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Last Updated: Monday, 17 September 2007, 10:39 GMT 11:39 UK
Play delayed by rocket attack
British Army's cricket team
Who needs Flintoff and Co?
Fun is in short supply for British forces on tour in Iraq, so a cricket match near Basra between an Army XI and the nation's sporting rival Australia provided a welcome tonic - and a slightly surreal experience.

Not many Ashes clashes start with a rocket attack.

But not many are played amid the rocks and rubble of southern Iraq.

A team of XI from the British Army were foolish enough to think the desert might've given them the advantage over Australia in a cricket match with a difference.

I dived for cover between two large cricket bags
Maj Paul Bates
But the toss was a sign of things to come. Maj Paul Bates called "Skippy" but the coin fell down on "rising sun" - not the ideal start to the Ashes clash, Iraq-style.

"What kind of coin was that anyway?" he muttered as, head held pointedly high, he walked past a pile of rocks towards the "boundary".

Amid the sweat, pain and anxiety of an operational tour of Iraq, one young British officer, Lt Tim Moore, had taken it upon himself to organise a "clash of the titans" cricket match.

But not for him a small-scale knockabout between the British regiments. Instead, he set about staging the Op Telic (the name given to the Iraq Operation) Aegis Ashes with British soldiers trying to retain some sort of dignity against the arch enemy, in this case, soldiers from the Australian army.

Surreal

His tenacity secured five sponsors and cricket kit and strips from both the England and Wales Cricket Board and Cricket Australia. No mean feat when telephone calls and e-mail connections are, at best, sporadic.

The "Ashes in the Desert" was the British Army's 1 Mechanised Brigade against the Overwatch Battlegroup West 3 from Darwin, Australia.

But as the British team gathered outside its base in Basra, keen to reverse the memories of a miserable summer of English cricket back home, alarms sounded that rockets were inbound.

"I dived for cover between two large cricket bags - the best cover around," said Bates, second-in-command of Wiltshire-based 1st Regiment Royal Horse Artillery.

Captains Major Giles Malec and Sgt Will Ross
Defeat. Again.
"It was at that moment, I knew it was going to be a surreal day!"

Unruffled, the team boarded their helicopter to Talil 250km west of Basra.

The first job was to survey the track - a slab of concrete with a mat on top.

"As we approached the pitch, we could see about 200 vocal Australian soldiers sitting around the boundary. I'm telling you, the MCG on Boxing Day had nothing on this." said Bates.

Defeated in the toss, Bates and English skipper Maj Giles Malec were put into bat.

That had four written all over it - until it got stuck in the rocks at long off
Commentary on PA
"Malec faced the first ball of the match... and was out," said Bates. "Yes, the skipper went for a Royal Duck which pretty much laid down the marker for the rest of the match. We limped on to 94 all out."

And with no Freddie Flintoff nights-on-the-town to blame, what was the English excuse for a poor performance?

There were apparently "not many twos up for grabs" because the ball "tended to stick in the sand".

Even the commentary was a little unconventional. "That had four written all over it," the PA boomed, "until it got stuck in the rocks at long off."

And with a temporary toilet stationed behind the bowler's arm, another gem: "Here comes Defreitas from the Toilet End." Hardly Richie Benaud.

The improvised cricket pitch in Talil
The outfield
Even having an Army padre - Angus Macleod - on side didn't help.

"The 'Big Man' seemed to be wearing Australian Gold up there," said Bates. "The Aussies romped home to an eight wicket win in only 8.2 overs.

"There was a certain synergy with the World Twenty20 cricket though - both England v Australia games kicked off at 4pm, both were losses for England and both were by eight wickets."

There was a serious side to the game. With soldiers away from home for many months, on duty up to 20 hours a day and working in tough conditions, sport can be a much-needed escape.

There are 5,500 British troops currently based in Basra though a strategy is in place to bring some home.

Iraqi boy plays cricket
Cricket has also been used to build bridges with locals

They recently moved out of one of their bases at Basra Palace as part of a planned handover to Iraqi control.

And the match also raised $14,000 for two charities, the Army Benevolent Fund and Blesma - the British Limbless Ex-Servicemen's Association.

"It was a bizarre day - but a great day," said Bates. "Among the madness that can sometimes be Iraq, it was a good example of how we can feed 'the moral component' as we call it: Getting some guys out, playing some sport and raising some serious money for charity along the way.

"It's just a shame the result went the wrong way."




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