ponting was also a good idea, adding, "We get booed when we go to Australia so I'm fully behind it. I haven't found the crowds irritating at all. I've enjoyed it. The atmosphere at every ground has been fantastic. When the crowd are singing along it makes you want to win that little bit more – and play harder."

You could probably trawl dressing-room opinion for some time without encountering a single disapproving word. The Barmy Army are a life- giving force, we are told. They help animate the game that used to get by on the brilliance of men like Sobers and Richards, Botham and Lillee. They take cricket to another dimension. They represent fun and involvement.

The players would say that, wouldn't they? They would say it because the Barmy Army have undoubtedly brought a considerable economic weight to Test cricket both at home and abroad and, of course, we know from the Allen Stanford experience that nothing is quite so beguiling to the administrators of cricket as a little financial heft, however temporary.

What happens to the texture of a day at Test cricket is only now coming into something like proper focus, and if the Barmy Army have anyone to blame for this it is not their critics, who occasionally rally the nerve to put their heads above the parapet, but their own excessive belief in the vital role they fulfil.

A few years ago the Barmy Army made such a splash in South Africa that a local advertising agency announced that they were considering a starring role for them in a forthcoming sales campaign. This was a heady development indeed but it provoked a ripple of concern in some quarters, including this one, where the view was that any such commercial encouragement of their behaviour did not bode well for the future enjoyment of Test cricket, not if you preferred to watch and reflect upon the game rather than dress up as a penguin or a nun or a nurse and spend most of the day chanting that you were indeed the Barmy Army.

The wages of this sin included a tremendous lecture from Adrian Chiles, the BBC presenter who at the time wrote a column in this newspaper, mostly about his life's vocation as a supporter of West Bromwich Albion. The Barmy Army, he announced, were the saviours of Test cricket, and furthermore, here was the address of their website recruiting office.

Times change and certain perceptions with them, and this much at least has emerged from the stridency witnessed at Edgbaston. Certainly, the almost blanket support from the players should not be taken as any serious guide to the state of the argument.

Professional sportsmen, let's be sure about this, have one overwhelming attitude to the great body of fans. It is one of tolerance, an understanding of their vital function of support.

But then the dividing line is strict. This is certainly a truth that down the years has frequently been expressed by a saying of the tough old men who gather at the bowling greens that dot the landscape around Headingley, scene of the current Test which has provoked almost as many words on the behaviour of the Army as the medical status of Andrew Flintoff. Noisy interlopers continue to be greeted by the time-honoured phrase, "Non-players off the green."

It is a call that has never been more relevant to the game of cricket, whatever you hear from Ricky Ponting and fellow diplomats.

Premier League must strengthen the weakest links

Newcastle United fans may feel terribly isolated today, they may feel that the whole circus of modern football has come to reside in their hearts and with the effect a rodeo might have in their skulls after a night of one over the eight.

But they are not alone. Portsmouth are another example of what happens when a football club is seen not as source of passion and commitment but a commodity.

In both cases what we see is not so much the decline of famous football clubs but a neglect of the need for community.

It may not be much consolation in the North-east or on the South Coast but it is hard to believe that the impact of these disasters will not spread beyond the scenes of crimes of terrible omission. Now that the economic power in European football has shifted to Spain, it is perhaps time for the Premier League to attend to some of the basics of its operation. One of the most pressing is some kind of understanding of the meaning of a league. One of its greatest demands is to understand that it is only as strong as its weakest members.

For many years Newcastle United have been rattling towards their current plight. Without supervision, without a hand on their shoulder, without a wisp of official concern, their fate has been inevitable. It means that whatever else faces the Premier League some routine household duties are in order. Most pressing among them is surely a little care for the League's most abused and neglected customers.

Ruthless Schumacher unlikely to disappoint

One view expressed on the national airwaves at the time of Michael Schumacher's announcement that he was returning to Formula One was that he was maybe the most boring sportsman of all time.

He was ruthless – not, you would think, the most natural companion of tedium – tended to give, if possible, monosyllabic answers and was hardly even seen within a thousand miles of a gossip column. Furthermore, and this was apparently his greatest crime, he was in the habit of winning at every possible opportunity.

However wearisome, then, the comeback appears to be progressing with predictable application, an immediate weight loss – not that was he was walking around in a condition likely to require Ferrari to extend their cockpit – and some flexing of the reflexes on an Italian kart track.

All in all it is enough to spark speculation that Schumacher will not only prove himself fit to proceed with his comeback but will have considerable impact when he guns off the grid in Valencia later this month. Not only that, he will prove not boring but easily the best thing to happen to Formula One since, well, since he retired.

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