I know the exact moment when a most unexpected feeling overcame me – the desire that Australia should not lose against England in a vital Test match. It was when the captain of the Australian cricket team, Ricky Ponting, came out to bat in the second innings of the Edgbaston Test on Sunday afternoon – and was booed by a large contingent of the Birmingham crowd. Here was one of the greatest batsmen of this or any era coming to the crease, a time when applause, if not respectful silence, would be expected of the home spectators – and instead we got a cacophony of churlishness from people who had not the faintest conception of how privileged they were to be present.
It would have been completely unimaginable for even the most tunnel-visioned jingoists among an English crowd to have given such a welcome to Don Bradman, when the greatest of all Australian cricketers came to the crease during his final tour of England, in 1948. "Another time, another time" – as that most devoted cricketer, the late Harold Pinter, put it. I don't know if the boos for Ponting emanated from the ranks of the so-called "Barmy Army" – the self-appointed "Official England Cricket Team Supporters' Club"; but I wouldn't be entirely surprised. Ponting had made his entrance – almost certainly his last in Birmingham as captain of the Australian XI – late in the afternoon. This is when the "official supporters" have absorbed a truly stupendous amount of beer and, therefore, when they are at their most boorish, repeating deafeningly, over and over again, the chant: "Barmy Army! Barmy Army!"
The full anthem – which they can manage when sober – goes like this: "Everywhere we go/Everywhere we go. The people want to know/The people want to know. Who we are/Who we are. Where we come from/Where we come from. We are the Army/We are the Army. The Barmy, Barmy Army/The Barmy, Barmy Army. We are the England/We are the England. The Mighty, Mighty England/ The Mighty, Mighty England!"
Do you notice something about this "official supporters' song"? It's all about them, not the England cricket team. They argue that when they travel to support the team overseas, our national side gains great succour from their chants, in what otherwise might be a hostile atmosphere. That might be true of some of the England team, though one former international, when I wrote an article critical of the Barmy Army, emailed me to say that he had found them nothing but a tedious nuisance when he was on tour.
It is true they started in 1995 when the England cricket team was doing particularly badly on a tour of Australia, and the word "Barmy" somehow encapsulated the idea that only eccentrics would travel thousands of miles to cheer on such a no-hope side. There was something almost admirable in this, including a very English sense of self-satire. In ascendancy, however – and in Birmingham, rather than Brisbane – this has evolved into boorish chauvinism, and nothing whatever to do with cricket.
What puts their conduct into even less flattering perspective is the differing appearance of the visiting groups of Australian supporters at English Test grounds. There are proportionately many more women among them; they manage to sit down throughout the time the ball is in play, thus not interfering with the pleasure of those behind them; and they are polite to the English who surround them.
In short, they are a credit to their country. In contrast, read this letter sent to the Times a couple of years back after it published a piece eulogising the Barmy Army: "Sir: your readers should not be misled by [your] rose-tinted view of the Barmy Army. We had the pleasure of their company at Brisbane, where my wife and daughter were abused and threatened when they asked those in front of us to sit down. A constant stream of bad language often included racism and homophobia. Later we witnessed another group intimidating some young Australian fans."
Fortunately, Cricket Australia, the game's governing body in the Antipodes, have made recent attempts to boot such people out of their grounds in an effort, as they put it, to target "a small minority of idiots who have been ruining people's day out at the cricket for some time". When they also ejected the Barmy Army's trumpeter – who is indeed a talented musician – the Army's spokesman and co-founder, Paul "Leafy" Burnham, complained that "everything is being geared to try and make sure there is no fun in the game". Mr Burnham clearly believes that the absence of a trumpet takes the "fun" out of watching cricket, rather like an opera-goer declaring that being barred from taking a cricket ball to Covent Garden takes the fun out of Wagner's Ring Cycle.
The Barmy Army's mission statement – every organisation has one, it seems – is: "To make watching cricket more fun and more popular". What it seems not to understand is the "fun" in watching cricket, is ... watching cricket. For the great majority of real cricket-lovers, there is no fun in being within several counties of the Barmy Army and I know of a number of people who no longer attend Test matches because of their incessant din.
You might think this is all rather snooty – although Mr Burnham, as it happens, is an ex-public schoolboy – but the point is that cricket, unlike football, requires a certain amount of hush in order for the game to be witnessed at its best. When the Barmy Army is in full lager-lubricated flow, it is impossible to hear whether or not a batsman has got an edge to the ball before it flies through to the wicketkeeper, and it is even difficult to hear the defining sound – between a thunk and a crack – of willow striking leather when the batsman drives the ball to the boundary.
If only the broadcasters didn't pander to the exhibitionism of the Barmy Army by constantly showing pictures of them cheering – and then waving idiotically at themselves – as the pictures are simultaneously beamed around the ground. Then, perhaps, they might begin to realise that they are not interesting to anyone but themselves. Unfortunately, however, some television directors seem to think that the crowd is as worth watching as the cricketers. This has had the inevitable consequence of people going to cricket matches in bizarre costumes solely in order to attract the camera's gaze upon themselves. Look Mum, that's me! In the Pink Panther oufit! Next to me mate dressed as Batman!
At the risk of coming over all sociological, it is tempting to see all this as part of the peculiar modern obsession with fame for its own sake, devoid of achievement – to be seen on telly being the ultimate self-validation. Not surprisingly, broadcasters are happy to collude with this, along with the cricket ground owners, who must believe it will bring them more revenue. Worst of all, the England and Wales Cricket Board have fallen in with this travesty of the spirit of cricket, having adopted the Barmy Army's habit of singing – or rather yelling – "Jerusalem" at the beginning of each day's play of a Test match. So at what used to be a period of expectant susurration, mingled with nervous anticipatory applause, we instead get Blake's much-abused words belted out deafeningly over Tannoys, led by some fat bloke with a microphone standing where only cricketers should tread.
England's green and pleasant land? They've got to be joking.Reuse content