Episode 55: Cricket’s clarion call… from the man who delivered it

Cricket authors (and obsessives) Peter Oborne and Richard Heller launched a podcast early in 2020 to help deprived listeners endure a world without cricket. They’re no longer deprived of cricket, but still chat regularly about cricket topics with different guests each week – cricket writers, players, administrators and fans – hoping to keep a good line and length but with occasional wides into other subjects.

For about fifteen years no England Test match seemed complete without the golden notes of Billy Cooper, the professional trumpeter who accompanied the Barmy Army. It made him the best-known musician in the cricket world since the celebrated pianist Don Bradman. He shares his memories of matching music to the many moods of cricket with Peter Oborne and Richard Heller in their latest podcast.

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Billy shares his early cricket life, interrupted at secondary school when the demands of music crowded out sport, but resumed in his thirties in the Players team of “musicians and oddballs.” Cricket is an easier sport for trumpeters if they protect their teeth than for keyboard players, who cannot afford to risk a professional career with broken fingers.

Billy describes his recruitment into the Barmy Army in 2004 when he went to Barbados to watch the penultimate England Test against the West Indies. He lost his unusual blue trumpet – but then spotted it among the Barmy Army supporters at the far side of the ground in Barbados. To reclaim it they made him play an audition piece. It led to a free ticket to the next match – when Brian Lara made 400 – and the rest is musical history.

The following summer he helped the Barmy Army to sing England to victory in the great Ashes series. In recognition of their contribution, they were invited to joined the massive public celebrations in Trafalgar Square. Billy describes crouching nervously behind Marcus Trescothick and the warmth he experienced from him and the England captain Michael Vaughan. The whole team signed the trumpet he used in the series, which is now in retirement as a historic artefact.

In 2016 he also enjoyed a special invitation to join the England team sing-song (led by Jimmy Anderson) at the end of their South African tour.

Billy outlines the transformation of the Barmy Army from a loose-knit bunch of supporters into a slick business with a strong brand identity. The founder, Paul Burnham, registered the Barmy Army as a business name after its foundation in the 1990s, an astute move given that its  Australian equivalent, the Fanatics, was recently valued at over $6 billion as a private company.

Billy responds to common criticisms of the Barmy Army as noisy louts who drink too much and blight matches for others. He describes its efforts to police “the odd idiot” and his own role, through music, in preventing its dissent into mindless chanting. In recent times, Afro-Caribbean campaigners have suggested that English cricket authorities have shown preference to the predominantly white Barmy Army at English grounds when West Indian steel bands have been excluded. Billy notes that the Barmy Army includes black and Asian England supporters and suggests that its predominately white middle-class composition may reflect the general drift of English cricket into being a white middle-class sport. He thinks that every Test side should be able to enjoy its own vocal and musical support within a crowd, especially (as had become usual before the pandemic) if there is enough space for other spectators to avoid them if they wish. Lately he has witnessed the noisy and percussion-led support for India of the new Bharat Army: the Barmy Army is now playing parallel “Test series” against them as well as their “Ashes” contests against the Fanatics.

Before “retiring” from the Barmy Army last year, to give more time to his young children, Billy had travelled to nine different countries to watch England play Tests, including Dubai and Abu Dhabi during Pakistan’s long international exile. He describes his favourite and least favourite grounds, and the ones which banned him (including Brisbane after a performance of the theme from Neighbours), but nearly all overseas grounds have welcomed him and the Barmy Army. He is generally saddened by the relocation of grounds away from city centres where they could draw casual spectators and by the consequent disappearance of traditional caterers and vendors. In England, Lords and Trent Bridge were generally closed to him, but he was able to add them to his roster during the 2019 World Cup, when they lost their jurisdiction to the ICC.

Ashes tours were becoming increasingly expensive and regimented for the Barmy Army, and he had most pleasure in visits to outlying grounds in other Test-playing countries. He went on England’s last tour of Pakistan before its exile. Expecting a dry tour, he was delighted to discover the International Club in Lahore – for foreigners only – with the atmosphere and refreshment of a rugby club bar at home. He met the overseas umpires and officials as well as the England team, and beat two of its players on its pool table. Occasionally he met and jammed with local cricket supporters, including the brilliant St George’s brass band in South Africa, made up of young underprivileged musicians learning to play by ear.

Billy was famous for matching music to players and settings. Neil Wagner of New Zealand, Dean Elgar of South Africa were always greeted with their namesakes as was Andrew Strauss (Johann rather than Richard). In Dubai he produced the theme from Lawrence Of Arabia, especially appropriate since both Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif were enthusiastic cricketers. He plays out the podcast with a few of his favourite matchup tunes and titles for players (including Abba’s Moeen Me, Moeen You) – and a famous signature tune.

Get in touch with us by emailing obornehellercricket@outlook.com, we would love to hear from you!

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Peter Oborne, Richard Heller

Peter Oborne has been the chief political commentator for the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail, a maker of several documentaries and written and broadcast for many different media. He is the author of a biography of Basil D’Oliveira and of Wounded Tiger, a history of Pakistan cricket, both of which won major awards.

Richard Heller was a long-serving humorous columnist on The Mail on Sunday and more briefly, on The Times. He worked in the movie business in the United States and the UK, including a brief engagement on a motion picture called Cycle Sluts Versus The Zombie Ghouls. He is the author of two cricket-themed novels A Tale of Ten Wickets and The Network. He appeared in two Mastermind finals: in the first his special subject was the life of Sir Gary Sobers.

Oborne & Heller cricketing partnership

Jointly, he and Peter produced White On Green, celebrating the drama of Pakistan cricket, including the true story of the team which lost a first-class match by an innings and 851 runs.

Peter and Richard have played cricket with and against each other for a variety of social sides, including Parliament’s team, the Lords and Commons, and in over twenty countries including India, Pakistan, the United States, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, France, Greece, Australia, Zimbabwe, New Zealand and Morocco.

The Podcast is produced by Bridget Osborne and James Willcocks at The Chiswick Calendar.

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