An alternative view of going Barmy Down Under

All zipped up: Ian Cole (centre) and his two mates, Ken Dyer (left) and Jeff Ives in front of the historic Adelaide scoreboard

Former SJA chairman IAN COLE has realised a 50-year ambition, and so much more, by attending Ashes Tests in Australia. Here is his Brisbane and Adelaide diary

The middle-aged England fan in the Sunderland shirt stood ashen-faced in the 90-degree Adelaide heat. His flight down from Hong Kong had been delayed but he had jumped into a taxi from the airport to the Oval and struggled through the bag searches at the Victor Richardson Gates.

He just missed the 10.30am start but hurried to a vantage point to watch what remainder of the first over. Just as he climbed the steps of the Chappell Stand South, a tremendous roar went up. Without knowing which side was batting, our friend feared the worst. He was relieved to see the forlorn figure of Simon Katich slinking away, run out without facing a ball.

Still trying to get his bearings, Mackem Man had just started searching for his seat when a second, even greater noise startled him. Australia captain Ricky Ponting caught at slip, first ball.

Could this be true? A drink was necessary. Queuing in the bowels of the stand, there was a constant buzz from the seats above. And then, just as the barmaid was hosing a quantity of XXX Gold into a plastic mug, a third explosion of sound. Michael Clarke caught at slip for two.

Stumbling back up the steps our man gazed at Adelaide’s quaint old scoreboard. Australia two runs for three wickets – and still in the third over. Surely a dream. Surely a stewardess would wake him very soon with the reassurance: “We’ve landed now, sir”?

But no, it was true. And the Alternative Army was delirious.

The Alternative Army is formed of the many hundreds of England cricket fans who travelled Down Under for this Ashes series without needing to sign up as “Barmy”.

Strauss: fan of the Barmy Army

They hang their St George flags at the front of the stands, proclaiming Macclesfield Town, the Dog and Duck, Mudchester, Wiz RM11 WHU – and so on. They are every bit as passionate if not as vocal as their much-photographed Barmy brothers. And they deserve as much credit for their unfailing support.

On the opening day at Adelaide, the attendance was 38,000 – a record since the Bodyline tour of 1932-1933. Of those, 8,000 were estimated to be from the UK.

I joined this august band for the Tests at Brisbane and Adelaide, the realisation of an ambition I had since 1961, aged 14, when I saw Richie Benaud lead out the Australians at Southchurch Park, Southend.

Like our stunned Sunderland friend, I could not have believed I would witness 10 of the most fantastic days of Test match cricket. After more than 50 years watching the game, for the first time I saw:

  • A live hat-trick
  • A 300 partnership (Hussey and Haddin at Brisbane)
  • A second 300 partnership (Cook and Trott, also Brisbane)
  • Australia 2 for 3 after 14 balls at Adelaide
  • Two England batsmen scoring double hundreds (Cook at Brisbane, Pietersen at Adelaide)
  • England’s biggest winning margin in Australia since 1966.

The Adelaide Oval is a beautiful cricket ground, mostly rebuilt with stands whose shell-like roofs resemble the Mound Stand at Lord’s. A grassy hill has been retained in front of the old scoreboard, on which the Barmy Army congregated, in heat which reached 100 degrees on Saturday afternoon.

The modern Gabba is a monster, a characterless concrete bowl. Like playing cricket at Wembley or the Millennium. The Gabba also provided the most frustrating moments of our mini-tour: the “one-zip rule”.

Cricket fans expect their bags to be searched on entry, but on Day One of the Ashes series at The Gabba we reached the gates to discover that only bags with one zip would be allowed in – an arbitrary police regulation, apparently, which not even the locals had been made aware of.

Our bags were taken away and “stored” in a room beneath the stands. A numbered receipt was issued but proved meaningless more than an hour after close of play when, upon reaching the front of the queue at last, I was asked to describe my bag. I then realised the bags had been thrown in a huge pile, rather than placed numerically.

Kerry O’Keeffe, the former Aussie leg spinner who is now a star commentator for ABC, had great fun roaming the radio box checking the number of zips on his colleagues’ jeans.

In general, the Aussie media tends to be one-eyed. The final day at Adelaide consisted of constant weather updates on the proximity of an approaching storm, ignoring England’s achievement of wrapping up the game with six wickets in 86 minutes.

The Aussie fans, however, while extremely critical of their own side, were generous in their praise for England. “Good on yer, mate. Outplayed us in every facet of the game.” Those fans were conspicuous by their absence on the final days in both Brisbane and Adelaide, presumably because Australia couldn’t win.

At Lord’s or The Oval, we turn up in our thousands, however bad the mauling our team is receiving.

During the trip – I travelled with old mates Jeff Ives (Daily Express) and Ken Dyer (Evening Standard) – we spent a few evenings with some of our cricket writers, notably Paul Newman (Daily Mail), Colin Bateman (Daily Express), Stephen Brenkley (Independent) and Tom Collomosse (Evening Standard). The cricket writers have always been my favourite band of brothers but I also got the impression that our arrival Down Under provided them with a welcome change of company amid the long evenings of a three-month tour.

But back to the Barmy Army, a gaily-coloured body of men and women who support and entertain in equal measure with their constant cheering, flag-waving and amended renditions of popular songs. Strewth, that Matilda must be a busy Sheila!

The players are rightly appreciative of their support, waving their bats in the direction of the Army at every opportunity and going over to applaud at the end of the game.

But there are many more Brits in the Alternative Army and captain Andrew Strauss and his team should remember them when handing out the post-match compliments.

As the teams re-convene in Perth, I’ll be looking on with envy from my settee along with thousands of others. A Fireside Army, no less.

SJA MEMBERS: Update your profile for the 2011 SJA Yearbook.