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The Cricket Match That Helped Save Thousands Of ANZACs

It was a tiny moment in time. But its impact will last forever

In December 1915, the ANZACs pulled out of Gallipolli after an arduous eight-month campaign which resulted in at least 35,000 Australian and New Zealand casualties.

Ironically, this was the only part of the entire campaign that went off without a hitch. Indeed, not a single man or horse was lost in the evacuation -- and a cricket match was a small but deeply symbolic part of how that happened.

"The [ANZACs] realised they’d been defeated and needed a deception plan to evacuate," Peter Stanley, Professor of History at UNSW Canberra, told 10 daily.

"They were occupying a tiny wedge on the coast, and if the Turks realised that they were leaving, they would have attacked and destroyed them."

So the diggers organised what Stanley calls a series of "silent stunts" designed to make the Turks think it was business-as-usual at the front. And that's why they played a cricket match at Shell Green -- a small plateau high on the Gallipoli battlefield, so-named because it was often shelled by the Turks.

Yes, the ANZACs were just letting off a little steam between attacks by playing their strange foreign game. Or so the Turks were meant to think. In reality, a mass escape would take place under cover of darkness later that night.

But how did the cricket match come about?

There are conflicting reports. Some say it was ordered. Others say it just happened. According to Stanley, an improvised bat was used and it's likely the "ball" was made of rolled-up rags.

"The game at Shell green has been built up in Anzac myth as a triumph of Australian ingenuity and derring-do," Stanley said. "It was certainly an example of the ANZACs' irreverent cheekiness.

"It wasn't really a [full] cricket match. It was a bit of bravado, a bit of play acting. And then shells dropped and they they all scarpered off."

The match may not have lasted long. Turkish artillery fire stopped play, which is slightly scarier than the old cricket-stopper "bad light". But the game's memory lives on.

And then they went and beat England too. Hamish Blair/ALLSPORT

In 2001, Steve Waugh and his Aussies visited Gallipoli and even recreated the image on a Shell Green now overgrown with flowering bushes.

Over time, sport and the Anzac legend has become ever more interwoven. As Professor Stanley explained:

"Anzac Day used to be a sacred day when no sport was played. That changed in the 1980s, as Anzac Day changed from being [only] a day of mourning to a day which is [also] celebration of being Australian. So naturally the two things came together."

You can read more about the Anzac evacuation and the Shell Green cricket match at the Australian War Memorial's official site here.