Martin Johnson column: Love ‘em or loathe ‘em, the ‘Barmies’ just keep coming

While England’s batsmen were busy using a Test match as practice for the upcoming T20 series, the Barmy Army trumpeter did his best to restore morale in Antigua with a moving rendition of The Great Escape. However, you can only take patriotism so far, and much more of this lemmings off a cliff nonsense and Billy Cooper will seriously have to consider adding ‘The Last Post’ to his repertoire.

We Brits have a history of turning to music when things are taking a turn for the worse, and Bill’s trumpet was the cricketing equivalent of the orchestra still playing when the Titanic went down. It takes more than England getting a good stuffing to deflate the Barmies, and let’s face it. If you had to choose somewhere in the world to find yourself with two blank days of no cricket, Antigua would be fairly high up the list.

I’m not entirely sure when the Army was first formed, but it must have been round about Graham Gooch’s 1990 tour to the West Indies. Before then, England’s travelling away support could more or less have made the journey to the ground in the back of the same taxi, and neither would the driver have been able to tell his mates during tea break: “Ere. I picked up two traffic cones and a banana this morning.”

The standard pre-Barmy attire consisted mostly of an egg and bacon tie, a straw hat, and what appeared to be very long khaki shorts. Either that, or trousers that had been on too hot a wash. No-one unfurled a banner inscribed: ‘Nottingham Forest FC’ before settling down for the start of play, neither, when the off-spinner came on was there a spontaneous chorus of “one man went to Mo, went to Moeen Ali”.

They sang a song just after tea on the opening day in Antigua, and while I couldn’t make out exactly what it was all about, the opening line was: “Today is Friday.” A quick glance at the calendar confirmed that it was indeed Friday, which, it seemed to me, disproved the notion that once a day’s cricket enters third session territory, the Barmies haven’t a clue what day it is.

Before the 1990s, many of England’s overseas tour supporters travelled in couples, or even alone. During the 1986-87 Ashes series in Australia, there was a Geordie named Alf who became so attached to the tour party he somehow got invited to all the official receptions, but far from being a member of an invading Army, he invariably sat in a seat as a lone Pom surrounded by home supporters.

So much so, that by the end of a four-month tour, his accent had morphed into a cross between Peter Willey and Dame Edna Everage.Nowadays, by contrast, every day at an England overseas Test match is like a home game. Among the exceptions would be the Boxing Day Test in Melbourne, or New Year in Sydney, but you never found too many Barmies – in the days before Pakistan became a no-go venue – belting out Jerusalem in places like Multan and Faisalabad. Possibly because the strongest beverage available was a Pepsi, or a Dandelion and Burdock.

However, it’s a different story in other parts of the world. Like Australia. Back in the days when most Brits stayed in touch with an Ashes series via a crackly crystal set underneath the pillow, and a day old match report in the Evening Standard, all the spectators were Australian. Nowadays, take the short walk from your hotel to the Adelaide Oval, and you’ll more than likely bump into an old-school chum, or that bloke from the butcher’s who was serving you a pork chop only last week.

You would think all this support would give England a terrific boost for away matches, but with notable exceptions like the 2010-11 Ashes tour, taking the field to the strains of “Michael Atherton’s Barmy Army!” more often than not had the same effect on an England player as shoving a chunk of Kryptonite down Superman’s tights.

It is, then, to the Barmies’ credit that they keep coming back for more, even if the team they’ve come to support keeps letting them down. Some of the shots they’ve seen their batsmen get out to in the two Test matches so far would be enough to turn you to drink, if you hadn’t, that is, downed a couple of dozen already.

Indeed, England being good or bad has never had much effect on the Barmies’ capacity for enjoying a day at the cricket. In 2010, they reached new heights of ecstasy over Mitchell Johnson’s inability to send down consecutive deliveries within the batsman’s post code, but they also celebrated in 2006, when, after seeing their team declare with 551 runs and still lose, they performed the conga around the Adelaide Oval.

There are two schools of thought on the Barmy Army. One being that they are a boisterous-but-lovable gang who enrich and enhance the game with their exuberance and enthusiasm, and the other that they are a tedious bunch of loud-mouthed oiks, better suited to a football match than spoiling an expensive day out for those people who just want to sit down and enjoy the cricket without having their eardrums perforated.

To an extent, the side you come down on depends on whether you’re at the ground surrounded by them, or at home on the sofa with a remote control and a mute button. But you’ve got to admire their loyalty for all those times when travelling overseas to support England is enough to turn anyone barmy.

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