“Without Associate membership or any sort of financial assistance from the ICC, cricket will cease to exist in Ukraine,” Kobus Olivier states bluntly as we begin our conversation.
The ex-professional South African cricketer and CEO of Ukraine Cricket Federation (UCF) is in no mood to mince his words. He is bitterly disappointed at cricket’s world governing body over its decision to defer Ukraine’s Associate application.
“ICC have missed the bigger picture; they don’t really understand the ground reality of what is going on in Ukraine. All our funding and sponsors, including our headquarters were based in Kharkiv. With the city now blown apart by Russian bombs, we have lost that source of funding completely. And without that funding, no cricket association can exist,” he laments.
The War and its Impact on Cricket
Russia’s invasion and the ensuing war has had a devastating humanitarian impact on Ukraine. The loss of life numbers in the hundreds of thousands on both sides, while entire cities have been reduced to rubble. The destruction of civilian infrastructure and mass casualties have displaced an estimated 6.4 million Ukrainians. And for the nation’s fledgling cricket scene, the impact has been similarly cataclysmic.
UCF’s senior playing base, made up of tens of thousands of primarily Indian medical students, has virtually evaporated. Since the war started, many have left the country and there remains a big question mark over how many will return.
“It’s hard to say how many Indian students come back. I presume some will, especially the 4th and 5th year medical students who were close to finishing their degrees. But nobody knows Putin’s timeframe and it’s still too early to say when the war will end,” says Olivier, who himself had to flee the country in the wake of the war and is now based in Zagreb, Croatia.
The CEO and other UCF officials had therefore been counting on ICC Associate membership to safeguard the sport’s future survival. Olivier had also built up a healthy base of junior native Ukrainian cricketers; having introduced the sport to his students at his teaching job at Astor school. It’s work that he intends to return to.
“The schools are all reopening on 1st September. The war is in the east in Donbas, there is no war in Kyiv. Life has gone back pretty much to normal there. I plan to return to Kyiv on 1st September and resume my position as Astor school director.
“And all our junior cricket programmes including women’s cricket that I helped implement will resume as normal. It is particularly frustrating as the lack of active cricket activity in Ukraine was one of the main reasons that ICC gave for not giving us membership,” states Olivier citing the world governing body’s official response to the application.
Ukraine Cricket Federation Board
In that same statement, ICC also blamed the war for having disrupted UCF’s ability to operate. “Most, if not all, of the current UCF officials have fled Ukraine, and there is no certainty as to when, or if, they will be able to return. Whilst the war continues, UCF are not able to operate effectively as a National Governing Body, although it should be noted that this is due to circumstances completely outside of their control,” it wrote.
Olivier found this quote especially grating. “In these days of COVID, very few board meetings take place in person. Zoom meetings have become the new normal; UCF has been having meetings regularly and planning for the future. I don’t understand why this was used against us.”
“Yes, Ukraine is in a unique situation currently. I concede that ICC have probably never had a membership application from a country with an active war going on. But it is precisely why they needed to be flexible with us,” Olivier emphasises.
He contrasted ICC’s attitude with that of the European Union which waived a lot of red tape and accelerated the normal processes significantly to grant Ukraine prospective EU member status in super quick time.
Cricket in the Park
Despite the setbacks, Olivier has devotedly carried on with his cricket coaching and development activities at his temporary residence in Zagreb, Croatia. And he has found a receptive audience amongst some of the 17,000 Ukrainian refugees living there, for his ‘Cricket in the Park’ programme.
“It has been a massive hit,” he smiles. “Two and a half months ago, I only had seven kids taking part. Now we have now got 77 Ukrainian kids on the program. It’s very well organised, we play three times a week. You also have the parents coming to watch and play.
“You must understand that these people are traumatised. Playing cricket is like trauma therapy for them. As one of the moms explained to me, the sound of laughter and bat hitting ball in the parks has replaced the sound of bombs, explosions and sirens,” Olivier explains.
He is also organising training courses for interested mothers; so that those who finish the course can get certified as a UCF soft ball cricket coach. And with no ICC funding and no sponsors left standing, he is self-funding the entire project. “Everything is coming out of my pocket. I am buying pizzas for the children and parents after each of our weekly sessions. With the numbers growing daily, I can’t afford this anymore, considering I am a refugee myself. We need funding to buy more equipment. The UCF equipment that I brought over is not enough,” he exclaims.
Olivier ultimately hopes to set up a Under 15 junior girls and boys softball tournament to enable these refugee kids to play in Ukrainian colours. He has dubbed his idea “Ukraine Freedom Cup” and hopes to invite youth teams from Serbia, Slovakia, Hungary and Italy to participate in the event.
“This tournament will offer an opportunity to these refugee children to represent Ukraine and fight for their country on the sports field, while their fathers are fighting in the trenches of Donbas. This is just what Ukraine cricket needs to inspire future generations”, he says.
Whilst disheartened at ICC’s lack of support, the South African Level 3 coach is prepared to go it alone and has a final message for cricket fans globally.
“The only way forward for UCF now is to go solo. We have no choice. UCF will have to rely on donations from cricket lovers around the world to continue the cricket in the park program. In their media release, ICC apparently said that there will be ongoing support for Ukrainian cricket. I would really love to know what this ongoing support is, as I haven’t seen anything so far.”
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