Beige days are here again
A couple of years ago the Beige Brigade sent $100 to New Zealand Cricket with a note saying that they were keen to get the New Zealand team back wearing their former brown-and-tan one-day playing strip. The response from New Zealand Cricket CEO Martin Snedden was that NZC had moved on and had invested a lot of money in "rebranding" the team and its colours.
Remarkably, Stephen Fleming's men will walk out onto Eden Park to meet Australia in the inaugural Twenty20 international match on Thursday dressed in those retro colours made famous by New Zealand teams of the 1980s. In an era where cricket is a commodity and administrators inevitably must focus on serious commercial matters, NZC's endorsement of the change of uniform and recognition that there is still a place for something a bit different when an opportunity presents itself is commendable. Behind the scenes though not everything has been rosy.
The Beige Brigade epitomises everything that New Zealand sports fans are not: humorous, outwardly passionate and shameless even when sober. Whereas chants like the "there's only one Philip Tufnell" are the norm even at Lord's, the act of singing a traditional sporting-chorus in New Zealand has struggled to extend beyond the terraces of Dunedin's Carisbrook during rugby season. That was until the birth of the Beige Brigade.
Founded in 2000 by Mike Lane and Paul Ford, the Beige Brigade has been on hand to support New Zealand in Pakistan, South Africa, Australia, England and the Caribbean. They have their own website, www.beigebrigade.co.nz, have appeared on the national television quiz show Test the Nation, and even have members from places as far flung as Switzerland and Barbados. Long-term members have each assumed the name of a past great including Jeremy Coney, Mark Greatbatch and Bruce Edgar. As for membership numbers Ford says "it's not something we pay a lot of attention to" but the number of beige shirts sold is "probably up into the thousands".
The Beige Brigade's crazy antics while donning beige shirts, pants, visors and even the lycra bodysuits made famous by Mark Richardson, has seen them develop a cult following among cricket fans worldwide. This is in stark contrast to failed "Mad Caps", a group manufactured by NZC to take on England's Barmy Army three years ago.
Against this background you'd expect the Beige Brigade to be on cloud nine about the New Zealand team reverting to beige colours but, unfortunately, that is not exactly the case after NZC's commercial clothing partner, Wellfit Limited, decided to market for sale replica Twenty20 playing shirts.
NZC says that the decision for the New Zealand team to wear the retro uniform for the Twenty20 match was in response to the desire of the senior players who fondly remember the 1980s era and that Wellfit has a contractual right to market replicas of New Zealand's playing uniforms. NZC adds that the change of uniform is a one-off to mark the inaugural men's international Twenty20 fixture.
The Beige Brigade is disappointed that NZC did not involve them. "The catalyst for the decision to go retro can be attributed, at least in some way, to the campaign and profile generated by the hard work and efforts of the Beige Brigade," Ford says.
Asked whether the Beige Brigade were considered, NZC public affairs manager Steve Addison said NZC's "understanding from the Beige Brigade was that, as a non profit supporters club, they only sold a minimal number of shirts as part of their overall activities".
Despite this, NZC's marketing head Peter Dwan met with Ford and Lane at the start of the season to discuss the introduction of the replica NZC retro shirt. Ford recalls that time well: "Mr Dwan explained how NZ Cricket `wanted to work with us' and that the Beige Brigade had been great for cricket and all that sort of thing. Then he said that they were going to produce their own version of the Beige Brigade fans' gear.
"We were expected to believe that this was a decision which had nothing to do with the rise of the Beige Brigade, and the sprinkling of media coverage and profile that we'd worked hard to turn into something appreciated and enjoyed by cricket fans. So with this news it is fair to say we were a little angry and very disappointed.
"We'd have been keen as a bean to co-operate and do some hijinks to help them out but we weren't prepared to be involved in something which made us look like sell-outs. They refused to accept that their actions in getting a shirt made which looked like ours would dilute the cult status and passion of the Beige Brigade and our members - part of the fun comes from the spirit that accompanies donning your shirt, understanding the expectations of being a member of the Beige Brigade and being part of something unofficial and motivated by reasons of fun rather than dollars and cents".
When the matter eventually found its way to Snedden's desk, he offered to donate to the Beige Brigade the royalties from the sale of the retro shirts to demonstrate that their assumption that the decision to play in the retro shirts was commercially driven was incorrect. "The Beige Brigade has never been about money so we flatly rejected the offer", Ford said. "Passion drives the Beige Brigade - not fashion or cashin".
NZC says its design is based on one of the shirts worn by Snedden in his playing days in the early eighties. However the retail store Champions of the World which stocks the NZC retro shirt promotes it as "shirt made famous by the beige brigade" on its website.
Two senior squad members, Daniel Vettori and Craig McMillan, have been long-time staunch Beige Brigade supporters and the Beige Brigade's public challenge to the New Zealand side to grow facial hair for the Twenty20 game has been universally accepted. Even umpire Billy Bowden is expected to get in on the act. Australia will also wear a retro outfit for the occasion. Would that have happened without the work of the Beige Brigade?
With NZC's retro shirts now selling like hot cakes, some New Zealand players already sporting considerable beards and cracking evening's fun expected at Eden Park, could the uniform change become permanent?
Whatever the case, Ford says the Beige Brigade is in for the long haul. "We think the Beige Brigade is a wonderful hub for passionate cricket followers and we'll keep on doing what we're doing. They'll come in, make their dollars on the back of our idea, attempt to ruin the fun for us and then they'll pack their bags and head off to flood the market with some other derivative idea. We'll just chug on relentlessly - appealing to the legion of fans who want to be part of something created for the fans, and run by the fans, not by the official authorities in their suits and ties and commercial deals".
When the game itself rolls round, distinguishing between the NZC-kitted fans and Beige Brigade at Eden Park will be a challenging task. But it's not something making the Beige Brigade bitter and twisted: they'll be "too busy having a beer and having a laugh": And there is an ultimate irony to the story: Ford's adopted persona has always been Paul "Martin Snedden" Ford.
Andrew McLean wears a Beige Brigade shirt at New Zealand's international matches.