Cricket interview

Bill Cooper, Barmy Army Trumpeter

For many England fans, the sight of the Barmy Army's Billy the Trumpeter is a welcome one on tour. Bill's fine array of tunes are a great source of entertainment to cricket fans all over the world and often provide a much needed lift to the England players who are in the heat of battle.

I caught up with Bill, who is a good friend of the Addis, following the series in South Africa to learn more about his world inside and outside of cricket, and to recount some of his memorable moments following England overseas.

We started our conversation looking back at the tour of South Africa. "What a great tour," remarked Bill. "South Africa is always a good country to visit and to see England win a series away, is pretty rare. Unfortunately I wasn't out there for Ben Stokes' fireworks in Cape Town, but seeing Broady run through them in Johannesburg was pretty special."

The Barmy Army copped a bit of flak in some quarters for being surprisingly 'quiet' in the opening two Tests of the series, but this certainly changed once Bill and his trumpet arrived. "Sometimes you need a catalyst to rouse the crowd and the trumpet is there to get people going." It certainly played a huge part in the Johannesburg victory and Stuart Broad, in particular, seemed to thrive on the increased atmosphere. "There is a special sort of bond between the fans and players. We are the only team in the world who have proper travelling support and in a small kind of way I think the tunes and singing does make a difference and gives the players a lift when they need it." And this was acknowledged at the end of the Centurion Test, when with the series won, coach Trevor Bayliss and captain Alastair Cook invited Bill and a small number of other fans into the dressing room for a sing song and to say thanks. "That was an absolute first for us and a very nice touch by the players. They are all very approachable and I know it’s a cliché, but footballers earn stupid amounts of money and to us on the outside they don’t necessarily seem the nicest bunch, but the cricketers are totally different and all very nice and Cooky asked us to thank all of the fans who travelled and to say that they truly appreciated the support. It was actually quite funny to discover that the players have a number of their own songs that they sing about each other, a number of which, I have to be honest, were better than ours!"

So when and where did it all start for Bill. A freelance musician by trade, he has been following England on tour since a ‘dream’ tour to the West Indies back in 2004, where he decided to tour having fallen out of love with football (although his love for Charlton Athletic continues!). "I was always into both football and cricket, although I wasn’t particularly good at either and I was very much an armchair fan of both. But I’d fallen out of love with football and I’d always wanted to go to the Caribbean to watch England at cricket; so in 2004 I headed over there for a three week holiday with a couple of college mates."

Now, what people may not be aware of about Bill is that outside of cricket he is a freelance trumpeter with several orchestras, including the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and often appears in West End musicals, so regular practice is extremely important and a certain instrument was an obvious necessity on tour. "I remember taking my trumpet on that tour to practice, as I had a concert the day after I got back and I knew I couldn’t not play it for three weeks."

And as anyone who has done a cricket tour knows, things don't always go according to plan when you're away from home. However for Bill, an incident occurred that would pretty much change his life. "One evening in Barbados I left my trumpet in a taxi! I thought it was totally lost but two weeks later during the Test Mach in Antigua someone had brought the trumpet to the cricket and tried to play some tunes on it and was struggling! So I went over to get it back and they asked me to prove it was mine by playing a few tunes."

At the end of the day's play, Paul 'Leafy' Burnham, founder of the Barmy Army, asked Bill if he could come back the following day and play some more tunes, and the rest, as they say, is history. "At the end of that tour Leafy asked me if I would be interested in coming to South Africa later that year and that he would help with flights etc and that tour to South Africa, same as the Addis boys, was my first proper tour."

Bill became a well-known figure to supporters back at home, during the famous 2005 Ashes series. He played the trumpet at every Test bar Lords where in his absence, we lost. After the victorious Oval Test, he was asked onto the stage with the players at the victory parade in Trafalgar Square, where he helped lead the celebratory songs in front of 100,000 people.

And then in the return series down under 18 months later, came 'trumpet-gate'! In the opening Test of the series, Bill was thrown out of the Gabba and immediately given a banning order by the local police force after a rendition of the Neighbours theme tune! “It was bizarre! I took the trumpet in the ground and just after lunch on the first day I played Jerusalem and followed it up with the Neighbours theme tune as a bit of fun for the Aussies, the police then came over and told me I was disturbing the peace! I was thrown out and given a banning order on the spot and told I was not allowed within 500 metres of the ground. It was very heavy handed.”

The incident hit the headlines in the UK and of course in Australia where in The Australian newspaper it was described as “the biggest Ashes scandal since Bodyline”! Bill was suddenly all over the media and appeared on countless radio shows. “The radio stations were actually quite fun, but I have to be honest after a couple of days of it all, it became a bit of a pain in the arse. It’s funny you get more famous for not playing the trumpet, than playing it!”

"It wasn’t the fact that musical instruments were banned, but more just the heavy handedness of it all. Brisbane was just not hospitable to anyone from England in that series. People weren’t allowed to bring picnics in, they weren’t allowed to sit together and it was all very bizarre. Cricket Australia had said it wasn’t up to them about the trumpet, it was a ground decision, but the ground said it was a decision of Cricket Australia.”

Four years later in 2010, Cricket Australia gave Bill a special dispensation to be the only person allowed into The Gabba with a musical instrument!

But controversy wasn’t just confined to Australia. In both 2013 and 2015, Bill hit the headlines again when the chief executive of Trent Bridge would not allow him to play the trumpet in the Ashes Tests that they hosted back in England, despite intense protests from the players and team management. “I appreciate I haven’t a god given right to play the trumpet, and grounds quite rightly have regulations and at Trent Bridge this means no musical instruments. But, it just seems strange when they want a Barmy Army section to create an atmosphere in the ground they wouldn’t let me play. The situation all kicked off on Twitter with lots of supportive tweets from former and current players. The most bizarre bit was Piers Morgan tweeting David Cameron to sort it out, the bit I treasured most was a supportive tweet from Brian Lara. It all came to nothing in the end but it was nice that Jimmy Anderson, Cook, Swann, Broad and Andy Flower tried so hard to get the decision reversed.”

Through the years there have been many players who have worn the Three Lions, but it is former captain Michael Vaughan who Bill has the biggest soft spot for. “Michael Vaughan was captain of the team that beat Australia after all those years and if I’m honest that was something when I was younger, I thought we’d never do. He was also the first captain who made a real thing of thanking the fans, which sort of set a precedent in years to come. When he resigned as England captain he wrote a letter to the Barmy Army saying thanks for all of the support over the years and I thought that was a touch of class by the guy. Since he’s moved into the media he has never changed his opinion on the fans and will always stick up for us when needed.”

Another player Bill has a high regard for is former spinner Graeme Swann. “Swanny was a kind of cricketer I’d never seen before, an English spinner who had a bit of guile and attacked with the bat and was also a very good fielder. He was a charismatic and funny guy, who was also very pleasant. I was lucky to share a few beers with him over the years and he was always good company - very sharp and could put you down very quickly!”

Swann shared Bill’s love of music and on a tour to Sri Lanka in 2012, Bill got to share a stage with him in a Sri Lankan bar. “We both took over a local band that were playing and did a version of Mustang Sally!”

While Vaughan and Swann top the list, Bill has a lot of time for all of the recent players. “All of the recent bunch have been decent. KP gets a bad press sometimes but was always pleasant to me and would give the Barmy Army signed gear for charity auctions.”

Now Bill has pretty much toured every Test playing nation and it is New Zealand that ranks as his favourite. “I just love the country. It’s a lovely place and the one tour I look forward to more than most. But, I do also love South Africa, Sri Lanka and the Caribbean.”

It’s with no surprise then that Basin Reserve in Wellington is one of his favourite grounds, however… “I’m also tempted to say Galle in Sri Lanka. It’s quite an iconic place to play cricket and you can’t beat after a day’s play, heading down to Unawatuna, walking along the beach, having some drinks and eating some freshly caught fish.” I have to agree with Bill, Galle is a great place to watch Test cricket, that is when there’s no protesting about ticket prices going on!

Having toured since 2004, Bill has been fortunate to witness many memorable Test matches, that you would think it would be difficult to name one absolute favourite, but he had no hesitation in naming the Melbourne Ashes victory in 2010 as his personal choice. “People often forget we got hammered in Perth, the Test before. Mitchell Johnson destroyed us. So we went into the Melbourne Test at 1-1 and all of the papers in Australia were saying we had lost it and that we were going to be crushed by a resurgent Australian team.” What happened next was one of the greatest day’s play by an England team in recent memory. Australia were bowled out for 98 and England ended the day 150 or so runs for the loss of no wickets thanks to the excellent batting of Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook. It was a Boxing Day humiliation for Australia. “That one day destroyed Australia. It was a magical day.”

For those of you that have heard Bill play you’ll know he plays a complete mixture of tunes, from Jerusalem to the theme tunes of Rocky, Only Fools and Horses, Coronation Street and even the Hovis advert, but what’s his own personal favourite. “Do you know what, that’s a good question, I haven’t really a favourite as such, but I hate playing the same stuff all the time, so when people come up with new songs that are different, I love it. It’s nice to have random tunes and not just tunes to football terrace chants. For example, in South Africa it was great playing Michael Jackson’s ‘Ben’ to Ben Stokes. When something spontaneous like that happens, it’s brilliant!”

Moving away from his personal favourites, I tackled Bill about the England team, Test cricket and its future.

“I think this England team can get back to number one in the world. There’s not a lot of very good teams out there. India are obviously still strong on home soil and the Aussies have depth in their bowling, but if this team keeps improving at the rate we are, we have every chance. Yes, we need to solve the opening position, and could probably do with one more batsmen but we’re basically there. Having Stokes as the all-rounder has been the key. He’s improved so much in the last couple of years and having Steven Finn back is huge. It was such a shame he got injured at the end of the Test series in South Africa, as when Finny is going well, I have so much time for him. No one can match him for the bounce he can extract and the guy gets wickets!”

But what about Test cricket, is it still the pinnacle for supporters and what can the ICC do to safeguard its future. “I don’t know about around the world, but for England fans Test cricket is definitely the preferred format of the game. The more Test cricket I watch, the more I believe it’s what cricket is all about. The advantage can swing from one team to the other so many times in a match, that, that just can’t happen in other formats. I just think it’s a shame that we only go to places like South Africa or New Zealand every five years or so, while we seem to go to India all of the time and playing three Ashes series in quick succession completely devalued that series, in my opinion. There are a number of countries that appreciate Test cricket outside of India and Australia we should visit them more often, not every five years. At minimum it should be every four years, and all series should have at least three Tests to make them competitive.”

That said, Bill admits Twenty20 cricket is a good way to introduce new fans to the game and with the T20 World Cup to kick off this month in India, he believes England have as good a chance as any of the other teams of winning the competition for what would be a second time. “I think we have a really good chance. We have a very good batting line up, the bowling is a little more questionable, but Rashid and Moeen are good spin options, which we’ll need out there. In the past we relied massively on KP and Eoin Morgan, whereas this time we have a lot more options, so why not!”

For those of you who do enjoy T20 cricket you can now find Bill at Surry’s T20 Blast home games at the Oval, where he is their official trumpeter. Quite amusing given Bill’s allegiance to Kent! “Yes, a few of the Kent lads are calling me a judas! But I now live quite close to the Oval and it’s been good fun. Surrey approached me last year and asked if I could come and play the trumpet in the crowd and I was happy to say yes.”

I asked Bill how different an experience it was to playing the trumpet at Test matches. “It’s very different, particularly as I’m not sat with a group of England fans that usually sing. I move around the different stands, including in the family stand, which is interesting as I’ve had to learn a few current kids’ TV tunes! But I’ll always try and find a group of people who may be up for a sing song and sit with them and play some random songs. It’s a very different atmosphere. For a lot of people’s it’s Friday night beers, but T20 is a good way to get people into cricket. Hopefully I’ll get asked back again this summer.”

But as much as Bill enjoys his stint at Surrey you can definitely sense its touring overseas that is his biggest passion and he has no hesitation in recommending to supporters considering touring for the first time, to just do it! “I’ve not met anyone who has done it and regretted it. You can leave the English winter at home to go somewhere hot, and yes Australia is expensive but you can pretty much do any of the other tours on any kind of budget that suits. Once you’re in these countries it’s so much cheaper than watching Test cricket in England, it’s not expensive at all. You meet all sorts of people from different walks of life, and make some great, great friends. And importantly you don’t get a bunch of arseholes. Anyone who is giving up time and money to travel to the other side of the world aren’t going to cause trouble, they’re going because they love their cricket.”

But what about those trying to sell it to a partner?! “Well, a number of guys have brought their girlfriends, sold it to them that’s it a couple of weeks in the sun and the chance to go to the beach, but literally in every instance the girlfriends have actually ended coming to the matches for ‘one day’ and have got hooked on Test cricket, they’ve enjoyed it that much!”

Bill really is someone who has added so much to the experience of touring and watching England overseas. Personally, I can vouch that when you’re miles away from home in places like Mumbai, and Colombo the tunes he plays cannot fail to bring a smile to your face, so I can only imagine what it must be like for a player - if it helps rouse the crowd, it must give them such a lift. And to think how different it would of have been if he hadn’t of lost that trumpet!

Bill – it’s always a pleasure having you on tour.

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