Special report: From fan club to Barmy Army Ltd

By Steve Deane

These England cricket supporters have their own merchandise and PR consultant - as well as a few critics.

Everywhere they go-oh, publicans love them, television cameras fixate on them and cricket commentators fawn over them.

Well, almost everywhere. Turns out the Barmy Army - England's raucous and colourful troop of travelling cricket fans - aren't everyone's cup of tea.

"The first and most important thing to be said is that it is superb that England have such a great following for test cricket around the world wherever they go," says the Independent newspaper's cricket correspondent Stephen Brenkley. "And by far the great majority of those people, whether they are in the Barmy Army or not, are splendid cricket fans and an extremely good advertisement for the game and the country they come from."

If that's the sort of paragraph that sounds like it might be followed by a fairly significant "however", there's good reason for that.

"However," says Brenkley. "They have taken over the game so every England cricket supporter is identified as being a member of it, which patently isn't true."

Most English fans travel independently and watch games independently of the Barmy Army, he says.

Brenkley is also a little irked that the BA garner so much attention, presumably at the expense of what is happening on the field.

"They've become the story. They seem to think they are part of the whole package. Well, they are not. They are just people watching the game. The game existed before the Barmy Army and it will continue to exist when they are gone."

In fairness to the New Zealand broadcast media, the sight of full cricket grounds when test cricket is being played is an anomaly that does bear discussion. Like it or not, the Barmy Army clearly add something to New Zealand's cricket grounds. People, mostly.

Founded in 1994 by a bunch of die-hard fans during a tour of Australia, the BA has morphed from the opportunistic flogging off of a few thousand T-shirts in Adelaide after unexpected victory into an organisation with 30,000 members. Barmy Army Ltd is part travel agent, part tour operator, sells its own merchandise line - and even travels with a public relations consultant.

"We just want to make sure that any fan who travels overseas has the best tour possible and can join the Barmy Army if they want to," says PR consultant Becky Fairlie-Clarke.

Employing a PR consultant doesn't exactly do much to dispel the notion that the BA is more corporate entity than grassroots fan base but, given some of the criticisms levelled at it, the BA could make a fair case it really does need to guard its public image.

Success, it seems, breeds imitators and contempt in equal measure.

In 2006 Cricket Australia tried to cash in on the BA concept, creating the incredibly naff and horribly contrived Fanatics. It didn't go down well.

"The Fanatics present to the English a grim reflection of their own Barmy Army: corporate, publicity-hungry and, above all, really annoying," columnist Barney Roney wrote in the Guardian at the time.

Fairlie-Clarke, however, points out the organisation has an active charity arm that has so far raised $9000 (partly from a curry eating competition in Dunedin that was won by Billy The Trumpet) for the Christchurch Earthquake Appeal.

And while it doesn't pretend to speak for all fans, it is a powerful enough lobby group to give fans a voice in the game's administration.

"We wouldn't ever say that we represent all fans. We'd never try to hold that kind of banner. But we want to make sure the fans' voice is heard - that when people are thinking about cricket and talking about cricket there is a consideration for fans. Over the years that has sometimes been lost."

Being heard is seldom a problem for the Army. Its effectiveness at it is one of the main reasons it will never entirely win over the old-school cricket fan who is happy to watch a game in silence with a thermos of tea, some cucumber sandwiches and a blanket over the knees.

"They also create a devil of a racket," says Brenkley. "I'm an old fuddy duddy, I'm the first to admit that. But I'm not sure it's necessarily good for the test game. I like a bit of noise, I like a bit of crowd reaction, I just think there is a danger of the Barmy Army becoming the story. And I don't think they are necessarily a good advertisement for Englishmen abroad."

Brenkley's most fervent hope is that the group will come up with some fresh material.

"They are a bit monotonous. They could just quieten down a bit."

Where do you come from?

The name Barmy Army appears to have been coined by English commentators Sir Ian Botham and David Lloyd, who marvelled at the ability of a group of diehard fans on the 1994/95 tour of Australia to keep singing and cheering despite the regular humiliations dished out to the England team.

A group of about 50 fans turned up for the next match wearing Barmy Army T-shirts.

After an unexpected win in Adelaide the group sold 3000 shirts to fellow fans.

Recognising the commercial potential, a group of fans registered the trademark and formed a company.

Barmy Army Ltd is now run by founding member Paul Burnham from an office in Sunbury-on-Thames. It acts as a tour operator for fans, sells a wide range of merchandise, has a charity arm and even employs a PR consultant.

Billy the Trumpet, Vic Flowers, the Pink Panther and Sylvester the Cat are the best known members.

The Barmy Army song

Everywhere we go
The people want to know
Who we are
Where we come from
Shall we tell them
Who we are
Where we come from
We are the England
The Mighty Mighty England
We are the Army
The Barmy Barmy Army
Barmy Army Barmy Army
(repeat several thousand times)

Army face Eden Park test

The "captain" of the Barmy Army admits to being "a little concerned" about attending tomorrow's test match at Eden Park after an allegedly heavy-handed approach by security during the February 22 one-day international match between New Zealand and England.

Security and police evicted 87 people from the ground during that match for offences that included starting Mexican waves and throwing paper darts.

"We only had a handful of what you'd call normal Barmy Army guys there but they were a little concerned about the stewarding being a bit overzealous," Giles Wellington said. "We do have some concerns but, having said that, during the time we've had in Dunedin and Wellington the stewarding has been excellent. We are hopeful that will follow suit, but there was some unhappiness after the one-day game.

"We're trying to encourage people to watch cricket, aren't we? By the sounds of it people were getting chucked out for enjoying themselves."

Mr Wellington said the Barmy Army typically met security officials at the start of the match to establish good relations.

"New Zealand Cricket are more than aware of our style of support. They have welcomed us and our trumpeter, so we are not expecting to have any difficulties. We tend to self-police. If there is anybody getting out of hand or doing anything they shouldn't be doing one of our guys will say 'look, fall into line'. We've got a fairly good reputation around the world now."

- NZ Herald

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