Darren Cooke is used to spending 85 hours a week in his workshop deep in the Herefordshire countryside, with just his radio and a woodburner for company.
He once worked 35 days in a row without a day off, and has toiled arduously for 25 years.
So why does this larger than life carpenter from the rustic village of Bosbury near the Herefordshire/Worcestershire border put himself through such hardships?
So that he can follow the England cricket team around the world during the English winter.
The first cricket he saw overseas was Australia versus South Africa in a one-day international at the WACA in Perth, in 1997.
“I thought I quite like this. My girlfriend I was with at the time bought me a ticket, I went to watch, and because I was seeing her I thought I know, I can go back to Australia when England are there (for the 1998-99 Ashes) and go and watch England at the WACA. So my first test was in Perth in 1998, about 20th November. England lost in two and a half days, I met a few lads, and the rest was history,” he said.
He has always enjoyed travelling, even from an early age. “I went away when I was 12 to America for a month, and then had a couple of trips around Europe with the boys, and then when I was 25 I travelled round most of Australia on a works visa. I’d been to New Zealand just before that. And that was it. I love travelling just as much now as I did then,” he added, explaining the ease he has with jumping on a plane on a whim, and jetting off to a far-flung corner of the globe to hear the sound of leather on willow.
Does the thought of his next trip motivate him when he is back at home, putting in long hours in the workshop? “ Yeah it does, I can’t wait for it. My honeymoon, as well as a cricket tour is going to be a world trip. We’re pencilling in Dubai, Bali, Australia, three weeks in New Zealand, then Cook Islands or Fiji, Los Angeles and maybe New York on the way home. Travelling’s my biggest motivation.”
So what has been the most memorable cricketing trip he’s been on?
“You’d normally think a winning series, but I’d have to say The Ashes tour in 2002-03, when I did all five tests. I knew I was going to do all five before I got there, and to go and do a lifetime’s dream, because I used to listen to it on the radio but didn’t think I’d ever watch it, and being at the Gabba, the WACA, the MCG, the SCG and the Adelaide Oval, was just a dream come true. Even though we got absolutely smashed! But then we won the fifth test in Sydney.
“Also South Africa in 1999-2000 was an amazing tour. I went there way before the cricket started and spent seven months over there. I travelled through Zimbabwe and Zambia, bungeed over Victoria Falls and ‘Boogie boarded’ down the Zambezi twice. We white water rafted as well. For some sections you could get out and have a swim, then you’d have to get back in as there were crocodiles around. A grade five rapid in a white water raft is something else.”
“My boss wouldn’t let me listen to the cricket on the radio at work because the brick layers didn’t want it on. So I booked a flight on the Friday…then I flew on the Sunday and landed in Karachi.”
Darren was one of a small Barmy Army contingent that witnessed England’s famous win in the dark in the 3rd Test in Karachi, in 2000-01
His first trip to Pakistan in 2000-01 was another memorable experience.
“My boss wouldn’t let me listen to the cricket on the radio at work because the brick layers didn’t want the cricket on. So I booked a flight on the Friday, had to go down to get the visa on the Saturday, and then I flew on the Sunday and landed in Karachi. I spent six nights there, got matey with five lads, three of whom are still some of my best mates now when we go on tour, and it was probably the most boring test match of all time. Apart from the last day which was just amazing. The test turned on the fourth night when Inzamam-ul-Haq got caught on the boundary. Up to then we just couldn’t get him out.
“The first night I was there I got in at about half-past two and they put me in the Presidential Suite. I didn’t sleep all night and just lay there thinking ‘What am I doing here?!’. I remember the bathroom had gold taps, they were so shiny, it cost me £370 just for that one night. I spent about another £130 the rest of the time I was there.
“When we were coming back from Barbados I was talking to one of the guys that bowled for Pakistan on that last evening in Karachi in the dark,” he said, having got to chat with former Pakistan off-spinner Saqlain Mushtaq, now England’s spin bowling coach.
The winter of 2000-01 was something of an Asian odyssey for Darren, then aged 28. “Sri Lanka was probably the most fun that I’ve had. Galle we lost, we went up to Kandy and won, and then we won the last test at the SSC in Colombo, it was red hot and Graham Thorpe got a ton.”
Darren Cooke (left) on tour in Sri Lanka in 2001, a memorable tour for England and the Barmy Army on and off the pitch
“I watched a whole test in Kandy for less than a pound. It cost 22p a day (for a ticket) and it finished on the fourth day. It was about 15-20p for a beer. We had a competition to see who could carry the most beers, and the guy who won carried 29.”
“I remember being in Galle and they’d supplied enough beer that they thought would last for the whole test match. The West Indies and South Africa had just toured, so they thought whatever their supporters had drunk we’ll double it, and that should be enough for the Barmy Army. We got in the ground at 9am and by 10am they were sold out… They were then ordering beer from all over India and telling them to get it to Galle quick, for the Barmy Army to drink.
“I watched a whole test in Kandy for less than a pound. It cost 22p a day (for a ticket) and it finished on the fourth day. It was about 15-20p for a beer. We had a competition to see who could carry the most beers, and the guy who won carried 29,” he added.
However following England in the ‘90s and ‘00s was often rife with disappointments. Such as at the 2003 World Cup.
“England were still in the competition when I landed in Johannesburg, and I managed to get on a minibus down to Bloemfontein which was where England’s next game was going to be. There was no radio on the bus. When we got there a guy said to us ‘What are you doing here? England have just been knocked out!” (England would have advanced to the ‘Super Six’ stage on run rate if Pakistan had beaten Zimbabwe in the final group game, but the match in Bulawayo was rained off and so Zimbabwe went through.)
“I spent three weeks then driving round South Africa. The Garden Route is probably number one, my favourite of all the places I’ve been to in the world, with North-West Australia second, Barbados third and Sri Lanka fourth.
“Somewhere I desperately want to go to again is ‘the Bullring’ (The Wanderers in Johannesburg). That was just different. Because it’s on the Highveld the air’s thinner, I’d only had a couple of pints and I was thinking ‘Why am I feeling this way?’, because you haven’t got so much oxygen in your lungs.”
The Wanderers in Johannesburg, one of Darren Cooke’s favourite grounds.
His cricketing tours during the English winter have taken him to Sri Lanka four times, Australia and South Africa three times each, and New Zealand, Pakistan, West Indies and UAE (Sharjah) once each, so far. He has been to 27 overseas tests in total.
“There were only two pubs in Kandy. They were called ‘The Pub’, and ‘The Pub Royale’. We were in ‘The Pub’ and it was amazing. We were playing cricket in there, it was about as big as a Weatherspoons, and was absolutely rammed. If you were bowling you had to run in from the Ladies’ Toilets, the batsman had an umbrella for a bat, and a stool was the wicket. You’d hit the ball on the legside and it would smash the beer bottles behind the bar, and they just used to throw the tennis ball back at us and we’d carry on. It was mental.”
Aside from the cricket, probably the second most important factor for a member of the Barmy Army is the beer, and finding a decent local watering hole. So what is the best cricketing pub in the world?
““There were only two pubs in Kandy. They were called ‘The Pub’, and ‘The Pub Royale’. We were in ‘The Pub’ and it was amazing. They tried to put the beer prices up by 2p one day so six of us had a picket line outside the pub. Five minutes later they dropped the prices.
“We were playing cricket in there, it was about as big as a Weatherspoons, and was absolutely rammed. If you were bowling you had to run in from the Ladies’ Toilets, the batsman had an umbrella for a bat, and a stool was the wicket. You’d hit the ball on the legside and it would smash the beer bottles behind the bar, and they just used to throw the tennis ball back at us and we’d carry on. It was mental.”
He was a keen club cricketer in his 20s and 30s, so what is the highlight of his own cricketing career?
“Unofficially being the leading wicket-taker on an Ashes tour (in 2002-03 for the Barmy Army XI). They played five ‘tests’, and I played four. I took wickets in Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide and Melbourne,” he said proudly.
As a veteran of so many trips, what would he say to an English cricket fan thinking of following a tour for the first time?
“Do it. The hardest thing about travelling is booking the plane ticket. After that the rest is easy. Another thing I’d say is travel alone. Because that way you’ll meet people and if you definitely want to go you’ll book it. If you travel with somebody else they’ll say ‘I don’t know if I can afford this week let’s book it next week’… you’ll end up never going. Just book it yourself, and you’ll meet people,” he advised.
Which cricketing country that he hasn’t been to would he like to go to next?
“It cover numbers one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine and ten…India. I actually ache, that’s how much I want to go to India. I’m desperate to go. I would like to go and watch the IPL. Just to experience it, just go and experience the mayhem, it’s mental,” he said.
Darren recently got married, so where else would he hold the wedding but on a beach in Barbados, after England’s test match there. Does Mrs. Cooke like cricket though?
“No. But she’s getting to know it. And she wants to go on every cricket tour because she loves travelling. She’ll be on every trip. She won’t be going anywhere near the grounds though. She just wants to sit on a beach.”
Featured Image: Wikicommons.
Thanks to Darren for allowing the use of three of his photos.