C’mon Swanney!” Andymac’s baritone reverberates around the new cricket stadium in Nagpur. Graeme Swann is coming on to bowl against The Netherlands in England’s opening match in the 2011 World Cup on 23 February. Swann must have heard it—chances are people on the other side of the stadium heard it too.
Hereford Rich starts singing “the Swann song”, written after the bowler picked up two Indian wickets in his first over in Test cricket in Chennai in 2008, and sung to the tune of Oasis’ Champagne Supernova: How many special people came/So many flights we had to change/Where were you when we were in Chennai? Some day you will find him/Taking loads of wickets/In a Swanny super over in Chennai!
Andymac (Andrew MacDonald, a 55-year-old bank manager from Preston) and Hereford Rich (Richard Kemp, a 24-year-old customer service representative for a crash-test lab from Hereford) are members of the “Barmy Army”, the colourful and boisterous band of England supporters who travel abroad to watch their team play, and whose painted faces and crazy costumes have become a television staple in the last five years. Their love for the English cricket team is unconditional, and their passion for singing is rivalled only by their fondness for drinking beer in local haunts from Barbados to Chittagong. Even in Nagpur, in a match that most people would not watch for free, there were at least 40 armymen in attendance. The rest were local school students brought in to fill the empty stands.
The platoon: (clockwise from top left) Andymac gets vocal during the match; Union Dave earns his stripes; the Barmy Army outside the stadium in Nagpur; and (below) the army at the 2010-11 Ashes Test in Melbourne. Photographs: Rudraneil Sengupta/Mint
They were the first people at the stadium, milling around the periphery almost an hour before the gates were opened. They stood in line and applauded when the England team bus came in.
The English flag or St George’s Cross, a broad red cross on a white background that has been England’s emblem since the Middle Ages, fluttered from stands across the stadium. There were fans with their bodies painted in that stark colour scheme, and you could see a hint of why it was also the symbol of the Crusades—there is a primal and savage beauty to it that spells war.
But there’s nothing war-like about the fans themselves—they are gentle and friendly, and their cricket-watching ethos is based firmly on humour and encouragement. They take great pains to distinguish themselves from the English football fans, who have a long history of hooliganism.
“The thing about cricket is everyone’s welcome,” says Harry Trapp, a 53-year-old printer from Cheltenham. “It’s such a comfortable environment when you’re with cricket people. There’s no violence, everybody’s friendly.”
There’s no sense of grievance even if England are not playing well, which they weren’t while bowling against The Netherlands, with plenty of misfielding and comically dropped catches. The support and humour levels just went up.
“Bres went down in instalments!” says an English fan after a poor attempt at a dive by the English bowler Tim Bresnan. “Now I’m going down...now I’m going down a little further...and then gravity takes over!”
The song for Bresnan goes like this: We’ve had a garlic naan/We’ve had a butter naan/But our favourite naan/is Tim Bresnan!
It’s one of Union Dave’s favourites. His real name is David Burton, he’s from Nottingham, and he’s dressed head to toe in the Union Jack. Shorts, T-shirt, suspenders and a bandana, all printed in the colours of the British flag. Union Dave, 60, can always be seen at England matches in this outfit, but that’s not just for patriotic reasons. “There are three pubs in my village,” he says, “and in 2007 they said we’ll put in a pound for Children in Need every time we see you at a match on TV. So I said, I’ll make sure you see me on TV. So I’ve been wearing this ever since.”
Union Dave is one of the handful of regulars who have become mascots for the group—like 58-year-old Jimmy aka Victor Flowers, known to lead the singing and chanting, or 30-year-old Billy the Trumpet aka Bill Cooper, a professionally trained classical musician who is also the army’s trumpet player.
Union Dave is also involved in the army’s fund-raising activities. During the 2010-11 Ashes in Australia, he was part of the Barmy Army cricket team, which played its own series (called “the bashes”) against Australian cricket fans to collect £37,500 (around Rs 27.4 lakh) for the McGrath Foundation—former Australian cricketer Glenn McGrath’s organization, which helps cancer patients.
Rich is on his eighth tour with the English team, and this is his second visit to India. He is also on the last leg of a six-month sabbatical, during which he travelled all over South-East Asia writing a blog, before popping over to Australia to watch England’s historic Ashes win (“that was ridiculously, stupidly fantastic. The best moment of my life”). Then he went back to his backpacking adventure, before joining the Barmy Army again for the World Cup.
“My first tour was in 2004,” he says. “I saved up and treated myself to a holiday in Barbados for my 18th birthday and watched England’s Test match there, and I was addicted. It’s like a drug. Once you have been on one tour, you want to do the next one.”
We are the Barmy Army
The Barmy Army officially came into existence during the Ashes tour of 1994-95.
“England were losing to everybody on that tour,” says Paul Burnham, the Army’s co-founder. “Australia A, Australia B, Australia Under-19, Zimbabwe. During the fourth Ashes Test, all the England supporters were thrown in on the hill (a grassy hillock used as a stand) at Adelaide, and the Aussie media christened us the Barmy Army for our daft support for a team that was losing everything.” Burnham, a 45-year-old former Heathrow cargo agent with a degree in sports and business, was backpacking through Australia and watching cricket at the time, and decided to trademark the name.
Now, the army has 30,000 members on its website and 3,000 paying members, and Burnham has been on 26 tours following the English cricket team around the world.
“The Barmy Army is organized,” says Andymac. “They can arrange everything for you—tickets for the match, travel mates, roommates, itineraries, hotels. They have some incredibly knowledgable people on board; people who, for example, know the Indian railway system inside out and have been everywhere in the country.”
Historically, the Barmy Army are followers of Test cricket, and the Ashes in Australia remain their ultimate battleground. They have a song for every Australian player (Suddenly/They’re not half the team they used to be/Will he lose Ashes No. 3/Yesterday came suddenly. Why Haydos had to go I don’t know, Langer wouldn’t say/Adam Gilchrist’s gone, now Ricky longs for Yesterdayyy).
During England’s Ashes tour in 2006 (where the team lost the series 5-0), more than 75,000 English fans poured into Australia. On the next tour in 2010, recession hit numbers severely, but more than 40,000 English fans still managed to make the trip.
Australian captain Ricky Ponting told reporters after a match in 2006 that it felt like he was playing in England. “It was like being back at The Oval. I forgot where I was.”
During the 2010 Ashes series, England captain Andrew Strauss said, “The support of the Barmy Army has been outstanding.” Australian fast bowler Mitchell Johnson appealed to home fans to counter the Army’s influence at the ground. “We were probably outnumbered in the crowd,” he said before the beginning of the decisive fifth Test. “You could hear the Barmy Army the whole time and so hopefully we’ll get the support that we need here and we can really compete in this Test match.”
After England won the 2010-11 Ashes, the players decided to give something back. They joined the Barmy Army at a bar in Melbourne. “It was just fantastic,” says Rich. “My finest night on tour. They downed beers and Jaeger bombs with us and sang the songs we had written about them!”
“We’ve had something of a resurgence in the interest in cricket, and one of the main reasons for that is the Barmy Army,” says Andymac. “People feel that they are involved. With some of the big football clubs, you are a million miles away from the players. You never get to speak to them, you never get to meet them, and you never get to have a drink with them. With the cricketers, you can do that.”
Andymac started following the England team after his wife’s death in 2005. A large number of the Barmy Army are single or divorced. “You can’t find the time or money if you are in a relationship,” says James Strong, a 52-year-old from Preston (divorced, no children) who installs heating systems and plumbing in industrial buildings for a living, and who has been following the English team since 2006. “I use my annual holidays for this,” says Strong, “and in winter (when the England team traditionally goes on tour) I have little work.”
The Barmy Army’s appetite for cricket is truly insatiable, but Andymac believes a love for travel plays a crucial role. “It’s a great way to enjoy your holidays, and going to great countries,” he says. “The cricket is generally No. 1, but you wouldn’t come back if you didn’t enjoy the country. You get to know people quickly when you’re travelling for the cricket, because you’ve got a common purpose.”
Most of the Barmy Army in Nagpur chose to travel to Kolkata, where they were allowed inside an empty Eden Gardens for a quick pilgrimage, before flying to Bangalore for the India-England encounter on 27 February.
“It was such a disappointment that the match was shifted from Kolkata,” says Strong. “That is one place where we desperately wanted to be.”
In one of his earliest blog posts, Rich listed “The day-nighter at Eden Gardens with 100,000 Indians” as one of the “top ten things I’m looking forward to most over the next six months away”.
In Bangalore, the army swelled to around a thousand-strong, though there are no official figures. “The majority were in the imaginatively titled ‘Calcutta Stand’,” says Rich.
The atmosphere inside the stadium was “electric”, says Ian Bailey, 37, who owns a commercial glazing company in London, and has been following England overseas since 2006.
“For a while, we had become noisier when (Andrew) Strauss and (Ian) Bell powered on,” says Bailey, “and lots of Indians were leaving the ground to the ironic cheers of ‘we can see you sneaking out’ from us. Then Zaheer Khan struck twice, and the crowd went ballistic, and the noise levels continued to ratchet up.”
Incredibly, the match finished in a tie. Two hours after the end of play, Bailey says his ears were still ringing from the noise in the ground as he nursed his beer at a local bar.
“It was a strange feeling as we sat and reflected on what we had just seen,” he says.
A couple of thousand more England supporters are expected to come in if their country makes it to the semi-finals.
They tried to make me go to rehab, I said yes, yes, yes
The night before the match in Nagpur, the Barmy Army was huddled in a small, dark bar in the centre of the city. The sunmica-topped table of indeterminate colour was piling up alarmingly with empty bottles of beer. Mostly Haywards 5000, but some were even more adventurous, trying out local brews called “Grooter” and “Knockout”, and dismissing the waiter’s offer to get them Carlsberg or Budweiser.
The “local pub” is where relationships are forged, and you can hear it in the banter and the raucous laughter that accompanies every sentence. They’ve been to a “rat bar” in Chennai, where the owner came up to them while they were photographing the large rats under their table.
“He looked like John Travolta.”
“No, Lionel Richie.”
“It’s the same man, the same man, just a different shade. Anyway, he comes up and we expected him to be pissed off, but he’s saying ‘very good lads, very good’. He was proud of them rats!”
“They were nice rats.”
“We went there every day for a week and fed them but they never said thank you!”
In Chittagong, where it’s not easy to find a drink, they bribed railway workers to sit inside the railway club for a drink. They didn’t know that on Thursdays, cows are ritually slaughtered outside the shack. They walked out into a pool of blood. It’s now referred to as the “slaughterhouse pub”.
“Andymac, do you need more beer?”
“You know you’re never going to get that time back in your life,” says Andy, “that you just wasted asking me that question!”
The talk turns to the match next morning. Tickets, transport.
“Talking of which, have you got tickets for tomorrow’s game?”
“Yes, but we have to pick them up tomorrow.”
“But do you know our trials and tribulations today?”
“Oh, that’s why we always send the idiots a day early!”
“Right, the new Nagpur ground is 20 miles that way. So we troop along there in a little tuk tuk that broke down twice going there, and once coming back. We get to the ground; oh no—no tickets here—go to gate 7. Went to gate 7, met some guy, a high-ranking official—WRONG STADIUM! Hang on, this is where the game is tomorrow, where are my tickets? So he points to the other direction and says at the old stadium, which is 5 miles the other way. And that’s where we got ours…so have you got tickets?”
“Are you taking that tuk tuk tomorrow?”
“Tell you what, you’ve more chance of standing next to Neil Armstrong and waving that flag on the moon than you have of getting to the stadium in the tuk tuk!”
“I can hear the driver say to you—“I swear he was all right in the morning. The camel pulled out of the garage quickly, and then had a cough!”
“And you’ll be strangling the camel on the highway!”
“Oh! I can see the headlines—‘MANCHESTER MAN IN CAMEL MURDER DRAMA!’”
But everybody reached on time. No camels (or tuk tuk drivers) were murdered. There was a refrain outside the stadium: Strauss, Strauss/Never gets out/He plays the shots that we dream about.
Strauss obliged the army with a century in Bangalore.