They are loud, sometimes irreverent, always colourful — especially after baking in the Australian sun — and no fans of mid-strength beer.
Say hello to England’s travelling band of cricket supporters, the Barmy Army.
The presence of the Barmy Army among Australian crowds has become an integral part of the Ashes since the mid-1990s and they make no apologies when they “take over grounds” on visits Down Under.
Spend some time sitting among the Barmy Army, even when their team is trailing 2-0 in the Ashes, and it is hard not to be attracted by their collective charm and enjoy the sense of fun they bring to watching cricket, with their array of songs and good-natured baiting of Australia players and supporters.
They possess a massive membership base of 29,000, their ranks drawn from the United Kingdom and ex-pat English living in Australia, and organise tour groups to follow the England cricket team throughout the world.
South Africa, West Indies, India and Bangladesh are just some of their destinations, but Barmy Army operations director Chris Millard explains the Ashes sojourn to Australia is always the highlight.
“It’s a long time, it’s a long tour but people save up all year and work hard all year for this kind of series,” Millard told Grandstand, as he sat with his troops in the blazing sunshine under the Inverarity Stand at the WACA.
“It’s all people think about for a couple of years in advance. People work Saturdays, Sundays, overtime to make sure they have the leave and enough money to make the trip.”
Millard reckons the Barmy Army have “about 700, 800 doing the full tour” of Australia but their numbers could swell to 15,000 come the Sydney Test in the first week of January, as more English supporters look to join in on the festivities.
“We get a lot of guys who see what we’re doing, see how much fun we’re having, see what we’re doing for charity and decide they want to come down and get involved,” he said.
Part of the “fun” Millard is referring to includes taunting Australia’s players and there are certain targets the Barmy Army like to zero in on.
“Davie Warner, for obvious reasons because of what we think of him, what everyone thinks of him,” Millard said.
“Steve Smith, on this tour we’ve come to say ‘wow, he’s this good’. We hate him even more. He’s that good, it’s kind of ‘well batted mate’.
“Nathan Lyon, he’s become a fan’s favourite this tour because of what he said about Matty Prior in the press and how he has acted, and the stuff that has come out recently in the press has given us a bit of ammunition.”
Barmy Army singing not only when they’re winning
A tradition of the Barmy Army is to sing the famous English hymn Jerusalem — their “national anthem” according to Millard — when the second ball of the day is bowled.
But how do they come up with the songs they create themselves?
Millard says there is a large group of song writers who compile the lyrics, although they welcome contributions from every member of their tour party.
“There’s a team of almost 50 to 100 people who are the Barmy Army faces and they’re the people you see on TV,” Millard said.
“They’re the guys you see create the songs, make up the songs and sing them but we let everyone make up songs.”
One of those who has added to the song list is Perth-based “Barmy” Stef Hayward, who moved from England to Australia in 2001.
Hayward penned a musical ode to the WACA, which is making its Ashes farewell, her tribute containing catchy lines such as “We sing at the WA-AAA-CA and the ground we will miss, we won’t miss your beer though ‘cos that’s just like…'” well, you get the drift.
She “got hooked” as a cricket fan while watching Andrew Flintoff star for England in the pulsating 2005 Ashes series and joined up with the Barmy Army to travel around Australia, as well as to India.
Hayward, though, concedes the Barmy Army sets a fast pace both when they are cheering on England at the ground and winding down after a day’s play at a variety of watering holes.
“It’s bloody hard work. I’m no spring chicken and I have to say it is a long day, especially sitting out in the sun in Perth,” she said with a laugh.
It would be wrong to suggest the Barmy Army are only about sledging opposition players and fans, and drinking their way through a cricket tour.
Away from the pitch the Barmy Army is heavily involved with charity work and they ensure their members get the opportunity to appreciate the countries they visit, especially when they venture to Australia.
“We pledge to raise 50,000 pounds for the PCA (Professional Cricketers’ Association) Benevolent Fund,” Millard said.
“We do day three charity parties and try and make them entertaining. We do events in between the Test matches.
“We are all here for the cricket, that’s the reason we are here, but the things we build around it make it such a fun and exciting tour. That’s what gives people the real value.”
This value will hopefully continue for a long time to come for both England and Australian cricket supporters.