No braver person has ever worn the Australian cricket team’s helmet than Damien Thomlinson, the former soldier who took strike in a recent Battle of the Smashers charity match between the Aussies and Kiwis.
Thomlinson, who opened for the Aussies alongside the top-of-the-charts singer Guy Sebastian, lost both of his legs when the Taliban detonated an improvised explosive device [IED] during his tour of duty in Afghanistan with the 2nd Commando Regiment.
However, the 26-year-old stood calmly - and proudly - on his artificial legs as he faced up to former New Zealand opening bowler Daryl Tuffey at Sydney’s Pratten Park.
Thomlinson joined the likes of Sebastian, Tuffey, former Aussie Test cricketer Nathan Bracken; rugby league gladiators Bradley Clyde, Steve Mortimer, Tim Mannah, Suaia Matagi, Tyran Smith, Bronson Harrison; former world champion boxer Daniel Geale; Olympic swimmer Daniel Tranter and UFC heavyweight James Te Huna to raise funds for Veteran s Off The Street Australia – a not-for-profit organisation providing emergency accommodation to some of the 3000 Diggers who are said to be living on the street EVERY night due to personal problems that stem back to their service in Iraq and Afghanistan.
While he was a talented schoolboy cricketer on the NSW Central Coast, Thomlinson described waiting for Tuffey – who took 77 Test wickets - to run in and bowl at him as a nerve-racking experience.
“Daryl is a huge man, so I was thinking of the pace he was going to generate,” said Thomlinson with a laugh. “But, thankfully he was kind to me . . .”
For Tuffey, bowling to someone he openly described as a “hero” was an emotionally-charged experience
“Before the game Damien told me, Guy Sebastian and our friend Tim Freeburn what happened to him in Afghanistan and it was very emotional to listen to him,” said Tuffey.
“It was an honour for us to meet him and it was inspirational to hear everything that he’s achieved since returning home.
“When I saw him at the crease I felt a sense of tremendous admiration for Damien, he was standing on his prosthetics and wearing Nathan Bracken’s Aussie helmet with such an obvious sense of pride.
“And he can bat! He played some really good shots [on his way to a score of 18] and I could tell from watching him that he grew up, as most Australians do, playing cricket.
“The most pleasing thing was all about the day was all of us could see he was thoroughly enjoying being on the field and playing.”
Thomlinson lost his legs during a late night “direct action task” when his vehicle, the fifth in the convoy, ran over an IED. Both of his legs were torn off while his arms were badly broken.
While he has no memory of the incident he credits the quick actions of his comrades for saving his life.
“My mates kept me alive,” he recalled. “It blows doctors’ minds that I’m alive. That was testament to how well and how effective their treatment was on the scene.
“Two other guys got blown out of the same car as me but they still crawled over to me . . . they began to work on me and then there was a network of people who worked on me.
“It was touch and go. I’m a product of having great people around me.”
Since returning to Australia Thomlinson has become a sought after motivational speaker and he’s a successful author.
While he hopes to represent Australia at next year’s winter Paralympics as a snowboarder, his three years at acting school were rewarded when Mel Gibson personally selected him to play a role in his recently released World War II blockbuster, Hacksaw Ridge.
“When we found out Damien’s story, it was like, ‘Wow, we have to get this guy on-board and he was an example to all of us,” Gibson told USA Today.
“Even shooting the battle scenes [where Thomlinson’s character is blown up] was incredibly courageous for Damien, since he had to essentially re-enact what happened to him.”
For all of Thomlinson’s achievements, former Australian cricketer Nathan Bracken said watching the commando stand his ground against the Kiwi attack is seared into his memory.
“I’ve seen some great things in cricket but watching Damien bat . . .and he batted really well, there’s first-class cricketers who’d struggle to play one shot he did when he hammered the ball back over the bowler’s head . . . was very special.
“He and Guy Sebastian got the Aussies away to a great start as our openers and he also did just as well as a bowler, taking a wicket and keeping the Kiwis honest.”
Bracken was so moved by Thomlinson’s story that he gave him his prized Australian helmet as a special man of the match award – an honour that was unanimously endorsed by both the Aussie and Kiwi teams.
“It was unbelievable to feel like my old self again, I loved it,” said Thomlinson of playing cricket. “When I was handed Nathan’s helmet I was speechless . . . it’s a huge gesture and it almost brought me to tears.
“I will never forget it.”
Bracken said the helmet was only small acknowledgement for someone who’d given their all for Australia.
“Damien deserved it,” he said. “People always talk about heroes, the term is thrown about loosely these days, but when I went home after the game I told my family I’d met a genuine hero – and, he was also a good bloke.”
The Aussies and Kiwis played for the Tibby Cotter Cup, a trophy that commemorates the loss of former Test fast bowler Albert “Tibby” Cotter who was killed during the famous cavalry charge at Beersheba by the Australian Light Horse in 1917.
Next year is the 100th anniversary of the battle and while it’s important to commemorate the life of a lost Digger and sporting hero, there’s a push to add Thomlinson’s name to the Cup because those involved in the game believe it’s as important to celebrate the life of the Central Coast cricketer who came home . . .
That’s Damien Thomlinson, the bravest man to have ever donned the Australian cricket team’s helmet.
- Daniel Lane, exclusively for Sportsta.