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December 5, 2003
Barmy Army: facing competition from the Wavy Navy
© Getty Images 2003
Jimmy Saville (the England-supporting doppelganger, that is, as opposed to the cigar-chewing pop impresario) is not his usual self today. As the self-appointed cheerleader of the Barmy Army, Jimmy is usually to be found leading a can-can around the boundary edge, with a red rose pinned to his Dr Seuss funnel hat, and a large St George's cross fluttering behind him. But not at the moment. Something is seriously amiss.
Jimmy's chirpy - and rather grubby - mascot, Tweetie-Pie, is also looking as though Sylvester's got his beak. The pair are slumped in the tent at midwicket, watching and waiting for the rain to stop falling. It is a melancholy sight, and one that has even been picked up on by the England captain himself. "As Vaughny was leading the boys out this morning, he called out to me: `What's happened, Jimmy? I can't hear you!' I appreciated that. He's a good man, is Mike."
What has happened seems trivial by all accounts, but it has clearly touched a nerve. For up on the hill, Jimmy's usual stamping ground, a coup de corps has taken place. Where the Barmy Army once reigned supreme, a group of about 20 England fans have sailed in on the Monsoon floodwaters. These men are calling themselves the Wavy Navy, and it's all got rather serious.
You wouldn't believe it to watch them in action. "I'm a little teapot," bellows a chap in a pink hat, who later transpires to be the Rear Admiral. "Tip me up, and pour me out," conclude the crew, after a frenetic attempt to recall all the moves to their favourite nursery rhyme. Their repertoire is limited but enthusiastic. "We've only got six songs!" they chant, before breaking into their signature tune, which is embellished with a rather mincy, maritime swish of the wrists.
Jimmy is not impressed. "I've seen it all before," he says. "Why is it necessary to form these splinter groups? I've only come here to support England and have a bit of a sing-song." But this afternoon, he's all sung out. "There's only so much power in my lungs," he explains. "I'd rather not waste it trying to chant over the top of them."
The Navy, understandably, are in a rather more bullish mood. "This tour was dying on its feet until we rocked up!" announces one crew member, although the Rear Admiral himself is more conciliatory. "We're not here to upset anyone or cause any trouble," he says. "But the Barmy Army are so commercialised these days, we simply fancied doing it differently." The T-shirts are being printed as we speak...
Matters came to a head on Thursday afternoon, when the rival services took part in a sing-out on the hill. "It was great," says a chap from Dulwich. "There was a fantastic exchange of sharp banter going on all afternoon." His colleagues approve of his turn of phrase. "Yeah, sharp banter! That's exactly what we're here for."
It is all rather harmless. As the rain continues to fall, I leave the Navy in mid-haka, and head off to see some of the other sights of Galle. Just over the road from the stadium, through a makeshift carpark and across a butterfly bridge that links the fort spithead to the main body of the town, there is a rather run-down collection of trees and fountains called Dharmapala Park.
It is mid-afternoon, and as far as the eye can see, the park has been taken up by courting couples. They sit entwined on benches and riverbanks, or prop themselves up against tree-trunks and statues, with an array of umbrellas protecting their heads and their modesty. Perhaps England's bickering supporters ought to come for a stroll through these grounds before the game is over. It would be the perfect opportunity to kiss and make up.
Andrew Miller, Wisden Cricinfo's assistant editor, is accompanying England on their travels throughout Sri Lanka.
What's wrong with their cricket? Well, what isn't?