It started with the Barmy Army, and now travelling fans have become a staple with international cricket, especially during ICC-run tournaments
The Barmy Army, with its England flags, ridiculous costumes and a seemingly unquenchable thirst for lager, is a common sight at cricket matches around the world. In recent years, a Bharat Army, styled along the lines of the English original, has been lending Indian teams support at big events. At the ICC World Twenty20 2012, however, the group most making its presence felt is a band of merry Pakistanis who have no official name and who owe allegiance only to the cricket team.
Without a proper organisational structure in place, they have no spokesperson, but this group of fans, which began as a twosome at the ICC World Cup 2003 in South Africa, has more than ten members in Sri Lanka at the moment. If they did go the formal route, however, they would do well to appoint Rizwan Siddiqui Khan, who works for the government in planning and lives in Hackney, East London.
“The first game we watched in 2003 was India-Pakistan, and we were at third man and saw Virender Sehwag do something to Shoaib Akhtar that we haven’t forgotten,” said Rizwan with an ironic smile. “That was our first tour. Since then, we’ve been at the ICC World Cup 2007 in the Caribbean, the ICC World Twenty20 2009 at home in England, the ICC World Twenty20 2010 in St Lucia and Barbados, and are now in Sri Lanka.”
The other pioneer of this group of friends identifies himself as Ziggy Ahmed, presumably not his given name, but that’s what he has plastered on his Pakistan shirt as well. “I think one of the things the ICC has got spot on in this tournament is the ticket pricing,” said Ziggy, who is involved in the family pizza business that has been around for 25 years in Shepherd’s Bush. “In England, you would never get a ticket for a dollar.
“Even at those prices, we’ve got fantastic seats. In England you’d pay 40 to 50 pounds outside London. When you have pricing like this, it helps bring different kinds of people to the cricket.”
Not one to be left out for long, Rizwan adds, “What’s worked here is the very friendly attitude of the police. They don’t mind us being joyous or happy and showing it. In South Africa and the West Indies, it was very different, strong-arm policing. There you were always wondering, ‘If I stand up and wave my flag would the police be upset?’ In Sri Lanka, they enjoy cricket and it’s reflected in the way they police it.”
The other thing that has pleased this group no end is the easy availability of Halal food, something that was not always the case on previous tours. Also, between matches, they try to sneak in some tourism, and at Kandy a trip to the elephant orphanage in Pinawala was the perfect diversion between matches.
This group of friends prefers not to use an end-to-end tour operator, and buys their tickets directly from the ICC website. They book their accommodation in hotels or apartments as much as eight months in advance, thereby getting the best deals.
Living in England, they support their country of residence at all sport, except cricket. “People of a certain age find their identity and culture based on where they’re from,” explained Rizwan. “It’s different in other sport. In football, we support England, we have EPL teams that are our favourites and we all supported Team GB at the Olympics. When it comes to cricket, there’s something so soulful about the game that we support Pakistan though we’re born and bred in the UK.”
While this band of brothers has travelled together consistently, there are others from around the world that time their visits around ICC events. Usman Bhatt, who lives in Wales, works in England, and is married to a Sri Lankan, always knew he would be coming to the island on business. “When I was here a few months ago, I made sure I got tickets for the ICC World Twenty20,” said Usman, who works in the family’s sheet-metal business.
“I scheduled my appointments in such a manner that I could watch the cricket, and once that was done, get to work. I try and follow the big events. I went to the ICC World Cup 2007 in the West Indies. I support Pakistan, but I live in England so if Pakistan lose and are knocked out of the tournament, I then back England.”
Usman, who played age-group cricket for Wales, now only plays socially, and says there’s nothing like watching cricket in the subcontinent. “In Asian countries, when you sit in the stands you can see what they mean when they say cricket is a passion or a religion,” said Usman. “In England it’s more about football. They’re into the sport but it’s not in their blood. In Asian countries, you’re brought up playing cricket.”
What began with a touring group of fans supporting England has now spread to other countries. All that’s left is for the players of these teams to catch up, and acknowledge their fans’ support as the English players do. “We don’t really get acknowledgement from the players,” said Ziggy. “It would mean a lot to us if they just waved in our direction at the end of the game, like some other teams do with their fans. It will encourage a lot more people to travel and support their team. After all, we’ve come a long way from home to get here. A little bit of appreciation would not be out of place.”