Qantas Tour of England - ODIs
Aussies humbled by Western Front tour
Australia's ODI squad honours fallen soldiers at World War I historic sites in Belgium, France
Andrew Ramsey Senior Writer
4 June 2018, 05:01 AM AEST
A century after cessation of the war that was supposed to end all future conflicts, Australia's cricketers embarked on a quiet pilgrimage to honour a past generation of young men who fought and fell on the now silent battlefields of Belgium and France.
Months in the planning, and co-ordinated with neither formality nor ceremony, the three-day visit sought to evoke an awareness of history beyond that spelled out upon dressing-room honours boards the cricket world over.
And to mark the start of a year-long journey that the players and their accompanying support staff dream will culminate in them lifting – for a remarkable fifth time in six attempts across two decades – the ICC World Cup in London come July 2019.
While the personnel Australia takes into that quadrennial tournament starting in the UK next May will surely change over the coming 12 months, the learnings they absorb from the villages and cemeteries, from the memories and memorials of recent days will likely remain within the core personnel that contests the trophy.
And it is that sense of shared mission that organisers of the low-key trip, first floated last January when the schedule for this year's Indian Premier League was unveiled, hope will galvanise the group by utilising some rare flexibility in the international touring schedule.
Australia teams have pondered the prospect of visiting wartime sites of national significance – most conspicuously the Western Front and Turkey's Gallipoli Peninsula – in the lead-up to previous UK tours for the Ashes in 2015 and last year's ICC Champions Trophy.
But on both occasions, the proximity of playing commitments to the start of training requirements in the UK meant such a sojourn was logistically impossible.
While last year, there was even less available time between the IPL final (in which then captain Steve Smith was involved) and the ODI tournament's start.
Given the futility of staging a team bonding exercise without a full cohort, the plan was thus shelved until this year's visit which allowed a clear 17 days between the IPL and Australia's first fixture of the five-ODI, one-T20I Qantas Tour of the UK.
Consequently, the team's brains trust began exploring a possible itinerary that captured as many points of poignant significance as was practical, and capitalised on the team's proximity to continental Europe.
A proposal that was embraced and endorsed by new coach Justin Langer and captain Tim Paine.
"It was a really humbling experience, offering great learning and perspective," Bupa Support Team men's team manager Gavin Dovey told cricket.com.au.
"The idea to do this had been in the pipeline for quite a while. Not only was it a chance to honour and remember those who served our country over 100 years ago, but also an opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of our national identity.
Glad this was still done after all the work that went it to it for months of prep. Love the history and thank you to the men and women that served our country .They made our country what it is today. Thank you to all service men and women #Australia @CricketAus @AustralianArmy. https://t.co/ClzfH0TdzH— Darren Lehmann (@darren_lehmann) June 3, 2018
"JL (Langer) has made it clear that not only does he want to develop great cricketers, but he wants to develop great Australians.
"So I'm pleased that what we had been planning for some time aligned strongly to that, because there's no doubt those who served on the Western Front were some of our country's finest.
"It was good for the boys to hear about the soldiers' stories, what they endured and sacrificed, and why and who they did that for - particularly as we start a bit of a new journey together."
In keeping with the excursion's premise as an act of civic recognition rather than an ambassadorial deployment, a bulk of the party donned civilian-wear rather than team travel kit, and the sole ceremonial component was their involvement in the nightly tribute at Menin Gate where a wreath of remembrance was silently laid.
It featured neither the historic recreations or controversial slouch hats of then skipper Steve Waugh's outfit on their pre-Ashes visit to Gallipoli in 2001, or the formal wreath-laying ceremony performed by Ricky Ponting's men at Villers-Bretonneux ahead of their UK campaign four years later.
Both of those were whistle-stop affairs as dictated by the schedule, but the 2018 iteration allowed for a more complete examination of the scale and the sacrifices of the Western Front campaign that raged for four years from August 1914, in often hellish conditions.
And which, by war's end, had claimed the lives of more than three million people (mostly young men) with a further 8.4 million wounded on both sides of the conflict.
The 15-man Australia squad, with an average age of almost 28, were steeped in the stories of heroic acts and heinous casualties among the Australian Imperial Forces, whose average age on enlisting for World War I was barely 24.
Their three-day itinerary included locations such as Fromelles (where on a single day's fighting in July 1916, almost 2,000 members of the Australian 5th Division were slain) and Passchendaele (where in two months of fighting in late 1917 amid thick mud that rendered men, machines and animals immobile, more than 30,000 Australians were killed, wounded or gassed)
They visited the Tyne Cot cemetery and memorial (the largest Commonwealth War Graves Commission with almost 12,000 Allied servicemen buried within), and Menin Gate at Ypres, which has hosted a rendition of The Last Post every evening since 1929 – save for the four years of German WWII occupation.
Having completed the battlefield tour in the role of Australian citizens more so than cultural attaches, the group returned to London to begin preparations for their first ODI against the world's top-ranked one-day team (England) on their home patch at The Oval, in south London on June 13.
One year, one month and five miles from Lord's on the opposite bank of the River Thames, where custodianship of the 2019 World Cup will be decided on a summer Sunday afternoon.
ODI squad: Tim Paine (c), Aaron Finch (vc), Ashton Agar, Alex Carey, Travis Head, Nathan Lyon, Glenn Maxwell, Shaun Marsh, Michael Neser, Jhye Richardson, Kane Richardson, D'Arcy Short, Billy Stanlake, Marcus Stoinis, Andrew Tye
T20 squad: Aaron Finch (c), Alex Carey (vc), Ashton Agar, Travis Head, Nic Maddinson, Glenn Maxwell, Jhye Richardson, Kane Richardson, D'Arcy Short, Billy Stanlake, Marcus Stoinis, Mitchell Swepson, Andrew Tye, Jack Wildermuth
Qantas Tour of England
June 7: Warm-up v Sussex, Hove (D/N)
June 9: Warm-up v Middlesex, Lord's
June 13: First ODI, The Oval (D/N)
June 16: Second ODI, Cardiff
June 19: Third ODI, Trent Bridge (D/N)
June 21: Fourth ODI, Durham (D/N)
June 24: Fifth ODI, Old Trafford
June 27: Only T20, Edgbaston (D/N)
Qantas T20I tri-series Tour of Zimbabwe
Sunday, July 1: Zimbabwe vs Pakistan
Monday, July 2: Pakistan vs Australia
Tuesday, July 3: Australia vs Zimbabwe
Wednesday, July 4: Zimbabwe vs Pakistan
Thursday, July 5: Pakistan vs Australia
Friday, July 6: Australia vs Zimbabwe
Sunday, July 8: Final