War stops play: Ukraine cricket lives in hope

Representative Image: A Ukranian school and its playground struck down in war
Representative Image: A Ukranian school and its playground struck down in war ©Getty

When the guns eventually fall silent across Ukraine, how will the toll of Russia's war be tallied? Lost lives and destroyed homes will provide the most chilling metrics, but the tendrils of trauma will reach every crevice across society.

How do we quantify the lasting damage caused by a bombed-out theatre in Mariupol? Or a crater in Kharkiv that was once a school? Or from the thousands of artists, singers, poets and athletes who now no longer have a stage on which to perform, or an audience who might be moved by their craft?

As we take stock of the wreckage, it is admittedly parochial to consider the fate of a cricket ball in the country. But when we do count up the casualties of the ongoing war, we may include the Ukrainian Cricket Federation (UCF) among the dead.

"We're holding on for our life," says Kobus Olivier, the UCF's chief executive. "I'm not sure if we'll survive. But we live in hope. The people of Ukraine have not given up on their country. They're fighting and dying to protect it. The spirit of the Ukrainian people is unbelievable. It's because of them that we live in hope."

Olivier, a South African native who has held a variety of jobs around the cricket world, first coaching in Cape Town, then serving as Cricket Kenya's CEO before running a successful academy in Dubai alongside Ravichandran Ashwin, never intended to remain tethered to the sport when he first landed in Kyiv in 2018. He was in need of a break from the heat and the constant grind and went in search of a country with knee-deep snow and a dearth of cricket. Ukraine's capital was the perfect fit.

"I fell in love immediately," he says. "The city had me. It instantly felt like home. I knew I'd be living there permanently soon enough."

He had turned his back on the game and was earning a comfortable living teaching English at a private school. But he couldn't stay separated for long. "Once cricket is in your blood it stays there," he says. He introduced his pupils to the sport before joining with the UCF which has been running cricket in Ukraine since 2000.

In 2020 Olivier buried his father in Kyiv's soil. And though he doesn't hold a Ukrainian passport, he considers the country his home. So when Russian bombs first fell on February 24 this year, the explosions rocked him at his foundation.

"I was terrified when it happened," he says, recounting the moment he heard the blood twisting rumble over the horizon from his quiet suburb of Nyvky in western Kyiv. "It was the most terrifying experience of my life."

He didn't leave immediately. Over the preceding weeks he had stockpiled enough provisions to last for three months and initially planned to wait out the invasion. Hours after the initial assault he told the BBC that "Cricket is keeping me in Ukraine". But as the surrounding suburbs of Kyiv came under constant bombardment, and heavy fighting escalated in the nearby towns of Bucha and Irpin, he realised he had no choice but to flee.

Olivier's escape from Kyiv, which has seen him pass through Poland, Slovakia and Hungary to his current location in Zagreb, Croatia, has gained global interest. Not least because his four travel companions - Tickey, Ollie, Kaya and Jessie - are diminutive dogs that he says, "are like children" to him.

He has appeared on terrestrial television around the world, is currently shooting a documentary about his journey with the ironically named production company "Killer Puppy Media" and is also working on a book on his life in cricket and the UCF's fight for survival.

But this is a story about Ukrainian cricket. As Olivier himself says, "It's always been about the cricket. Well, mostly my dogs, but I care so deeply about the game in Ukraine. It became a passion of mine, almost an obsession. I can't give up now. We were so close to achieving our goal. We'd done so much work to get the recognition we feel we deserve."

At the ICC's AGM in July, the UCF will learn whether or not it has been granted associate membership status. In an impassioned letter to the ICC's chairman, Greg Barclay, which Cricbuzz has seen, Olivier calls on the global governing body to green-light Ukraine's application despite the ongoing conflict.

"It's not our fault what's happened and we can't be held responsible," Olivier says. "We've done everything right. We have a strong youth system, we have an international senior team and had plans to compete in our first international this year [possibly against Sweden, coached by Jonty Rhodes]. We take heart from the fact that Afghanistan is still a full member of the ICC and that they continued to play cricket when there was a war going on there.

"If we don't get membership that is the end of Ukrainian cricket. If the ICC does not give us membership, that would very much be like a Russian missile hitting and destroying Ukrainian cricket."

It would be cruel to deny the UCF entry into the fold at this late stage in its development. The organisation has made great strides since its founding 22 years ago. Under president Hardeep Singh there has been a national tournament held every year since 2006 and the men's senior team lifted the inaugural Mediterranean Cricket League T20 competition in 2016.

The team has mostly been filled by Indian expats, drawn largely from a sizable student base in Kharkiv as well as employees of one of Singh's companies in the country. But in order to win ICC recognition, and become eligible for development funding and gain international Twenty20 status, the UCF needed a more robust youth set-up with a boy's and girls' grassroots programme.

This is where Olivier's input has proved decisive. A donation from the Dubai-based Indian businessman and philanthropist Shyam Bhatia equipped the UCF with soft balls and equipment suitable for small children. Summer camps and winter nets were soon frequented by young Ukrainians whose parents had no relationship with cricket.

With a pipeline in place, Olivier and his team made their bid to the ICC. Then the bombs fell. Families were torn apart. Those who could leave did so. Others were forced to stay behind.

In Kharkiv, where so many of the senior men's team resided, the UCF's digital content creator Binil Zachariah George awoke to a crescendo of missile strikes. Originally from Kerala, he had studied at the National Aerospace University of Kharkiv. He married a Ukrainian woman and worked for Singh's student recruiting company, which is how he became involved with the UCF.

Not that he thought about cricket when his apartment shook with violent force at 4:15 am on February 24. He grabbed his wife, his five-year-old daughter and whatever possessions he could carry and flew out of the door within 15 minutes of the attack. Surrounded by a cacophony of fire and debris, the trio sprinted for the closest underground metro which was designed by the Soviet Union to double as a makeshift bomb shelter.

"It was hell," Zachariah says of the subterranean world, filled with humanity and fear, that would be his home for 11 days. "We could hear explosions above us. We could hear machine gun fire. Our daughter was brave but she was so scared. We were scared. No one knew what was going on. We didn't have time to pack properly and didn't have jackets or blankets for the first few days. There wasn't enough food or water and the electricity was cut. I don't want to go back to those days ever again."

Among the huddling mass were a cluster of the Indian students who resided in Kharkiv. Four of them represented UCF clubs. Some did not. Zachariah took an interest in them all, ensuring they were looked after. But he could do nothing for Naveen Shekharappa Gyanagoudar, a 21-year-old medical student who was killed by a mortar round six days after the first salvo while searching for drinking water above ground.

Zachariah and his family tried to escape after nine days but were unsuccessful. Two days later, they squeezed onto a tightly packed train heading west. "It was chaos," he says. "But if you've ever caught a train in Mumbai you'll probably know what I mean."

They currently live in Warsaw near the Polish capital's airport. Whenever a plane flies overhead Zachariah's daughter is reminded of her harrowing ordeal. "Are the bombs falling again?" She asks her parents. "Are we going to die?" Zachariah is looking for a job, but the engineering posts advertised require some fluency in Polish. He concedes that he may have to accept more menial work in order to provide for his family.

"I haven't thought about cricket to be honest with you," he says. "I'm just focussed on taking care of my wife and daughter. But I know that if it wasn't for the war, we would have got ICC membership. 110 per cent. I hope that all our work won't be wasted, but I'm not optimistic."

There are others who have dedicated their time to the UCF who have had their priorities reshaped by this carnage. Opening batter Wayne Zschech, an Australian priest who lives in Kaharlyk, south of Kyiv, has turned his church into a refugee shelter and worked tirelessly couriering food, water and medicine to those in need. Big-hitting middle order batter Yuri Zagruskiy, one of the few Ukrainians in the team, was in a truck transporting essential goods when a mortar round struck his vehicle. Miraculously, he survived.

Cricbuzz has been in touch with both Zschech and Zagruskiy but, understandably, they have been unable to speak with us. They've promised to do so once the situation on the ground eases, but until then, their time is better spent elsewhere.

Olivier is more than happy to speak on the UCF's behalf. Despite the horrors he has witnessed, and the insomnia inducing testimonies he has heard from friends, he remains affable and upbeat.

He has partnered with Voice of Children, a charity that provides psychological support to Ukrainian children impacted by the war. He provides free English lessons and plays games with them, anything to distract from the haunting visions they have carried with them. He has also started work on devising a way to use cricket as a tool for treating trauma.

Already in the works is a soft ball tournament that will see teams of eight compete across eight overs with teams from Hungary, Croatia, Serbia and Slovakia all taking part. Olivier has also been in contact with some of his Indian players with a plan to fly them to Dubai for a week of training before taking part in the Mediterranean Cricket League in Zagreb in July.

"We're showing the ICC that Ukrainian cricket is still alive, even if we cannot play in Ukraine right now," Olivier says, pointing out that the country's national football team will still have the chance to qualify for this year's World Cup and two of its biggest clubs, Dynamo Kyiv and Shakhtar Donetsk, recently played friendlies in Croatia. "We're not done and won't give up. Not until it's officially over."



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