Around 5pm on the third day of the Boxing Day test, as the Poms slumped towards their latest humiliation, a grinning man in a huge red-and-white hat got to his feet, waving an English flag. The Barmy Army, a few hundred strong, had been pretty quiet all day but were about to find their voices. The flag-waver led them in a series of calls and responses, starting with the most familiar ‘Everywhere we go …’ They chanted uninterrupted for the next hour or so, as English batsmen entered and exited like messengers in a Shakespeare play, after which Rogers and Warner batted with supreme ease. The worse England fared, the more the Barmies sang.
They have two types of chants. One is a celebration of their own virtues (“The mighty mighty England … the barmy barmy army”). The other is the taunt. Sometimes these are aimed at the players – not long ago Mitchell Johnson famously got taunted with “He bowls to the left, he bowls to the right, that Mitchell Johnson, his bowling is shite” but can there ever have been a more satisfying response than what he has served up this series?
The other type of taunt is aimed at the opposition supporters, and this is what I want to focus on.
Years ago I read an article by the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski about the customs of the Trobriand Islanders. He wrote that when rival teams of fishermen go out in their canoes, one crew taunts the others with words to the effect of “Our canoe is great, we are the best fishermen,” and the other crew replies with “No, your canoe is shite, we paddle faster and we catch more fish than you, losers!” I’m paraphrasing but that was the gist of it.
The point is that taunting is supposed to be a dialogue. Taunt should be met with counter-taunt. At present, no one is counter-taunting the Barmies. Occasionally at the ‘G someone tried to start a chorus of “Aussie, Aussie Aussie, Oi, Oi, Oi,” but the effort was feeble. Let’s face it, it is a rubbish chant, nothing but crass nationalism, devoid of wit.
The Barmies’ chanting has its origins in English football crowds. A year ago I went to a match between two lowly English teams, Plymouth Argyle and Torquay United. The rival supporters spent the whole match in taunt and counter-taunt. Since it was a local derby, most of it revolved around disputing which was “the best team in Devon”. This is a bit like arguing about who is the best ice hockey team in Darwin, but they took it very seriously. If either side paused in its taunting, the other lot taunted them with “We forgot you were here.”
At the MCG, the Barmies didn’t hesitate to taunt the Aussies for not taunting them back. “And you still don’t sing, three-nil,” they chanted at one point. “We’ll sing a song for you.” The home supporters looked at each other in mystification: what madness was this? Why are the Barmies singing the score, when their team is being thrashed?
Later, as Warner and Rogers hammered the final nails into the English coffin, the Barmies taunted the home supporters with the chant “Where were you when you were shite?” When Australia is losing, its fans disappear: at the MCG in 2010, when Australia was all out 98 and England reached 0-150, there were hardly any home supporters left by the final session. But look at us, the Barmies chanted, our team is absolutely shite now, completely and unutterably abysmal, yet we are still here!
The attitude seems to be: the worse the team, the more dedicated a supporter you are; the better the supporter, the more you sing. By this logic, the team’s failures are to be celebrated. I remember back in the ’90s hearing an earlier incarnation of the Barmy Army burst into the proud chorus: “We’ve got the worst team in the world.” As an example of turning a negative into a positive it would gladden the heart of a cognitive behavioural therapist, but this kind of thinking is alien to Australian supporters.
There’s an opportunity here for Cricket Australia. In response to the crisis affecting the cricket team, they commissioned the Argus Report. Now that the cricket side has been fixed up, it’s time to look at the taunting. Australian fans should refuse to accept that we cannot do better than “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie.” A panel of expert taunt writers should be assembled, chaired by Paul Keating; teams of taunt-gatherers, like census takers, should go among the people, gathering material. When the Barmy Army turns on the home crowd with taunts about non-singing, they should be met with a rousing chorus: something like, perhaps, “Even Boycott thinks you’re boring” (to the tune of ‘Glory, Glory Hallelujah’) or “He’s big, he’s tall, he never hits the ball, Stuart Broad, Stuart Broad”. These are just preliminary thoughts, but you get the idea.
The Ashes have been won back, but we will really know Australia is in the ascendant when it comes up with some counter-taunts to wipe the smile off Barmy faces.