Merv Huges just doesn’t get the Barmy Army – the sweaty, sweary and slightly stupid mass of English people who follow their cricket team around the world, singing and shouting and generally making cricket a lot more interesting to watch.
Sure, as one of the most high-profile and highly entertaining Australian cricket players of the 1980s and 90s, taking 212 Test wickets before retiring in 1994, he had a lot of fun winding them up, interacting with the crowd in a way no modern player would even dream of doing now, Hughes, now 56, had his fun with the Barmies, but they remain an entertaining enigma for the retired fast bowler.
“I go to the cricket to watch cricket, if you want to sing go to the karaoke bar, I reckon,” the big man grumps.
“Yes, the Barmy Army is great for cricket, they’re die-hard supporters and they have a good time, but they seem to have fun whether they’re winning or not, and I just don’t get that.
“If Australia are behind, then I’m grumpy as hell. I just don’t get how you can be happy regardless of whether you’re winning or losing, that’s just not the Australian way.
“It seems to me like they have a passion for the game, but not for the team. When it’s not going well for us, I get a bit grumpy, I’m not having a smile on my face. And if we look like losing, that’s it, I’m off. I’ll just go down the back and just drink. I’m not interested if we’re not winning.”
It’s that kind of desire for victory, which still burns inside Hughes today as an arm-chair fan, some-time selector and leader of tour groups to overseas contests with Australian Sports Tours, that made him such a fierce, and fearsome competitor.
It’s also an approach that, he believes, has always set the two great rivals, Australia and England, apart – the desire to win at all costs.
“The English are just a little bit more defensive, a bit negative, and their view at the start of any game is that they're going out there not to lose it, and if they happen to get into the position of being able to win, then they’ll push for it,” he says, chuckling ruefully.
“Australia’s first view, from ball one, is that we’re there to win it, so we’ll be aggressive, and then if we get into trouble, we’ll try to save the game. One’s a bit more positive, a bit more attacking, and if you over-attack in a game of cricket, you can fail quite quickly. That can be our weakness at times.”
So, Merv, do you think that reflects a cultural difference in our two great nations, a kind of in-built positivity versus an ingrained pessimism and caution?
“Mate, you’re going in a bit deep there, it’s only a game of cricket,” he chides.
“There are a lot of cultural differences, but you can’t take anything away from the English; they’re very tough, they’re methodical and being conservative – not wanting to get into trouble – can be their strength at times.”
While Hughes says that attitudinal difference in the teams is as relevant now as it was in his day, what he says has changed is the players. The Big Fella was always famous for injecting a bit of personality into the game, whether it was licking his teammates ears, leading the drunken fans in Bay 13 at the MCG in callisthenics or speaking his mind in interviews, he notes with some sadness that no one today can get away with being such a larrikin.
“The fact is there are plenty of characters still in the Australian team today, but they can’t openly display it – if Davey Warner was to carry on like that people would jump up and down say ‘well, with the money he earns, he should be more responsible!’” Hughes opines.
“The perception that people have of Steve and Mark Waugh, it’s not reality.”
“Ultimately they’re sportsmen, they should be able to celebrate the way they want to, they should be scrutinised for their performances on the field, not what they do off it, but everyone takes it a step further these days and they want to look into their private lives as well, when their private lives should be bloody private.
“We used to get away with a lot more. When we travelled to the UK for a tour there’d only be four or six journalists, and they had to drink in the same bar as us, and now there might be 200 journalists following it, and everyone wants a story. I mean come on, you’re meant to be sports journalists, leave that stuff alone.
“The media now wonder why the players won’t talk to them, but if you’re going to bag the players for reasons that have nothing to do with how they actually play, what do you expect?”
Hughes does also regret the fact that modern players are so media trained, and thus so boring. “The problem is that everyone answers the questions the same way, and that’s not we want, we want to know what Hazlewood actually thinks, not what Cricket Australia thinks, but that’s the way it’s gone,” he snarls.
What we’d all like to hear, I suggest, is more from Merv Hughes, so why isn’t he on Channel Nine, livening things up a bit?
“I would love to be involved and I do think the commentary needs to be revamped, and I’ve got my hand up, but ultimately it’s not my decision, if you don’t get the phone call, it doesn’t matter what you do,” he says.
“I mean we all hate Kevin Pietersen, because he played for England, and he’s South African, but his insight into the game is fantastic. But look at what we used to have, at what Richie Benaud, God rest his soul, did for the game, and Bill Lawry, I don’t think I ever heard him criticise an Australian player, we could be eight for 90 and he’d still find something positive to say.”
It turns out there’s something of a mutual admiration society between Bill and Big Merv, who still chuckles at the famous Billy Birmingham line: “Merv! Merv! Get him up here, I want to boof him!”
“I do love Billy Birmingham, he’s obviously a lover of cricket, just think of the hours he listened to, to come up with that stuff, and they do say it’s the highest form of flattery, that kind of mimicking,” he says, with a guttural chuckle.
“I mean we all hate Kevin Pietersen, because he played for England, and he’s South African, but his insight into the game is fantastic.
When it comes to talking about his own playing days, and his memories of his teammates, Hughes is hugely passionate and speaks with the kind of insider’s knowledge that could make any cricket fan go weak with joy.
He has huge wraps on his favourite players, and even more so on the ones that made touring fun; the comedians and the party animals, with Tim May, Ian Healy and the incomparable Steve Waugh at the top of his list.
“Steve Waugh was an absolute gun, and I only played with him at the start of his career, before he was captain, but that’s why he stood the test of time,” he says.
“The perception that people have of Steve and Mark Waugh, it’s not reality. We’ve got to know Mark now through his commentary, but Steve remains a mystery because we don’t hear from him much, and it’s all very serious when you do. But the perception couldn’t be further from the truth because he’s so much fun.
“The three blokes you want to be around after we won a Test were Tim May, Ian Healy and Steve Waugh because they were so funny, they were better than the Three Stooges. And they really liked a good time.
“What you do at work is very different to what you do socially, I think we’re all guilty of that. And perception is overrated; you're forming an opinion of someone you’ve never met. But when I see those boys now, even if it’s been a few years, it’s like yesterday. They’re just so much fun to be around, and we shared some great times.”
For now, Hughes remains an armchair pundit, and an enthusiastic host for overseas tours with fans, a role he sometimes shares with another colourful character – Kerry O’Keefe. And when it comes to watching this season’s Ashes he’ll be glued to every ball, just like the rest of us.
“I think the only difference for me is that I love watching the cricketers as much as the cricket, because when I was a selector it taught me that the game is not important, and the outcome is not important, it’s about watching the players, what they can do as bowlers and batsmen, and that’s what I’m intrigued by – watching them put their plans into place, and how they perform,” he says.
There’s no doubt the game misses Merv Hughes, and the excitement he brought to it, but there’s also no doubt that he will never miss a game, and that he’s ready and waiting to get involved whenever he’s needed.
He might not understand the Barmy Army, but he certainly shares a similar passion for cricket.
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