Not barmy, just lucky
Cricket fans will do whatever it takes to get a view of the Ashes
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Congratulations to Jason Donavon, who has once again come up trumps in the jungle.
Monday, 20, Nov 2006 12:32
As England's Ashes winners defend the trophy this winter, they will be bolstered as ever by the presence of the Barmy Army, the now-legendary travelling supporters club, which this year celebrated 11 years of existence. InTheNews.co.uk's Charles Britten finds out more about the man who runs it, Paul 'Leafy' Burnham.
When the England cricket team paraded the Ashes through London last year, a special area was set aside at the front of Trafalgar Square for the 'Barmy Army' - the hard-core of England's most committed fans. They had watched the team through occasional thick and frequent thin for a decade before tasting this special moment of glory and were rightly given pride of place in the crowd.
It had all begun during an Ashes series too: In the 1994/95 series down under, England were being regularly thrashed by Australia and the local journalists began to marvel at the persistence of the fans that kept travelling to the other side of the world to support a losing team. Thus the nickname 'Barmy Army' was born. One group of fifty fans took it literally, and printed T-shirts to that effect during the Adelaide Test match. Paul Burnham, then 30 and on his first overseas tour, was one of them.
He describes what happened next as a "total accident". Something very unlikely happened: England won. The only souvenirs in town were the Barmy Army shirts and, in the space of ten days, three thousand were sold. Knowing they were on to a good thing, they quickly registered the 'Barmy Army' trademark in both Australia and England.
Paul first became interested in playing and watching cricket as a cub scout. Before his Barmy Army days he worked for BAA Cargo, at a time when the Brinks-Matt robbery was revealed to be an inside job. The in-joke was that he did it. From this came the nickname 'Tea leaf' - rhyming slang for thief - which morphed into 'Leafy'. An organiser of playing tours for the British Airways cricket club, he was the ideal person to develop the Barmy Army, and he wasn't alone in this vision.
However, over time the other founding members dropped out as they married and got mortgages. "It's me that's been lucky enough to develop it - and I mean that - lucky," he says.
Eleven years on, with another Ashes tour beginning, Leafy is busy in his office, a narrow corridor at the back of a travel agency in Sunbury-on-Thames. The shelves are stocked with merchandise, the walls covered in tour pictures, fixture lists and a newspaper cutting of his interview after the Barmy Army gave Australian fast bowler Brett Lee a rough ride at Melbourne during the last tour. The computer displays an inbox full of emails. Everything that goes on in far-flung places starts right here.
Leafy never tries to portray himself as a visionary. To him, all is logical. Starting with what he calls "quite a nice little mission - to literally get everyone singing from the same song sheet", Paul has seen every development as simply the obvious next step. There was the expansion into other sports, from the impromptu support of the England Ladies Hockey team during the 2002 World Cup in Perth, which coincided with the Test match, to the England team at the 2003 Rugby World Cup. Then there was the development of Barmy Army CC, with a legendary tradition of charity beer matches, which always end in defeat but raise plenty of cash for good causes. Then through various partnerships with sponsors and tour operators, Leafy has overseen a gradual expansion of the role of the Barmy Army, offering full-board tours, more organised events and - his personal favourite - a 'Colts' team to develop young talent.
There are those who have disagreed with this development - who feel the Barmy Army has become too commercial and has moved away from its original ethos. As a founder member, Leafy bristles at the suggestion.
"It's just a load of rubbish," he answers emphatically. "We've been commercial since three days in. Nobody has been working full time for us apart from me and we're always trying to keep prices down." He points out that the Barmy Army has made much more money for charities than it has paid in salaries. Currently it is heavily backing the 'Chance to Shine' appeal to get more state schools playing cricket.
Nor is it the only way he feels the Barmy Army is misrepresented, with many in the media seeing the Army as 'lager louts', irreconcilable with the traditional passive image of the cricket supporter.
"A lot of the press, people like Christopher Martin-Jenkins, won't get out of their ivory towers and see what it's really like," says Paul. "That's what disappoints me. You will always get mixed opinions. It's like Marmite - you love it or hate it, but what matters is that the players like it and they say the crowd does make a difference to their performance."
The power of vocal support to inspire players is central to his thinking. Most grounds now have Barmy Army sections. His ultimate aim is to persuade Lords, the last bastion of English cricket snobbery, to follow suit. "The idea is not just to get into Lords," he says, "but for the Lords members to say 'it was brilliant'."
Despite the imminent approach of his 42nd birthday, Leafy sees no reason to pack it all in. He no longer plays cricket following two knee operations but has few regrets about spending his time as he does. While he would have liked to be able to relax and watch the cricket more without being 'on call' 24/7, he is far too keen to ensure he gives the job his full attention.
Currently Paul is about to fly to Australia. Winning the Ashes last year has produced a new challenge. As Paul puts it: "It's important that the Barmy Army is as good at supporting a winning side as a losing one."
As long as Leafy is on the case, there can be little doubt that will happen.