Sri Lanka v England, 2nd Test, Colombo, 2nd day December 10, 2007

Barmy Army enliven Colombo

Test cricket in Sri Lanka may not always whet the appetite. However, the scenes are quite different when England are in town

England fans soak up the sun © Kanishkaa Balachandran

Take one look at the grass embankment on the foot of the giant scoreboard at the Sinhalese Sports Club in Colombo, you could be forgiven for thinking you were watching an Ashes Test at the Adelaide Oval. The England flags dot the railing near the fence, the vocal cords are in full flow, the beer tent's a constant hub of activity and supporters brave the heat and humidity of Colombo with a sense of purpose. The only thing missing from an identical resemblance to the ground in South Australia is a cathedral in the background.

Watching Test cricket in Sri Lanka may not always whet the appetite - it's often played to half-empty stands and a few crows. Dead silence is the order of the day, at least for most of it, interrupted by the occasional vociferous appeal and tunes from the local band. However, the scenes are quite different when England are in town. Supporters walk around in packs and fill up the seats, the budget travellers park themselves on the grass and just have a raucous time. In the age of dwindling audiences in Test cricket, an England visit is a godsend for the local organisers.

England cricket teams are rarely without home support, irrespective of their performance. The Barmy Army came to prominence during the 1994-95 Ashes, and were so named because it seemed utter madness to fly halfway across the world to support a side that went on to be drubbed 3-1 in the series. Times have changed, but the level of support hasn't. In fact it's got bigger.

For the legion of English fans, the cricket's a great excuse to visit this part of the world. The result barely matters. Brendon from Leeds, says: "Cricket is secondary. For us, it's a holiday with cricket woven in."

It's only natural for spirits to sag, especially after England's nasty 5-0 hammering at the hands of Australia earlier this year. But Jonathan, another supporter who's made his way from Yorkshire, puts a humorous spin on it: "A bad day at the cricket is always better than a bad day at the office."

There are a few oddities as well. Michael Vaughan and Alastair Cook's 133-run opening stand on the first day was devoid of the customary chants and cheers. Polite claps followed after every run and the decibel levels increased, though only marginally, after every boundary or sliding stop in the field. The first chants, rather ironically, came after England were in a spot of bother following Kevin Pietersen's unfortunate dismissal.

Pietersen's spontaneous reaction only spurred them on, and the sounds emanated from all corners of the field for once. When asked about the reasons for the unusual silence in the morning, one fan blamed it on the influence of alcohol from the previous night. It wasn't exactly surprising.

The second day turns out to be livelier than the first and the stands fill out much quicker as well. England are bowled out for a mildly disappointing 351, but suddenly, all's well as Monty Panesar sprints towards the boundary, takes his position in the deep, and earns a few encouraging cheers for his efforts.

The Barmy Army section at the opposite end from the embankment is abuzz as well after Ryan Sidebottom snares two early wickets. There are trumpet renditions of Jamaican Farewell, the theme track from the film Rocky and Bon Jovi's hit Livin' on a Prayer.

One supporter, wearing a rather hilarious combination of a striped blazer, a dhoti and a straw hat to top it all, does the honours serving the beer. After serving his clan, he reaches out to a group of security guards, who are laughing nervously at the prospect of bending the rules while on duty. They politely turn down his offer, but he refuses to give up: "C'mon lads. Nobody's looking." Unfortunately for them, when England are in town, everyone's watching.

Kanishkaa Balachandran is an editorial assistant at Cricinfo