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Barmy Army takes battle honours

SYDNEY, January 7 – England's Ashes series win on Friday was a triumph not just for a ruthlessly professional team but for the thousands of "Barmy Army" foot-soldiers who kept the faith through years of hurt.
For the fifth day of the final Test, free entry was on offer to the Sydney Cricket Ground. But after four days of capacity crowds, locals had no interest in watching England clinch their first series victory in Australia in 24 years.

The batsmen at the crease were two of the very few Australians present as about 15,000 English fans colonised the historic SCG, raucous as ever with a song repertoire ranging from caustic wit to chest-thumping jingoism.

From the Barmy Army’s headquarters in the SCG’s Victor Trumper stand, travelling trumpeter Bill Cooper played the "Last Post" in mock-lament of the death of Australian cricket.

"Are you Bangladesh in disguise?" the English fans chanted at the vanquished team.

Interviewed on the ground after Australia went down to an unprecedented third innings drubbing, England opener Alastair Cook was at a loss to explain a recovery in form that saw him crowned player of the series with 766 runs.

The Barmy Army English support had no doubt about the biggest contributor to Cook’s run-fest, bellowing out for one last time a tuneful but unprintable rebuke of Australia’s misfiring strike bowler Mitchell Johnson.

Cook, captain Andrew Strauss and other members of the victorious touring side each made a point of thanking the thousands who travelled to Australia despite the Aussie dollar’s strength, which has hit the tourism industry hard.

In truth, the diehard supporters had all the more reason to come with the prospect of a long-awaited series victory for England in sight, as Australia endure a rare period of weakness after two decades of world domination.

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"We’re set for two days of partying," said Paul Burnham, a former British Airways employee who co-founded the Barmy Army in 1994.

"This is what it’s all about: the battle on the pitch and the battle in the stands. It’s a good battle between the England and Aussie fans, and then we all go for a beer together," he told AFP.

Burnham now works full-time in organising tours for the Barmy Army, which got its name from the Australian media, impressed by the fans’ crazy fortitude during England’s never-ending losing streak in the 1990s.

The army manages a creditable deployment to Test cricketing outposts such as Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. But tours Down Under are by far the biggest draw, and the ranks are swelled in Australia by the large population of expatriate Poms.

Julian Poulter, a 48-year-old company director who played for England youth teams as a teenager, is one of the expats who endured years of abuse from friends as Australia grew accustomed to crushing the old enemy in the Ashes.

"It’s been unpleasant for so long. There was a time when I thought I’d never see another England Ashes win in my lifetime," said Poulter, who has lived in Australia for 15 years.

England finally regained the Ashes in 2005. But that was on home turf, so the performance of Strauss’s men in Australia this time around is all the sweeter for long-suffering fans.

Nevertheless, Poulter is cautious not to get carried away.

"It’s very dangerous in sport to give out too much stick because these things come around. The same applies to English supporters now. We should keep our memories long, not short."

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The Australian media now are being just as damning about their team as Fleet Street was about England in the bad old days of loss after humiliating loss. But the Barmy Army still want Australia to bounce back.

"When we beat an Aussie side over here, we want to beat a proper Aussie side," Burnham said.

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