November 15, 2001

As Barmy as they come

It is easy for an English cricketer, forlornly fielding at third man and watching the runs flow during an overseas tour, to let weary shoulders sag, but this is precisely what he must not do. He must think of England, of the hopes of Old Blighty resting on those very shoulders; how he does this is left to personal choice. He could think of scones at tea; he could hum a few bars of "Rule Britannia" under his breath; he could think fondly, perhaps for the only time in his life, of the Royal family.

Or he could look behind him into the stands, where sprawl various middle-aged men and women, pink with sun, sporting little torso-wear but a draped Union Jack and zinc oxide, ale never far from their hands, hollering motley songs energetically.

Sri Lanka may have the indefatigable Percy and Lionel, flagwavers from the very top drawer, but only England can boast of an entire battalion of cheerleaders who make it their business to follow the cricket team abroad, offering vocal support where usually none exists, and standing by the players through triumphs and disasters, the latter perhaps more numerous.

The Barmy Army, as they have come to be christened, may now be a formidable regiment, but it was initially just a social gathering of backpackers who soldiered independently from country to country. Only during the 1994-95 Ashes series in Australia did these battle-scarred veterans agglomerate into a cohesive unit, capable of striking fear into any home supporter with animal war cries, funny costumes, and vigorous waving of pitchers frothing with lager.

Drunken-football-hooligan rampages, however, are never on the Army's agenda, no matter how much the beer may flow like water. "It's not just about beer," said Paul Burnham, one of the founding members, to the BBC. "Our idea is to bring everyone together and try to be ambassadors for the country. We behave ourselves but like a good sing song."

Their web-site, for what organisation can survive today without a cyber-home and annoying pop-ups, assures us as much., besides announcing their mission statement to "make watching cricket more fun and much more popular," is also an effective forum where recruits contact each other, coordinate group trips, or promise to meet before the start of the first Test at the Gabba pub or the Eden Gardens chaistall.

Contingents vary in strength. The No-Booze tour of Pakistan saw only 50 Army members, no doubt only top brass, witness an exciting series win in the subcontinent. Those who missed out, however, got their chance in Sri Lanka, where hundreds of foot-soldiers watched with disbelieving circumspection as England notched up yet another victory.

Hoping for a hat-trick in India might be asking for too much, yet the Army had less trouble with conscription than the ECB. Although they theorise, half in jest, that they might be in more danger than the players, walking around as they do in capes made out of the British flag, high-ranking officials in the Army believe that, by heeding Foreign Office advice and relying on the "Safety in numbers" maxim, they shall come to no harm.

"People already have their tickets and, as far as anybody can say they will be there, we will be in India for the Test series," said Burnham. "I'm hoping that Indians fans will show their solidarity and join us too."

Burnham should have no worries about that. In a country where one hundred thousand fans throng matches, sleep nights outside the ticket office to get even half-decent seats, initiate and maintain stadium-wide Mexican waves to the point of monotony, and generate astounding levels of decibels, the Barmy Army's rendition of "Nasser, Nasser Hussain" to the tune of "Rupert the Bear" should fit right in.