Dominic Lawson: Fight back against the Barmy Army

Vast amounts of lager go in their mouths, and an equally copious supply of chants comes out

Tuesday 05 December 2006 01:00

Do you remember streakers? These were men and women who would strip their clothes off and run naked across the pitch during a big sporting event. During the 1970s it seemed as though no international fixture was complete unless it had been interrupted by some exhibitionist revealing a preponderance of balls - or breasts - over brains.

Then it died out. One reason was that the television companies took the sensible decision not to turn their cameras on the idiot of the day. Starved of the oxygen of publicity, the streakers left us and we could resume uninterrupted enjoyment of what we had paid to watch.

If only the broadcasting authorities would attempt a similarly high-minded refusal to transmit pictures of the "Barmy Army", the self-appointed "official England Cricket Team supporters club". If you have been watching the current Test series between England and Australia, you will have a clear mental image of these people. They have a sort of uniform: shiny black soccer shorts, white ankle socks, a T-Shirt (two sizes too small) displaying the flag of St George, a royal blue cap, and sunglasses.

But it's not their appearance, unappealing as it is, which is the problem. It is what they do when they open their mouths. Vast amounts of lager go in, and an equally copious supply of chants emerges from the same orifice.

Actually, it's chant, singular. It 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. Shall we tell them/ Shall we tell them? 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."

After lunch this is abbreviated to the two words "Barmy Army!", which are yelled over and over again, with - and here one must give credit where credit is due - a most astonishing persistence. Doubtless members of the Barmy Army would dismiss this description of them as snobbish and protest that they are doing their bit to give vocal support to the England cricket team. If that is the case, though, why is it that their chant is entirely about themselves? The national football team's supporters can be mocked for their interminable dirge of "In-ger-land! In-ger-land", but they are at least shouting for something bigger than themselves. Not so the Barmy Army, with their ghastly refrain of "We are the England". No, they are not. They only think they are.

In its origins, the Barmy Army had a certain eccentric English charm. In 1995 a group of England supporters travelled out to Australia to watch the ailing national side experience its then customary evisceration at the hands of the apparently unbeatable Aussies. Their willingness to travel so far to see their own team being humiliated caused locals to call them the "Barmy Army" and the term stuck.

Now, however, the England cricket team is riding high, and even if it fails to retain the Ashes will still be ranked second in the world. The tone of the Barmy Army is no longer engagingly self-mocking, but aggressively triumphalist. Meanwhile, the Barmy Army has become Barmy Army Limited, with all manner of trademarks - indeed it is involved in a dispute with the England and Wales Cricket Board over the rights to the "Three Lions" logo.

The Chief Executive of the Barmy Army Limited, Paul "Leafy" Burnham, argues that his venture has raised more money for charities than it has paid out in salaries. That could even be true, but is hardly going to console someone who takes his children to an England cricket game, only to have to shield their ears from some of the obscene insults shouted out at members of the opposing team.

At one Test match I attended, some of these idiots spent a large part of the afternoon yelling at the greatest cricketer of the modern era, Shane Warne, that he liked being "taken up the arse". The fact that Warne dyes his hair blond was apparently enough to make their minds up that he must be a "poof", or at least ridiculed as one. "Where's your caravan?" was the endlessly repeated jibe at another Australian player, Jason Gillespie, on the grounds, apparently, that he looked like a gypsy. But this was as nothing to the abuse a friend of mine saw an Australian spectator endure, almost continuously throughout the day, after he was rash enough to protest at the English supporters' behaviour.

I realise that all this is probably small beer compared to what goes on at the country's football grounds every weekend. But football has been a degenerate game for a long time now: it gets the supporters it deserves. Cricket, however, still has a certain integrity, nobility even. It really does not merit this invasion of alcohol-fuelled bile masquerading as "a bit of fun".

It's clear that the sheer volume of the competing bands of supporters is part of the experience of attending a football game - if you like that sort of thing. Cricket, however, is at its best when there is just a buzz of excitement, interspersed with applause when a fine shot is played, or a wicket falls. There is a reason for that. The sound of willow striking leather is the music of cricket. If that can't be heard, because of the constant deafening chanting, then something vital is missing.

To their credit, the Australian cricketing authority, Cricket Australia, has attempted to do something about this: in the First Test of the current series the Brisbane security guards kicked out some "supporters" who had attempted to start a "Mexican wave". For this they were widely condemned; the policing at the match was even described as "fascist." It may have seemed so to some on the receiving end, but I would associate the word "fascist" much more readily with the Mexican wave itself, which demands that everyone in the stadium performs an identical movement and is booed if they don't. Moreover, as a spokesman for Cricket Australia pointed out: "It sounds like fun until you have your family drenched in beer and urine from the plastic cups that a minority of idiots now throw into the air every time there is a Mexican wave."

Perhaps, now, the broadcasters can follow up the good work of Cricket Australia and turn their cameras away from the Barmy Army. At the moment, the reverse is the case: we are constantly shown pictures of them, especially at moments of success for the England team, when their drunken paroxysms of pleasure are somehow deemed by the director to enhance our own enjoyment at home. Well, it doesn't. Can we have our game back, please?

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