When it comes to discussion about growing cricket beyond the traditional Test nations, an often-overlooked subject is that of grassroots cricket development. Opinions vary among experts as to whether a bottom-up or top-down approach is more successful. However, as Kenya and Morocco’s sad declines demonstrate, the top-down approach can be fraught with risks.
Both boards pumped in money to attract the big Test nations and their star players to play games at newly constructed stadiums; while money also flowed towards maintaining the performances of the senior national team.
Unfortunately, the grassroots were cruelly neglected and this ultimately turned out to be their undoing. Without a solid base of youth cricketers coming up through the ranks, there was no one to replace the ageing golden generation once they retired from national duty.
Many boards understand this dilemma quite well. In 2020, Papua New Guinea, Botswana, Brazil, Botswana, Malaysia and Netherlands won ICC Awards for their youth developmental efforts and for increasing participation numbers. So, it’s heartening to witness cricket newcomers Ukraine take a similar approach.
Speaking to Emerging Cricket, ex-professional South African cricketer Kobus Olivier reiterated his focus on youth development and described the initiatives that he has put in place to grow cricket in the Eastern European nation of Ukraine.
‘This program in Ukraine is unique in offering grassroots cricket development to Ukrainian children,’ says Olivier, who goes on to opine that too many Associates rely on league cricket being played by expats and don’t focus on local development.
Who is Kobus Olivier?
Olivier is a self-described cricketing nomad. Born in Pretoria, South Africa, his passion for cricket has taken him on a globetrotting mission across three continents and 30+ countries. Growing up, Olivier played domestic club cricket in South Africa before turning out for Border League teams in the United Kingdom.
After his playing career came to an end, Olivier’s love for the game ensured that he has continued to stay involved with cricket. He now sports a highly impressive cricket resumé, having taken up positions in various coaching and administrative capacities.
‘I have been involved in cricket for over 30 years. First as a professional player, then as a coach of the Dutch national youth teams and later as an administrator, being the CEO of Cricket Kenya.’
His real passion however lies in cricket development, particularly amongst young children.
‘It all started in Cape Town in the “black” townships during Apartheid. Working under the guidance of Bob Woolmer and John Passmore (the father of black cricket development in Langa township) installed a real passion for cricket development in me.’
‘To see players of colour such as Ntini, Rabada, Ngdi, Paul Adams and Herschelle Gibbs to name a few, has inspired me to develop young cricketers across the world.’
Olivier’s subsequent cricketing adventures then took him to Dubai, where he worked with young cricketers and set up two cricketing academies.
‘In Dubai, I was the Director of Cricket at the Gen-Next Cricket Academy in partnership with Ravi Ashwin and his Gen-Next cricket academy in Chennai.’
After his stint in Dubai, Olivier was looking for a change. Hence, he jumped at the chance to take up a position as an English teacher at a private school in Kyiv, Ukraine; when the opportunity presented itself two years ago.
‘I took up a position as the English native speaking teacher at a leading private school in Kyiv. The classes were all structured lessons with very specific topics.’
Teaching cricket to children in Ukraine
Olivier had thought that with his move to Ukraine, he had stepped away from the cricket world for good. However, his hiatus from cricket did not last long.
‘To be honest, the structured English lessons were boring and the kids did not enjoy it. Therefore, I decided to make the lessons more interesting by having cricket and yoga lessons in English. That way I could introduce a new sport to them, as well as improving their English-speaking skills in a relaxed, fun environment.’
It is important to note that to Ukrainian children, cricket is a completely foreign sport. As per Olivier, ‘they have never seen cricket and do not know that such a sport exists. The two most popular sports amongst the youth here are football and basketball.’
However, even in the face of such seemingly insurmountable challenges, Olivier’s lessons have surprisingly become a big hit.
‘The response from the school, the Principal, parents and pupils has been overwhelmingly positive. The Principal even asked me to incorporate cricket into the Physical Education curriculum at the school.’
Due to the success of the cricket programme, the school produced a couple of promotional videos.
‘I have been conducting cricket camps at the biggest summer and spring camps (Study UA Camps) during the school holidays. Study UA has more than 1,000 students of various ages from all over Ukraine attending their holiday camps’.
Is the programme scalable?
Olivier believes that his breakthrough cricket programme is scalable. He wants to capitalise on the Ministry of Sport’s desire to promote sport participation across Ukraine, by developing cricket and making the case for its recognition as an official sport.
‘I want to roll it out by establishing centres of excellence at each of the private schools where I have started the cricket programme. These schools all have excellent sports facilities which include indoor halls and outdoor football fields with floodlights. So, it’s perfectly suited for the softball (mini cricket) programme that I am introducing to kids 6 to 17 years old.’
‘Cricket has already been incorporated into the Physical Education curriculum at these schools. The PE teachers know the rules and understand the game. Moreover, by using cricket as a medium to teach English, it has a huge advantage over football and basketball. Cricket is seen as a British sport in Ukraine and it offers a fun way to teach English to all age groups and genders’, he further adds.
Getting access to equipment is challenging and Olivier is grateful to ex-cricketer & Dubai based millionaire businessman Shyam Bhatia for the help he has provided.
‘Shyam has a cricket charity, Care for Cricket; through which he has donated 6 sets of mini cricket (soft-ball cricket) equipment for my school programmes.’
Additionally, Olivier has signed an agreement with Lord’s Taverners UK to receive some much needed cricket kit donations for his project.
A Rival Organisation
This approach contrasts sharply with the existing organisation called Ukrainian Cricket Federation. According to Olivier, the Federation consists almost exclusively of expats who play hardball cricket matches amongst themselves, and there is no focus on grassroots development nor anything in the way of outreach to native Ukrainians.
It has even sent a team to play in the Mediterranean Cricket League in Croatia; but as per Olivier, its status as a governing body is in question.
‘They play in Ukrainian colours and say that they represent the nation. However, according to the Ukrainian Ministry of Sport there is no legitimate official cricket federation registered with them. Therefore, cricket is not recognised as an official sport in the country.’
This is a salient point as without official recognition by the government, Ukraine cannot entertain dreams of becoming an ICC Associate Member. However, Olivier insists that even though their cricket development philosophies differ considerably, he is not in competition with the Federation and is happy to co-operate if required.
‘We are not in competition with each other in any way. I think it is fantastic that they create opportunities for expats to play cricket in Ukraine and would be more than willing to assist them in any way. I would love to work with anyone that has the same goal as myself, to grow cricket in Ukraine.’
Andre Groenewald, the South African ambassador to Ukraine, has been very supportive of Olivier’s cricket development efforts. Groenewald has assisted in setting up a joint group meeting with the Ukrainian Minister of Sport, where Olivier will do a presentation of his grassroots cricket development programme.
The future goal is to see the sport take off amongst native Ukrainians and get it formally approved by the government as a recognised sport. This will consequently help with attaining ICC Associate status and open the door for underage teams of both genders representing Ukraine in ICC tournaments.
‘The most important box to tick is that it is a cricket programme for Ukrainian children. The goal is to introduce cricket to them and to develop their skills. The program is not aimed at providing opportunities to play hardball cricket for expats. The more exposure I can get for this programme, the more chance I have of getting approval from the Ukrainian Minister of Sport.’
Olivier’s focus on the Ukrainian youth makes a lot of sense. For cricket to achieve sustainable growth in countries with a small expat population like Ukraine, it must penetrate the consciousness of the majority native population. By combining English language lessons with yoga and cricket, Olivier shows us that there are many ingenious and innovative ways of growing the sport around the world.
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