“Developing cricket in Ukraine has almost been an obsession”

"Developing cricket in Ukraine has almost been an obsession"

In the early hours of Friday, as the Ukrainian military desperately tried to repel a large-scale Russian invasion on the outskirts of the country’s capital, Kiev, Kobus Olivier went into self-preservation mode in his seventh-floor apartment. near downtown.

“I put a mattress with cushions on top to barricade the windows in case there was an explosion outside, so the glass wouldn’t break in the room,” said Olivier, general manager of the Ukrainian Cricket Federation, to ESPNcricinfo. “No one had taken it seriously in the weeks leading up to it. Everyone thought it was Russian propaganda. When I walked my dogs on Thursday morning, I heard huge explosions and I ran straight to my apartment. It got very real. It’s a terrifying feeling. and you feel helpless.”

The self-confessed ‘cricket nomad’, who has been credited with fueling a surprising rise in the sport in Ukraine, has so far remained remarkably stoic given the grim situation. Improved actions by his compatriots in New Zealand provided a much-needed momentary distraction for Olivier, who played domestic cricket in South Africa and for 14 years was director of cricket at the University of Cape Town, where Graeme Smith moved up the ladder.

“Guys who come back long after the first loss in the test lifted me up…[Sarel] Erwee’s centenary has given me comfort,” he said. “I keep an eye on cricket to help me through this horrible situation.”

As panicked residents tried to flee Kiev on Thursday, leading to chilling images broadcast around the world of a traffic jam, Olivier decided to retreat to his home. He couldn’t leave behind his four dogs and also give up cricket, which he had helped build from scratch in his adopted country. So he emptied his bank account, exchanged his money for US dollars and stocked up on food for a month.

“Developing cricket in Ukraine has almost been an obsession,” said Olivier, who in his day job is headmaster of a private school in Kyiv. “I’ve worked so hard, every day, for the past few years.

“When I go to school the children always say ‘when do we play cricket’. Just two days before the bombings it was a beautiful sunny day but still only 5 degrees Celsius. The children asked me if we could play cricket outside so we did and they just loved it.

“If I left, I don’t know if I could come back. It would be so sad to give up cricket here.”

Olivier moved to Kyiv four years ago as part of a career change to take a break from cricket, having notably served as chief executive of Cricket Kenya, national youth coach in the Netherlands and setting up academies in Dubai.

The only cricket played so far in Ukraine was that of Indian medical students, who played among themselves. A few months into his new job, in an effort to pique the interest of students bored of learning English, Olivier sought a left-field approach and unveiled a game they had never heard of.

“I don’t know if our cricket oval will survive the bombardment. It’s a new ground with pavilions being put up and there’s a nice indoor facility with nets to be put up. This was going to be our cricket headquarters …I’m not sure now”

Olivier on cricket facilities in Kharkiv

“I decided to show them cricket and try to help them learn English in a fun environment,” Olivier said. “Luckily I had a plastic cricket set with me. They thought cricket was croquet and had never seen it before. I told them it was like baseball but more exciting. The kids loved it.”

The mysterious bat-and-ball sport has quickly taken off across the school and beyond, to the point that Ukraine is set to become an associate member at the ICC’s annual general meeting in July. . Olivier believed that Ukraine had met the ICC’s strict membership criteria, which includes the junior and female development requirement, leading to invaluable funding and T20I status.

Without sources of funding – cricket is not considered an official sport by the Ukrainian government – Olivier had to draw on his reservoir of influential connections to provide equipment and clothing.

“We submitted a final request to the ICC and it ticked all the boxes,” he said. “We have done everything we can. We are looking at $18,000 per year (ICC funding) if this is successful. But we want to use the membership to earn our own money as we can then approach sponsors of which we are an associate member ICC and will play international cricket through T20I.

“Without a membership we have little credibility and we basically play unofficial cricket in the park.”

Developments over the past few days have halted the momentum and there is an unknown for the future of Ukrainian cricket, although a tireless Olivier has remained positive. “If it was closer to July, then the ICC might be uncertain about giving us associate membership,” he said. “No one knows what will happen after this, but we still have time. The cricket program will continue.”

While he remained hopeful of becoming an associate member, Olivier’s main concern centered on the Ukrainian cricket center in Kharkiv, the country’s second largest city and a major target for invading Russian forces.

“I don’t know if our cricket oval will survive the bombardment,” Olivier said. “It’s a new ground with pavilions being put up and there’s a nice indoor facility with nets to be put up. This was going to be our cricket headquarters…I’m not sure now.”

In the midst of such a difficult situation, Olivier finds his strength in the determination of the hardened locals, especially the young people with whom he has established such an unlikely bond through cricket.

“People here are tough and tough, they are survivors,” he said. “Cricket has really spread to youngsters because they want to try something new. We have the ambition that the senior men’s and women’s teams in Ukraine will be made up mainly of local players by the next decade. girls in particular took up cricket remarkably quickly.

“I just hope for the best. There’s not much else to do.”

Tristan Lavalette is a Perth-based journalist