The day after Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes were demonetised, the Barmy Army’s tour manager Andy Thompson and his friends were pleading with the cashier of a clinic in Rajkot to accept the old currency. They had only these notes left and none of their credit cards was working. They had visited the clinic as a member of the touring party had hurt his leg, which had to be X-rayed and an MRI scan done. They had no money to pay the bill, and the clinic wouldn’t let them leave. Left with no options, Thompson made a frantic call to the hotel he was staying in.
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“We’ll never forget that boy,” says Thompson, referring to the hotel’s assistant manager. “He rushed to the clinic, swiped his debit card and bailed us out.”
That was when these English cricket fans, members of the iconic group that follows the national team around the world, realised how serious the situation was. The demonetisation policy was announced the night before the first Test was to start between India and England in Rajkot, and since that morning, members of the Barmy Army have been trying to get rid of the old currency notes.
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“We knew we were in for some trouble, but we didn’t know it was this grave. We thought we (tourists) would have some exemption. But there was none. We had Rs 55,000 among the 12 of us and a meagre amount in small change. We realised we didn’t even have the money to sustain us in Rajkot. We were so dependent on cash because the cards didn’t work,” he says.
They visited banks in the morning, but were deterred by the long queues, often chaotic. They went to ATMs but most of them were shut. They made desperate calls to the foreign exchange bureau, but met with a cold response. Compounding their woes, the match timings were more or less the same as those at the bank.
“What else could we do, so we went ATM-hunting. It was a city detour for us and I can proudly say that I have walked down the entire city,” chuckles Thompson.
The next few days, he says, were spent researching how they could get rid of the notes without going to the bank. That’s when a few England cricketers came to the rescue. “One among us knew a couple of players well. We came to know that the hotel they were staying in accepted old notes from them. So we’d give it to them and they would help us exchange the money. We got almost Rs 9,000 that way. But then, we can’t give all the notes to them,” says Thompson.
Once again, he says, the assistant manager came to their rescue. “He knew a couple of people in the bank, and he took us through the back door. We felt guilty and shameful, because so many people were standing in the sun and we were given a preferential treatment,” says Thompson.
“If it were to happen in England, if they were to ban 5 and 10 pound notes, there will be riots for sure. Here, I think people were much tolerant, and it busted some of our perceptions of the country,” he says.
Finally, the cricket fans managed to exchange all the old notes they possessed. And by the time they left Rajkot, the new goal was to spend money wisely. “We scrapped some of our touring plans, like visiting the Gir forests to watch the lions. We know we have to be really wise in spending our money from hereon. In a sense, it has been a lesson for us to not over-spend. If we follow the same discipline next year, we can save a lot of money,” grins Thompson.
The tour manager says it was harder for those that joined the party after the demonetisation was implemented than those that were already here.
For instance, Sarah and Mike, a couple that was part of the touring International Cricket Tour group, were stranded at Mumbai Airport for three hours the day after the policy was announced because the foreign exchange counters had no change and ATMs were dysfunctional.
Another Barmy Army member, Nick, was told when he was about to settle the bill after having dinner at a restaurant, that he couldn’t pay in Rs 500 denomination. Finally, he had to take help from a fellow tourist.
Today, says Thompson, the fans agree that the move had made them smarter — money-wise. “Bloody smarter,” he says.