In search of the beer snake at the Cricket World Cup

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WEST BRIDGFORD, England -- The woman behind the stadium bar readied the beer tap with one hand. With the other, she grabbed a hard plastic cup that had the logos of the Cricket World Cup stamped all over it.

My face fell.

"It's a collectible cup!" she said brightly. Confused by my sudden sadness, she persisted. "It's ... nice?" she tried, but I was inconsolable.

I didn't want a collectible cup. I didn't even really want a beer (it was 10:48 in the morning). I had come to this match, Australia against Bangladesh, with a single-minded purpose, an unshakable focus:

I wanted to see a beer snake. And that souvenir cup was ominous.

I knew it was a long shot. Beer snakes are the giant squids of aggressive, alcohol-inspired performance art these days, the sort of creature people talk about but rarely actually see in the wild. Their slippery skins are formed from hundreds of empty, flimsy, throw-'em-away plastic beer cups -- not the hard, multi-use, Earth-friendly types. As a result, the snakes no longer slither through the countryside's arenas and stadiums the way they once did.

For snake watchers, the truth is unavoidable: Environmentalism -- smart, thoughtful, important, progressive environmentalism, it should be said -- has rendered the beer snake necessarily endangered.

And yet still: Sports present us all the time with circumstances where our rational heads are pitted against our impulsive hearts, and so it was for me again here. I knew I probably wouldn't see a beer snake, and I knew that was almost surely a good thing. But like the thousands of people who roam the forests year after year, certain that this will be the time they sight the elusive Sasquatch, I arrived at Trent Bridge cricket ground full of hope.

Maybe this would be a rare day when the old flimsy cups would be in use, I thought. Maybe the Australian fans, who are generally credited with discovering the beer snake, would take the souvenir cups and band together here in the name of science to create a newer, firmer, significantly more-expensive type of sudsy reptile that would leave the world awestruck.

"Nah, mate," Josh Norris, an Australian fan from Sydney told me beneath the stand as the Bangladeshis bowled. He tried his best to be gentle. "The snakes are dead," he said.

We shared a solemn moment. Sydney is a holy ground for beer snakes, the place where, in 2013, a group of like-minded (and like-intoxicated) fans celebrated a rain delay during a match against Sri Lanka by creating the anaconda of beer snakes; the beast reportedly stretched 575 feet -- that's more than a tenth of a mile -- and is recognized as the world's longest.

"It's a very Australian thing," Anna Groen, also from Sydney, explained to me. "We're pretty stupid sometimes, and we like to drink and try things. Even at university, we'd finish the night by stacking the cups."

Despite having roots in Australia though, beer snakes -- at their peak -- were able to survive in all types of climates. They surfaced at cricket matches in South Africa and all over England, in the Canadian Football League and even at the occasional soccer game.

In the late aughts, however, cricket and stadium officials began to try to tamp down on beer snakes in an effort to make the crowd experience at matches more accessible, catering as best they could to casual fans and children and others who might not, say, want a bunch of people around them holding dripping plastic cups directly over their heads.

But enforcement was loose. Snakes still thrived, if not quite as often. It wasn't until more recently then, as environmental concerns became more widespread, that the beer snake's natural habitat became truly threatened. In 2015, for example, officials at Surrey, a club which plays at The Oval in London, mandated multi-use cups at all stadium bars after a study showed that using the old cups meant they threw away 1.3 million disposable cups per season.

"That was a really scary thought," Richard Gould, Surrey's chief executive, told The Telegraph in 2018. "That was my lightbulb moment."

Of course, it was. And, of course, it all makes sense. On balance, beer snakes aren't great: not for fans who prefer their views not be blocked and not for fans who prefer their hair not be soaked in backwash. Beer snakes are also wasteful and harmful to the future of our planet. Eliminating them is logical.

Except there is something still fascinating about them, too, something alluring even if it's obvious they're not truly of this time. If dinosaurs still walked the earth, after all, it would be, overall, a bad thing. But wouldn't it also be amazing because there would be dinosaurs walking the earth?

This is how it is for modern beer snake aficionados now, the changes to the stadium ecosystem leaving them with mostly memories, myths and imagination to bandy about. Will Parrish, who lives in Liverpool, fondly recalled building a beer snake at Manchester's Old Trafford cricket ground in 2017, a behemoth that was so impressive one of the players tweeted about it after the match.

The craft of building a serpent, Parrish said, is a true art form -- "a good beer snake doesn't build itself" -- and the camaraderie that comes with sections of inter-mixed fans working together to build their plastic python is unmatched in other sports. In soccer, for instance, opposing fans rarely speak kindly to each other let alone help each other create wet, non-biodegradable novelty reptiles.

The beer snake's disappearance leaves Parrish feeling something is missing.

"It's a massive shame," he said. "I get the reasoning behind it, but it's such a great tradition at Old Trafford. We went back there ... last year, and while it was still a great day out, it wasn't quite the same."

And that was why, even as the Bangladeshi fans created a wonderful, raucous racket at Trent Bridge on the day I was there, I found myself constantly looking over to the smaller set of Australian fans, peering to see if there might be even an inkling of a snake.

One group, seated not far from me, appeared to be my best hope. They cheered. They drank. And when the lunch break arrived, they put their cups one inside another inside another inside another as my eyes widened.

I sat up straight, craned my neck, leaned forward. Was it the start of something? Was it a beginning?

No. They grabbed their cups and headed off to the food court, without even a look at the other empties in the section around them. I sighed. It wasn't a beer snake. It wasn't even a worm.