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February 11, 2009
Nothing could prepare Nathan Bracken for the experience. The morning after he had celebrated his 100th one-day international for Australia with a series-levelling victory over New Zealand, Bracken and his Australian team-mates stood amongst the injured, the bereaved and the displaced from the devastating Victorian bushfires that local police fear have claimed 300 lives.
"You can watch the reports and think you have an understanding of what's going on," Bracken said. "But it's not until people are standing in front of you telling their stories that it really hits you."
The previous evening, the Australian vice-captain Michael Clarke proposed that the team fly to Melbourne to lend their support to the bushfire relief effort. Clarke's call came on a day in which the Australian cricket community had raised an estimated $7 million for victims of the blazes, and was enthusiastically embraced by team-mates.
But few could have envisaged the sights, smells and stories that would confront them. By Wednesday afternoon, having spent several hours at the Whittlesea emergency recovery centre and the burns unit of the Northern Hospital in Epping, a member of the squad phoned Cricinfo from the team bus. "I have never seen it more subdued in here." he said. "It has been a confronting day for everyone."
Hours earlier, the Australians arrived in Whittlesea and met with victims and relief workers behind closed doors. The contrast could not have been more stark. On Tuesday, the Australians had roamed the lush green outfields of the Adelaide Oval, cheered and revered by a parochial South Australian crowd. Now, they stood amongst the scorched earth of rural Victoria, speaking with those who have lost loved ones and homes.
"There are people who have spent their whole lives working for their home, and then saw it all taken away in 30 minutes," Bracken said. "I was speaking to one lady who had lost her father, and she burst out in tears. All I could do was give her a hug. There is just a lot of people hurting.
"There is an incredible spirit. I was speaking to two girls who had lost everything, and yet they were talking about giving their vouchers away to a friend of theirs who had lost her cousin. Family are helping family and neighbours are helping neighbours. Your heart goes out to all of them."
After lunch, the Australians reverted to what they knew best - a game of cricket against the locals, which brought much needed levity to those who have had little to smile about in recent days. The team then ventured to the burns unit at Epping's Northern Hospital for an unannounced visit. Traumatised patients and exhausted staff apparently welcomed the distraction to mingle with their sporting heroes, and the opportunity to talk cricket, not fires.
"It has been an amazing day in many ways, and we probably didn't even see the worst of it.," Bracken said. "We didn't go to where the fires went through towns, but to where all the people were. It was unbelievably hard to hear all the terrible stories, and I can't even imagine what it's like for the firefighters and rescue workers who are having to go into these devastated areas. They're the heroes."
The day ended with a flight to Brisbane ahead of Friday's Chappell-Hadlee decider. The Australians are unlikely to make many changes to their line-up from Tuesday's match in Adelaide. Which is not to say they are unchanged.
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