The Barmy Army: wit, wisdom and peace to all men

I don't make a habit of criticising other writing in this newspaper but I'll make an exception for a short, snooty and rather malevolent piece last Saturday. It was about the fourth Test in Johannesburg where, said the writer, "the Barmy Army were a little less audible - surely grounds for serious cricket lovers of a sensitive disposition to rejoice." I don't know whether these "serious cricket lovers of a sensitive disposition" object to the Barmy Army or not, but as far as I can see if you took the Barmy Army out of this tour the stadiums would have been almost empty and totally silent.

I don't make a habit of criticising other writing in this newspaper but I'll make an exception for a short, snooty and rather malevolent piece last Saturday. It was about the fourth Test in Johannesburg where, said the writer, "the Barmy Army were a little less audible - surely grounds for serious cricket lovers of a sensitive disposition to rejoice." I don't know whether these "serious cricket lovers of a sensitive disposition" object to the Barmy Army or not, but as far as I can see if you took the Barmy Army out of this tour the stadiums would have been almost empty and totally silent.

The Barmy Army, who now claim 40,000 members, grew out of the Australian media's description of the travelling army of England fans at the 1994-95 Ashes series. For the Aussies, of course, there's nothing more barmy in the world than passionately supporting a losing team. And on that tour, and the one to South Africa a year later, England were largely hopeless. But the Barmy Army kept on chanting: "Ath-er-ton's Barmy Army". Over and over again. No matter how badly it was going on the pitch, the noise kept going.

By the time the next South Africa tour came round the chants were getting more sophisticated. Again, it wasn't going well on the pitch, and the Barmy Army were taking plenty of verbal abuse from the home fans. They responded by stripping to their waists, patting their stomachs and, well, setting fire to money. The chant went as follows: "We're fat, we're round, it's 10 rand to the pound."

To return for a moment to the article which got on my wick: "You might think the Barmy Army are a harmless, amiable bunch... but try going to a famous Test ground and sitting through a day's play with their incessant, witless droning in your ears."

I am admittedly a man of simple tastes, but I don't find that short ditty remotely witless, what with its references to corpulence, hedonism, economic fundamentals and relative purchasing power. I think it rather clever, but presumably "serious cricket lovers of a sensitive disposition" could come up with something better.

It's not easy you know, this song-writing genre. Consider the subtleties of this one, aimed at New Zealand's Daniel Vettori (to the tune of "Oh My Darling Clementine"): "Daniel Vettori, Daniel Vettori, Harry Potter in disguise, we are going to steal your glasses, and poke you in the eyes." It's childish, but it makes me smile and I can't imagine it didn't make him smile, too.

There's a more serious point here, too. A friend of mine, a GP in Worcestershire, has been on a number of tours and he's always impressed by the way the Barmy Army respond to provocation and defuse confrontation: "In South Africa many of the locals are aggressive, they seem to want to fight you; in Australia they're just foul-mouthed and abusive, but the Barmy Army always responds with humour. Once at the WACA a huge drunken Australian stood in front of them and gave them the most appalling abuse. They just sang back: "Does your doctor know you're here?" Ten minutes later an equally foul-mouthed bloke with rather prominent front teeth laid in to them. They responded with: "Does your dentist know you're here?" There's no answer to that: he shuffled mournfully away.

Not that the Barmy Army don't attract brain-dead football hooligan types. Angus Fraser, who's watched them from the pitch and the press box, noted a more aggressive football hooligan atmosphere at the Cape Town Test. I put this to the Barmy Army's secretary, Katy Cooke. Rather disarmingly, not unlike an umpire signalling a six, she puts her hands up: "Yes, it was a bit like that at Cape Town, I agree. It happens."

But cleverly the Barmy Army had plans to deal with these unwanted volunteers: "We paid for a trumpeter to fly out and come to the matches so that if and when it got silly he could get up and play something which everyone could sing along to and it would completely change the atmosphere. Every time there was any danger of anything turning nasty he'd start playing the stripper music or something; we'd just bring it back down to a comedy level."

Now that's what I call thinking ahead. Katy's a full-time employee, and it's a full-time job: "When I get home on 17 February I'm pretty much going straight out to Pakistan. I think the Test matches there will be during Ramadan - so we won't be able to eat or drink in the ground. That'll take some organising." She delivers this understatement with the nonchalance of a Trescothick four through the covers.

So, given that this organisation grew out of adversity, how does it feel to be supporting a winning team? "It still doesn't seem quite real. In Jamaica last year we and the players seemed as shocked as each other: we were looking at each other wondering if it was really happening."

Katy rates the last day of the Cape Town Test - the one we lost - as the highlight of this series. She speaks as if defeat was welcomed back as an old friend: "It was obviously not going to go our way, but it was probably the best atmosphere yet because it was traditionally what it was all about - backs against the wall stuff."

I asked Michael Atherton, in whose reign as captain this all started, how he felt about it. I wondered if the constant chanting, as match after match slipped away, ever got on his wick. After all, in a sense they were celebrating failure, his team's failure. He laughed - a little hollowly, I fancied - and said: "When you're playing you honestly don't really notice." But when I put it to him that the loyalty of these fans amounted to a kind of unconditional love he pounced on the phrase: "It was unconditional," he said with feeling. "Whatever happened, however badly it went, I never remember anyone ever giving any of us any stick."

Every England captain since Atherton has trotted out the old cliché about the Barmy Army being worth an extra man, but when you listen to Katy talk you do wonder if most football fans couldn't benefit from half a pint of whatever she's been drinking: "The whole idea is that we are pro-team whether we agree with the selection or not. We're not selectors, we're not coaches so whichever XI is chosen to go out there we'll be behind them."

adrian.chiles@btopenworld.com

The Barmy Army website is at Barmy-Army.com

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