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Howzat! The Aussie troops bowling over the locals in war zones

Howzat! The Aussie troops bowling over the locals in war zones

One special forces commander and his troops began playing cricket on tours of duty in East Timor, Afghanistan and Iraq – finding the game could both relax them and build alliances with the locals.

“You have come to kill me, haven’t you, Harry?” The question momentarily threw sergeant Harry Moffitt, a team commander with the Australian Special Air Service Regiment, but he grinned at his inquisitor, East Timorese rebel leader Alfredo Reinado. “Nah … we’ve just come to keep an eye on you ratbags.”

Reinado grinned back. It was a reassuring sign from a man with a bounty on his head, who was otherwise consumed with paranoia. He had good reason to be; months later, in February 2007, he would lose five of his men in a firefight with Australian soldiers.

Moffitt wasn’t immune to paranoia, either. While he would drink, smoke and yarn with Reinado on his jungle patio as the sun set each evening, both men slept with a pistol within reach, each believing they might need to wake and use it to shoot the other.

It was 2006 and Moffitt was in East Timor with his small team of SAS soldiers as part of an Australian deployment aimed at stabilising the nascent nation. Reinado was the leader of a rogue military faction whose desertion from the Timorese army had plunged the country into chaos. Moffitt and his special forces soldiers hoped that engaging with Reinado would deter him from plotting more unrest, or at least provide forewarning of trouble.

And so, when Moffitt’s team arrived at Reinado’s mountain stronghold in Maubisse, a neatly kept village in the hills south of Dili, Moffitt did something unusual. From his weapon case he pulled out a cricket bat, a worn and tattered Gray-Nicolls Junior, and suggested a quick backyard game. Initially, it involved just Moffitt’s men and a few villagers. Soon, Reinado’s men began to show interest; cricket is a minor sport in Timor.

“The games brought us together with Reinado and his henchmen,” recalls Moffitt, now 50, who initiated dozens of matches on a dusty strip of soil 50 metres from the rebel leader’s hacienda.

The Timorese were rubbish at cricket but it allowed relationship-building and informal discussions.

Not only did these games lighten the mood, they allowed Moffitt and the team to chat and build rapport with Reinado’s lieutenants as well as the locals. When Reinado would bring an unexpected or unknown visitor to his compound, Moffitt would also urge them to wield the willow, roll their arm over or, at the very least, stand by the pitch until the over was finished. Those few moments of delay provided the SAS team with valuable time to profile their guest.

Reinado and his men dropped their guard while playing. “There wasn’t any chin music [bouncers],” says Moffitt. “Just a lot of friendly banter. It made Reinado realise we weren’t there to knock him off. They were rubbish at cricket but it allowed relationship-building and informal discussions.”

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Over the next decade, a cricket bat became a part of Harry Moffitt’s kit, along with his rifle and pistol, webbing, body armour and night vision goggles. By 2017, he’d carried a total of 11 bats through two deployments to Timor, two to Iraq and seven to Afghanistan.

Moffitt declines to talk about his missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, although the federal government has publicly acknowledged that SAS teams like the one he led were engaged in reconnaissance, intelligence-gathering, and capture and kill missions targeting warlords and Islamic extremists. Moffitt, though, is willing to talk about the extreme stress his team endured. “We were often operating in an intense environment with little sleep and poor nutrition. The cricket matches provided a place to take refuge.”

We told the Taliban to come down for a scratch cricket match. They didn’t accept. They said we would bomb them if they came out of hiding.

After being caught up in a bombing which killed and maimed Afghan civilians, Moffitt remembers returning to base physically and emotionally wrecked. “I said to one of the boys, ‘Let’s have a hit.’ Soon we were having a laugh.”

During a quickly convened game in a valley in southern Afghanistan, Taliban fighters hiding in the mountains began to sledge (via a monitored radio) the Australian soldiers about their cricketing skills – or lack thereof. Moffitt directed the Australians’ translator to radio back a challenge. “We told them to come down for a scratch match. Whoever lost would have to leave the valley. They didn’t accept. They said we would bomb them if they came out of hiding.” Moffitt pauses. “It was probably a smart decision.”

It became Moffitt’s habit during his overseas deployments to have the people he served with sign the bats after playing with them. He badgered others to sign them as well: Princes Philip and Harry (Harry served in Afghanistan and his grandfather visited coalition troops); the former top coalition commander in Afghanistan, US General Stanley McChrystal; and John Howard, who as prime minister also visited the war-torn nation to meet military leaders and soldiers. Reinado unwittingly signed his name next to the scrawl of the Timorese politician he was later accused of trying to assassinate, José Ramos-Horta. Reinado was shot dead in 2008 by Ramos-Horta’s guards.

Then-prime minister Kevin Rudd signed one of Moffitt’s bats at Yarralumla when SAS trooper Mark Donaldson received the nation’s highest honour, the Victoria Cross, in January 2009. “I went to get some beers from the kitchen at Yarralumla because all they had was champagne,” Moffitt recalls. “When I came back, I saw Rudd had taken my seat and was chatting awkwardly to some of the boys. I went up and lightly jabbed him in the arm and said, ‘Hey mate, get out of my seat.’ ” A speechless Rudd turned red as grins spread on the faces of the soldiers sitting around the table.

When a bat needed replacing, Moffitt improvised. He hand-carved one in his collection, and once dispatched an Afghan working as a CIA translator over the border to Pakistan to buy a bat. When the Afghan returned, he asked shyly if he could have a bowl. “He spat the ball out the back of his hand on a good length,” says Moffitt. “He was bloody good.” In fact, there were “gun cricketers” all over Afghanistan, where the game – brought to the country in the 1990s by refugees returning home from camps in Pakistan – is extremely popular.

More than mementos, the bats began to symbolise in Moffitt’s mind something greater. Beyond the political rhetoric and nationalism, they came to represent the essence of Australia’s most hallowed military regiment: the fusion of extreme physical and mental resilience with a larrikin streak; placing teamwork and quietly getting a job done over medals and glory; and of a mateship that grows stronger with the fear or realisation of death.

Moffitt’s most treasured bat bears the name of Sean McCarthy, an SAS signaller killed in July 2008 after the vehicle he was travelling in was blown up by a hidden roadside bomb in southern Afghanistan. Moffitt was the driver. He’s relived the mission over and over again, wondering if there was a different route he could have or should have taken. He had plenty of time to ponder this question; his own blast injuries left him hospitalised in Perth for weeks. “People say I should have turned left,” he says quietly. “It haunts me, but it is irrelevant now.”

This story is meant to be about a soldier’s love of cricket, but when it moves to McCarthy, the sparkle in Moffitt’s eyes is extinguished and, whether he knows it or not, he seems briefly swallowed by grief.

Moffitt recounts the last moments of his mate’s life, the desperate efforts of his SAS comrades to revive the broken body of a man who had earned a commendation for bravery on an earlier tour. “The boys did everything they could. They were amazing, the medics, mates, everyone.”

In hospital, Moffitt was told by his doctor that his leg may need to be amputated due to a post-blast infection. It forced him to think of a life outside the military, the genesis for his decision to later launch the Wanderers Education Program to provide serving soldiers with education opportunities. Moffitt, who only recently retired from the Australian Army, says much more should be done to help soldiers successfully transition out of the military.

Moffitt ultimately overcame his infection and was told by his doctor that he would keep his leg and stay in the SAS. “My brother came around and when he saw what the infection had done to me, he cried,” he recalls matter-of-factly.

The light returns to Moffitt’s face as he describes McCarthy’s dislike of cricket but willingness to still have a bowl and bat. “Sean was an incredible human. He was just so alive. He lived in the moment and was so positive.” Prior to his death, Moffitt was helping the signaller prepare for the gruelling SAS selection course to became a fully “beret qualified” SAS operator. “I don’t doubt he would have passed it. He wasn’t just very fit; he was very smart and had an amazing work ethic.”

Moffitt often thinks about a moment in a cricket match a few hours before the blast that killed his mate. Moffitt is at the crease, GrayNicolls Excalibur in hand. Saed, the team’s Afghan interpreter (who lost both legs in the explosion), is bowling right-arm seamers. Another team member, also in the vehicle at the time of the blast, is fielding at second slip. The shot is framed by the mountains around Chora and the Baluchi Pass in southern Afghanistan, rugged outcrops which form the backdrop to Australia’s longest war and the loss of 41 Diggers, towering reminders of a country and society that would not be pacified no matter how much blood was spilled.

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This cricketing moment is captured in a photo Moffitt stumbled upon many months later – and which opens this story. It’s more than a moment in time. In a place where death was always waiting to lay waste to young lives, it records a moment of unbridled life.

The soldier taking the photo was Sean McCarthy.
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