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Tuesday, Aug 20, 2019

ICC World Cup 2019: On a song, but fewer in the Army now

The Barmy Army, though outnumbered, feel their presence will help keep cricket alive among the Brits

cricket Updated: Jun 28, 2019 16:55 IST
The Barmy Army watching World Cup a match
The Barmy Army watching World Cup a match(HT Photo)

London Billy Cooper’s wide grin is understandable. The trumpet has finally been allowed inside the home of cricket. Lord’s is still Lord’s but the rules have been relaxed since this is the World Cup and the Marylebone Cricket Club is not calling the shots. England is playing Australia, and the Barmy Army, England’s travelling band of supporters, holds one row in the lower tier block of the Mound Stand, which features a flamboyant roof canopy, and offers a near pitch-level, side-on view of the game.

For Cooper, a professional musician better known as ‘Billy the Trumpet’—for his lead role in leading his army to war—getting his horn in is a significant victory. In 2006, he had been thrown out of the Gabba in Brisbane during the Ashes tour for playing his trumpet; four years later, Cricket Australia gave him a special dispensation to be the only person allowed into the Gabba with a musical instrument.

Cooper blows the opening notes of ‘Jerusalem’, England’s ‘alternative national anthem’, and the tune that marks the beginning of a game for the Army.

Barmy Army Co-founders David Peacock and Paul Burnham have come. Also seated is Neil Rowe, a senior pilot with the British Airways and England football manager Gareth Southgate’s doppelganger. Beer is carefully carried up to the stands, sunscreens are shared and taunts traded as Jofra Archer and Mark Wood get started. In all, there are 20-odd Army members here; an almost absurdly low number, considering that this is England playing at their home World Cup. But this is as complete as the Army has looked at the tournament; it may not get better than this.


Come Sunday, the entire Bharat Army is expected to take over parts of Edgbaston when India face England. With their conch shells and dhols, the boisterous and colourful Bharat Army can overwhelm any host team in a matter of minutes. You want Barmy Army to be at their throats, singing ‘Hey, hey we’re the Barmies, and people say we’re vulgar and loud. But we’re too busy singing to put anybody down.’

But that is unlikely.

“We may have a few tickets but it will be all scattered around the stadium,” says Burnham. If you are used to the idea of seeing the Army at the Ashes or other Test tours, you are correct in assuming they mostly travel for Tests. Tickets at events like the World Cup are hard to come by as there are more stakeholders than just two cricket boards, like it is in a bilateral series like the Ashes.

“It’s a real downer,” said Burnham, trying to get a vibe of the game in front of the giant screen parked right behind the ‘spaceship’, the media centre at Lord’s. “In India the Bharat Army would be everywhere in large numbers. It’s just a shame that it’s worked out like that. Tickets are difficult to get. You have to buy them in advance. And you have to buy them in official packages which most fans, who don’t need a hotel room, will not buy,” says Burnham as England get the first breakthrough in the form of David Warner.

The Army veterans have accepted it, he says, as long as cricket-loving Englishmen can watch their team play.

“If we get to the semi-finals, we will be probably sit with our sponsors and chalk out a plan. We will pick a pub where everyone goes to and watch the game.”

Back at the stands, hope is diminishing with every boundary coming off Aaron Finch’s bat. Cooper is trying to keep the morale up by playing Bill Conti’s ‘Gonna Fly Now’, aka the theme song of Rocky. Wearing watermelon shells, three Australian fans are sitting in the row in front of the Barmy Army. Finch crunches a boundary through covers, setting off another round of celebration. “Too early, too early,” Cooper joins a small chorus eager to shut the Aussies down. This isn’t boisterous at all. In fact, the mood is a nod to the etiquette expected at Lord’s. ‘Proper’. That’s what you need to be even when you are not sitting in the illustrious Long Room. Meanwhile, a spectator stands up trying to get better cell phone coverage. All three rows behind him start singing ‘Oh sit down, Oh sit down’ till the spectator understood the stand was abuzz because of him and sat back down.

Mood buoyant

Australia are restricted to 285. The mood is pretty buoyant as fans pour out of their stands to buy their beer. The Barmy Army’s normal fix is at Harris Garden, a gated alfresco venue behind the Old Pavilion. But it’s almost unreachable because of the sheer number of people milling outside. Alcohol is important if one has to watch cricket in England. But what happens when the Barmy Army goes to an alcohol free area like Rajkot? Murray Walker, a 56-year-old retailer and an Army member since 2009 remembers Rajkot as “Very hot; and no alcohol.”

“It’s not greatly important,” he says. “There was no alcohol but the camaraderie was as good. But if you have a permit you could drink in your room. Our hotel manager was gracious enough to give us an extra fridge to cool our beers.”

With a paying membership nearing 3,000, an email database of 30,000 and social media presence of around a quarter million, the Barmy Army is one of the best known sports fan groups in the world. They reserve their biggest tours for the Ashes. This Ashes, expect almost 2000 Barmy Army supporters to travel, cheer and sing for the team across the UK. They may not have enough presence in the World Cup but that doesn’t mean they won’t write a song for it.

For their latest number, they even managed to rope in Graeme Swann to help write the lyrics. It’s on Eoin Morgan, and the tune is thoughtfully taken from ‘To An Irish June’: “He’s been playing for England for many years/And the Irish boys miss him, it brings them to tears/And now he is our captain, he is leading the way/When we win this World Cup, we’ll sing this all day…”

At the ground, the songs are not working, because the Army does not have the numbers to create a chorus full enough to be heard.

“It’s difficult when you don’t have a big group,” Burnham says. “Unless you do that you are not going to get the songs together. You will just get the passion and the noise as opposed to the actual song.”

Peacock—a veteran of seven Ashes tours to Australia—is certainly a Test follower, but concedes that “winning the World Cup, sad as it might seem, is more important than winning the Ashes’ right now. “We love Test cricket. But this is more important.”

He feels cricket commands different crowds for different formats, and they don’t always mix. At the same time there is a gnawing feeling within the Barmy Army that they need to compete with the Bharat Army, the Pakistanis and the Bangladeshis. This isn’t only about supporting England, but also about keeping cricket alive among the Brits. Barmy Army’s growth, not to mention survival, hinges on that. Which is why they are trying to embrace the other formats.

“I think what will be a lot bigger for us is the World Twenty20 in Australia next year. Because people would say ‘right it’s Australia. It isn’t Test cricket but England got to the final last time.’ Five days is a big ask from the generation nowadays. But we are trying to embrace all forms of cricket. That’s the way forward,” says Burnham, who started the Barmy Army when he was 30. “I’m 55 now. The average age is just over 50, which is why we are trying to bring in more young people. We are also going to plan big for India.”

By now, Lord’s has become the destination for London’s who’s who. Rowe, after fooling quite a few people into believing that he actually is Gareth Southgate, makes an appearance on the ground. So does the actual England manager on the big screen, confirming that he is cosily placed in the VVIP lounge. Ed Sheeran is in the house. Also Damian Lewis, the English actor who played the lead role of Major Richard Winters in the ‘Band of Brothers’, and in the TV series ‘Homeland’. The focus though is firmly on cricket. Cooper feels England have a really good chance. He doesn’t take out his trumpet, choosing to finish his beer instead. But then James Vince departs, followed by Joe Root. Eoin Morgan lifts off and Lord’s is ready to applaud. But Cooper is probably the first from this stand to see a fielder shaping up to catch him at fine-leg. “Oh no no no no!” He has his hands on his head. “Now I’m really worried,” he says as Ben Stokes comes in. There is a song on Stokes, bandying his ability to bowl out Aussie batsmen. But this is a different situation. They don’t sing it. Billy’s trumpet stays in his bag.

First Published: Jun 28, 2019 11:44 IST

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