A rain-soaked cancelled fourth test, controversial calls and declarations, all on top of a nagging and infuriating sense that England threw it away in the opening two tests have all meant that Australia have retained the Urn once again in perhaps cricket’s most famous rivalry.
Having succumbed to a 2-0 score against the Aussies, England nearly performed the Great Escape by winning the third test and was on track to win the fourth had it not been for the rain. This meant after winning the fifth and final test, the series finished 2-2; Cricket legend Stuart Broad bowling out his international career in style in the most pulsating Ashes series of our time, which also saw spin bowler Moeen Ali confirming his international retirement too.
Whilst the team on the pitch perhaps didn’t perform as well as hoped, one of the roaring successes of this year’s Ashes test has been the atmosphere at all the host cricket grounds. With fans playing trumpets giving a simple-yet-grabbing rendition of the Great Escape theme tune and the Aussies getting plenty of heat (most of it in the realms of acceptability) for the controversial, if technically legal, dismissal of Jonny Bairstow in the second test, the Ashes series showed that traditional test cricket in its full glory still has its place as one of the calendar-defining moments of English sport, and other sports perhaps could learn from the atmosphere generated throughout the series, which saw bumper crowds at the great cricketing arenas of Anglia.
Seeing the likes of the above tweet and general comments on social media about the good atmosphere at the tests, going from the jovial to (mostly) acceptable levels of tribalism throughout the tests, has made me ponder much about the general state of English sporting fan culture.
Whilst it’s clear the incident between Marylebone Cricket Club members and the Australian players crossed a line, it was good to see such passion about the cricket, as well as frankly amusing that the Bairstow dismissal had turned the Lord’s Long Room into the Millwall Away Section. This got me thinking, could other team sports (especially football and rugby union) learn from the Barmy Army on having good atmosphere at games?
I love a bit of creative football chanting, West Ham’s admittedly crude but funny celebrations after winning the Europa League referring to star player Jarrod Bowen’s relationship with Dani Dyer and Celtic F.C’s fans making their opinions heard of the Coronation are two examples that spring to mind.
While, thankfully, the hooliganism of yesteryear is largely a relic of the past in English football, nonetheless chants do too often have the tendency to slip into the woefully unacceptable, especially as football still has plenty of recurrent issues with fans shouting racial abuse at players on the pitch. The upper-middle-class-tinge and jovial positivism of English cricket won’t translate well at the Kop in Anfield. But the Barmy Army is an example of welcoming and seemingly unproblematic atmosphere that all fans can get behind.
Another advantage is that the Ashes was hosted across the country. Each test was hosted at a different venue. The first test was at Edgbaston (Birmingham), second test Lord’s (London), third test Headingley (Leeds), the fourth test Old Trafford (Manchester) and the fifth test at the Oval (London).
In football and rugby, a majority of national team matches are played at Wembley and Twickenham respectively. Both are amazing venues, but we live in a country blessed by a plethora of stadia, would it really be hard to host national games outside of the capital?
Especially in England Rugby Union, a lot of the games have the atmosphere of a wet paper bag. Whether it’s soulless half-full plastic stadiums with overcompensating DJs, or national games too full of incoherent middle-aged drunks who only emerge to support rugby games during the Six Nations at Twickenham Stadium, English rugby has a recurring problem with getting bums on seats.
I am lucky enough to be a Leicester Tigers supporter, and the atmosphere at Mattioli Woods Welford Road tends to be pretty good, but even there it can be very flat; any attempts by young fans to chant something other than “Tigers! Tigers!” is looked down upon by old men who think rugby is above what they regard as lowly football fan culture.
Furthermore, Twickenham’s fan song is Swing Low Sweet Chariot, a song with problematic roots in slavery that players such as Maro Itoje have expressed deep uncomfortableness with fans singing, yet people in ignorance continue to sing it anyway. And the RFU sits back and does nothing in typical RFU style.
Again, the Barmy Army’s ‘Great Escape’ might not be the answer, but finding a song or a chant that all fans can get behind will start to bridge the wide gap between sections of supporters and the England Rugby team.
Not all answers lie in cricket. In women’s rugby and football, the lower age-profile of record crowds as well as the attendance of a much higher percentage of woman and non-binary people can also show English sport the way forward. This does seem to be very much a problem in the male games.
Oh, and also, please change the English anthem to ‘Jerusalem’ or something just slightly more inspiring than ‘God Save the King’. The Scottish and Welsh have ‘Flower of Scotland’ and ‘Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau’. Having a song like ‘Jerusalem’ where it is actually possible to sing with genuine passion could also be another step in improving atmospheres at English stadia in the future.
It will probably mean little to most English cricket fans during the pain of what really was an avoidable defeat that a student journalist is a fan of the trumpeting Barmy Army. But, what is clear is that the Ashes was traditional test cricket at its best, and in a thoroughly discontented country with sport as the only reprieve for some, there are significant indicators, both within cricket and outside of it, that there are sparks of meaningful, passionate, and encompassing fan culture that doesn’t slide into the unacceptable divisive.
Cricket is facing a lot of problems of its own at the moment, as the recent report into racism, classism and sexism clearly states. There are still too many Hoorah Henrys on the pitch and off it in English Cricket. But the Barmy Army, with increasingly diversifying crowds of people from all backgrounds, is showing the way out of the holes that English sport has dug itself.
England Cricket couldn’t quite pull off the Great Escape to win the Ashes series, but English Sport can pull off its own Great Escape to rescue atmosphere and attendances in our great national team sports.