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December 3, 2001
- Jonathan Dyson
And so, after weeks of doubt, disagreement and drama, the first Test is finally ready to begin. It is hard to overstate the sense of relief among England fans at the news of the agreement between the ICC and BCCI over the Virender Sehwag issue.
As I have explained before, the endless uncertainty about whether the England squad would actually fly out in the first place was painful enough, but for the tour to be placed in doubt once again, and at a time when the great majority of English fans were either already in India or on their way, sent us all into a mild panic.
The Barmy Army swelled its ranks from six in Hyderabad to around 30 in Jaipur. A handful of the larger-than-life characters that make the Army tick arrived for the game against India 'A'. These included three extraordinary men in their thirties and forties whose lives quite literally revolve around watching England abroad.
Not for them the life of domestic normality, with a wife, kids and a nine-to-five job. Instead, they work long hours in night-time factory jobs through the English summer, with the sole purpose of saving enough money to follow England's cricketers wherever they might be the following winter.
Sitting with them in Jaipur, you could sense their joy and relief at leaving their jobs once again, and starting another tour. Determined to enjoy every minute of their hard-earned break, one of them actually scores each game, using the English scorer Bill Frindall's famous method.
As in Hyderabad, the interaction between English and Indian fans continued throughout the game. Autograph books were signed, opinions about the Tests exchanged, and friendly handshakes were seen everywhere.
Indeed for me, at Jaipur, there were real signs that Indian fans could come to love the Barmy Army by the end of the series. This may sound as bizarre as predicting an England series win. Yet when we wandered out of the stadium at the end of the first day's play singing the Barmy Army anthem, we could hear hordes of Indian fans behind us responding with impromptu chants of 'ooh' and 'aah'. Their exclamations indicated a genuine appreciation of the spirit of the Army, yet, quite comically, without being quite sure how to express it.
Because the Barmy Army hadn't been formed when England last toured in India in 1992-93, this is the Indian fans' first taste of this lively group. And I think as the series develops, you will find that the Army actually embody many of the things Indians love about their cricket - the uninhibited vocal and physical appreciation of a wicket or boundary, the deep, passionate love and pride of their team, and a love of the undulating twists-and-turns that shape a great Test match.
Now that the warm-up matches have finished, we realise once again that the eve of a new Test series is a strange time for fans. After all the preparations, the tactical planning and the opinion-sharing, all that can be done is to sit and wait patiently for the real thing to begin.
It is a particularly unnerving time because fans know that Test series can on occasion turn out to be radically different from what is widely expected. Last summer, I booked almost all my allocated time off work so that I could watch what was predicted to be the most gripping, close-fought Ashes campaign for several years, with a real chance of an England win. What a fool I felt as England were thrashed once again.
This Test series has been widely tipped as an almost certain victory for India. This is understandable - it is hard to remember a weaker England squad, particularly in the bowling department, that has flown abroad.
Yet one of the reasons that following England is so irresistible is that they invariably produce a victory when it is least expected. Their last win came against a seemingly invincible Australian team (except in India of course). They were chasing more than three hundred on an unpredictable Headingley wicket on the last day.
And the series win in Pakistan last winter is another obvious and pertinent example. Most fans felt that a creditable draw was the best that could be hoped for there. Yet at the moment I am reminded more than anything of a strikingly similar sense of doom that preceded England's trip to the West Indies in 1989-90.
The home team were still a ruthless outfit, with a battery of fearsome fast bowlers, and gifted, attacking batsmen. England were rebuilding after the humiliating 4-0 defeat by Australia in the summer. Some observers even felt that England should not bother touring, with the task appearing so hopeless.
And what happened? Yep, England won the first Test by ten wickets. Angus Fraser and Devon Malcolm, both debutants the previous summer, tore the Windies apart, and Allan Lamb and Robin Smith provided the runs in the middle order.
Twelve years on, England find themselves once again with an extraordinarily inexperienced attack against a richly talented team with an incredible home record, and they are touring in spite of several calls not to go.
So, when you see the Barmy Army arriving at the Mohali ground this morning, hope in our hearts, singing and chanting and cheering on our team, and you find yourself wondering why we have bothered to come, remember that the only predictable thing about the English cricket team is their continuous unpredictability.
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