Australia claim the Basra Ashes
On Friday, England's cricketers suffered two defeats in a single day at the hands of the Australians. At Cape Town, Paul Collingwood's men were rolled over by eight wickets in the World Twenty20, while in Southern Iraq, the soldiers of the First Mechanised Brigade succumbed by the same margin to their antipodean rivals, Overwatch Battlegroup West, at the US Air Force base in Tallil, near Basra.
Tallil may not boast Newlands' immaculate playing surface or the picturesque backdrop of Table Mountain, but few venues in the world can claim to be quite so steeped in History. The ground sits in the shadow of a 4000 year-old Mesopotamian Ziggurat and the ruins of the ancient city of Ur, from where Abraham set out on the journey that marked the earliest beginnings of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Tallil has also become the home to Ashes matches between the English and Australian military contingents working in Iraq. The match is played in aid of charities supporting ex-servicemen and women from the two countries, and also provides a welcome spot of light relief from the challenging and often dangerous work the troops are doing to help the Iraqi Security Forces bring stability and security to the south of the country. Yesterday's game was the second in this series - the Australians had won the first match and the English went into the match desperate for revenge.
The helicopter flying the English team up from their base in Basra was delayed and by the time they arrived in Tallil, the entire Australian Battlegroup were packing up the sides of the little ground and baying for their blood - creating an atmosphere as intense and hostile as anything the MCG could offer. In the searing 43 degree heat of the Iraqi desert, this was no place for the faint-hearted.
Australia chose to bowl on winning the toss, and struck with the second ball of the match when England's captain, Major Giles Malec, edged a fiery delivery onto his own stumps. In a surreal turn of events, Malec was chased from the crease by the Australians' tiger mascot. Corporal "Windy" Miller was the next man in and settled England's nerves with their first runs of the match. However, Australia's tidy line and length was rewarded at the end of the second over when Major Andrew Bates was bowled by Middleton for 3.
England's hopes were lifted as Miller took the attack back to the Australians in partnership with Captain Kemplee Smith, but just as the Aussies were beginning to wilt in the intense heat, Miller missed with a massive swipe and was bowled by Hardy for 18. The situation quickly got worse for England with the wickets of Macleod and Sutthery, as they slipped into dire trouble at 33 for 6.
Smith however, refused to buckle in spite of the sledging from the sidelines from a raucous Aussie crowd. He was joined at the crease by Lt Colonel Andy Barr and the pair ran well between the wickets to piece the innings back together. But England's renaissance was cut short by two sensational pieces of fielding - first a stunning catch at short square leg to remove Barr, followed by a lightning shy from the covers that caught Captain Nick Hyett short of the crease.
Lieutenant Tim Moore, the match organiser, had unwisely informed the home support that his team was here to "tonk your boys back to the Stone Age", and he was given a reception that Kevin Pietersen would have been proud of. Moore did get off the mark with a delightful square cut, but both he and Primus fell to questionable lbw decisions that left both batsmen perplexed and the crowd delighted. Smith kept the innings alive with a massive six over the crowd, but when Trooper Murray was run out by a direct hit, Australia were left needing 94 to win the game.
Murray then opened the bowling alongside Padre Angus Macleod, whom England hoped might conjure up a bit of divine inspiration. But the Australian batsmen settled into their innings without being unduly troubled, cruising to a fifty-run stand before Hyatt replaced Macleod and tempted Thompson into one big swing too many.
The setback didn't seem to cause the crowd too much concern however, and the team's captain, Sergeant Ross, strode out to the crease to a huge roar. Malec responded by turning to the spin of Andy Barr and the change had immediate effect, with Barr removing Ross before he was able to find his groove. The wickets put some spring into the steps of the English bowlers, but they had too few runs to play with and it was left to O'Regan to hit the winning runs and secure the Man of the Match award for his allround efforts.
The match had raised $14,000 for vital service charities and had given the players and watching Battlegroup an exhilarating break from their normal soldiering duties. As the sun set on the Ziggurat, the Australians were able to enjoy the victory with their first beers in three months (the match had to be postponed by a week to ensure the beer arrived on time). Meanwhile the English could reflect on a job well done. Beaten in the match maybe, but never defeated.