It is now a good ten years since the Barmy Army first captured Australia's imagination with their absurdly enthusiastic support of yet another Ashes disaster, on the 1994-95 tour Down Under. In the intervening years, the support has not wavered, but the essential "barminess" of the whole fan-base has been somewhat eroded. The scrimping and scheming that took place back then has been replaced by organised tours, official merchandise and a somewhat sanitised experience. But every once in a while, up pops a character who reminds you quite how much effort goes into being a full-time cricket aficionado.
John Woods is one such character. As an Irish cricket enthusiast, he is a rare enough beast as it is, but his magnum opus, "Test Cricket Grounds - The complete guide", is absolutely infused with the Barmy spirit. The idea came to him, as all such ideas do, in a bar, in Melbourne, at around 2am, when a friend challenged him to travel to every Test ground currently in existence, and turn his tour into a book. And so, from one drunken wager, a project was born that would take a year and a day to complete.
"Test Cricket Grounds" is such a simple concept, it is a wonder that no-one had thought of it before. Cricket tours are a call to arms for itinerants the world over - the very same backpacker fraternity who have turned Lonely Planet and the Rough Guide series of books into a publishing phenomenon. And now, thanks to Woods' endeavours, and the unwavering support of the friends and family who bailed him out after he had quit his job to chase this rainbow, the Barmy Army has its own backpacking bible.
Woods takes in 58 grounds the world over, from Ahmedabad to Adelaide, from Dhaka to Darwin. In that time he watched 16 Tests, mostly involving England, and 48 one-day internationals. He covered 175,000kms, caught 72 plane flights, and even hitched a lift across the desert with a drunken policemen. And he travelled to Peshawar, near the Afghanistan border, at a time when South Africa - the team he was due to be watching - would not, because of security fears.
The book is aimed specifically at the budget cricket fan, and as such, the most revealing chapters are the ones that deal with the further-flung corners of the world. Each ground is accompanied by Woods' own photos, his pick of the choicest (and invariably the cheapest) bars and restaurants, handy hints on travelling and how to haggle effectively with your rickshaw driver, and a host of other useful info, such as the whereabouts of banks and post-offices.
The book doesn't ignore the local culture either. Woods points the reader in the direction of the museums and tourist attractions near each of the venues, and he even turns his hand to prose, to provide a potted history of each of the 58 grounds. Unfortunately, Woods writes as he speaks - charmingly but garrulously, and as a result the flow of the book is rather interrupted by some lumpen passages of text. The writing would have benefited from more colour and fewer stats, because he also provides exhaustive tables of records for each venue, which are sure to impress the fellow (or rival) fan.
But the sheer, indomitable effort of the endeavour more than compensates for the occasional creakiness of the format, and it is the perfect stocking filler for anyone anticipating their first trip abroad with England in the coming years and months.