<
>

Australians pay their respects in Belgium and France

A rainbow frames the Australian flag during a match in Belfast Brian Lawless / © PA Photos

If the timing of the Australian team's visit to the First World War battlefields of the Western front was coincidental with the start of a new era for the side, it was still quite fitting for the group to be humbled by newfound knowledge of history, and to get a fresh perspective from outside the team "bubble".

A three-day tour of Western France and Belgium, culminating in the squad's participation in the evening ceremony at the Menin Gate in Ypres, had been a discussion point for team manager Gavin Dovey and former coach Darren Lehmann for quite some time, but the Newlands ball-tampering scandal ensured that it would be undertaken by the first touring team helmed by Justin Langer.

This, in turn, provided a link to a couple of rather different Australian team trips to scenes of conflict - Gallipoli in 2001 and France in 2005 - that Langer participated in as a player. There had been criticism in 2001 particularly, as the team donned military slouch hats and re-enacted a photograph of cricket being played on Shell Green, but this time the visit was more immersive and low-key, devised to generate deeper understanding of events of more than a century ago.

The image of the national team took an amighty battering in South Africa, costing Steven Smith and David Warner their leadership positions and alongside Cameron Bancroft their Cricket Australia contracts. But the sight of a humbled successor Tim Paine reading the ode taken from Laurence Binyon's poem "For the Fallen" at the Menin Gate, before Aaron Finch, Alex Carey, Jhye Richardson and D'Arcy Short laid wreaths, presented a contrasting picture.

"We've come over to have a look at the Western Front, something that's been in motion for probably a couple of years now. We thought was a good idea for the team to come over as young Australian men to retrace the steps of some really brave Australians over 100 years ago now," captain Paine said. "It's been a really great exercise for us as young men to come and learn more about that, and there's lots we can take out of it.

"We've seen so much stuff that I think we'd never thought we would have seen. I think it's been amazing to go through the cemeteries and the battlegrounds and see how well they've been maintained. It's been a real eye-opener, just the magnitude of it and the size of the cemeteries, there's so much we can take away from it individually and as a group.

"As a group [we're] coming over to England now to play cricket, we're obviously not going to war, but I think the importance of the things we can take from the men who came over so long ago is the teamwork and the mateship and the hard work and the things they did for each other. So we're very lucky to be here playing a game of cricket, they came over here in really trying circumstances and did their best, and I think that's something we can take from it going to England this week."

Paine, Langer and the rest of the squad spent time at battlefields including Fromelles and Passchendaele, two sights of enormous sacrifice by Australian troops amid the wider bloodbath of Allied offensive operations. Also contemplated was the vastness of the Tyne Cot cemetery and memorial, Pozieres, Amiens, Villers-Bretonneaux, and the Menin Gate, dedicated to the memory of more than 54,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers who died in the campaigns around the Ypres salient but whose bodies were never found.

Some measure of the affect of these places came when Paine prepared for his reading of the ode as part of the nightly Menin Gate remembrance ceremony. "I was fine going down there because I thought it was a bit smaller than what it was. But once I got there and was introduced to the people who were running it, the lady said 'have you got a hand card so you can read it out?' I said 'no I'm all good, got it in the mind' and she said, 'I think it'd be a good idea if you took a card up, we've had army generals here before who've forgotten the words'. So thankfully I took a hand card up with me, because as soon as I stood up there I actually forgot the first line.

"It was a bit overwhelming to be honest, I was really privileged as a young Australian cricketer getting to stand where we were last night. To read the ode is a bit of an honour to the people who have come over here and fought so hard for us. I probably didn't realise again the magnitude of that until we got there. I was expecting just us and a handful of people. To see so many people there, and something that's done every night there, it was amazing, and the magnitude of it hit me when I walked out to read the ode. I realised how privileged and lucky I was to be given the right to go and do that."

After the trip to mainland Europe, the touring party returned to London for more typical training preparation ahead of their five-match ODI series against England, with two warm-up matches to be played against county sides. Paine reckoned that the experience would doubtless enhance his efforts alongside Langer to foster a new attitude in the Australian side, as they juggle the demands of performance but also respect.

"The main purpose of the trip was young Australian men coming over and trying to learn more about our history," Paine said. "But one of the things, certainly, we've got out of this trip is two days together as a team and getting to know each other and talking to people and each other about things other than cricket, which we don't actually get to do. It's been a really worthwhile exercise, not just learning about our history, but from a team aspect to get to know people [from the cricket set-up] outside of cricket."