Waiting for the fall of Kyiv

Image above: Kobus Olivier speaking to Peter Oborne and Richard Heller from his apartment in the suburbs of Kyiv

By Richard Heller

Peter Oborne and Richard Heller talk every week to cricketers around the world for their podcast Oborne & Heller On Cricket, hosted by The Chiswick Calendar, since Peter lives here.

This week their interview was extraordinary. A breathtaking account of what it is like waiting for the Russians to take Kyiv, from a man who has made the city his home and refuses to leave because of his four dogs.

Hell Stopped Play

“It’s quite a pleasant day here, warmer and sunny,” says the expatriate cricketer, “and if we won the toss it’s definitely a day to bat first.”

The problem for Kobus Olivier is that he is speaking to Peter Oborne and me from Kyiv, in the apartment where he has had to barricade himself against Vladimir Putin’s savage assault.

The 62-year-old South African is the Chief Executive Officer of the Ukraine Cricket Association. Before the war, cricket was beginning to thrive. He personally had introduced the game to over 2,000 Ukrainian boys and girls aged 6 to 17. There were high hopes of qualification for Ukraine as an Associate member of the International Cricket Conference, opening the path to international competition and finance. But now there is no cricket. Hell has stopped play.

“There’s been a lot of explosions this morning, one right next to my building.”

They are not the work of a conventional assault but of a form of warfare little reported in Western media.

“It’s Russian saboteurs. They are all over Kyiv in the suburban areas, dressed like civilians. They’ve been infiltrating Kyiv over the past months”.

They stage gun battles with Ukrainian forces (from his balcony the night before he had witnessed one of ten minutes with rapid machine gun fire) and perform acts of terrorism against civilians.

“They blend in with their civilian clothes and go down into the metro subways people are using as shelters. Last night there were 200 people in one of these, like sardines, and about seven [saboteurs] opened fire on the two subway guards and shot them at point blank range.”

Conditions are even worse in Ukraine’s second major city, Kharkhiv, where the streets have been penetrated by regular Russian soldiers supported by tanks. It had been home to the 15,000 Indian students, mainly medical, who supply almost all of Ukraine’s adult cricketers. About 7,000 had left before the war, but ,8000 are trapped in the city, some in their hostels, many more in the subways, terrified of a visit from the soldiers, all of them running short of food and water.

As a South African, he had many chances to leave. He rejected them all. Why? “Firstly, it’s my dogs”. Four Yorkshire terrier crosses. Frontier and medical formalities would have forced him to leave them behind. Nor could he give up his cricket mission in Ukraine. “It’s more than a passion it’s become an obsession.”

Kobus describes his long and peripatetic career. He was a top club and league player in South Africa and England. He was director of cricket at Capetown University, rightly proud of bringing Graeme Smith through its ranks and securing his friend Gary Kirsten as a coach.

He became national youth coach for the Netherlands and then CEO of Cricket Kenya. He set up a cricket academy in Dubai with Ravi Ashwin. Cricket memories begin to pour out, clearly a relief from the present stress and the constant sleepless anxiety. He tells a lovely story of the South African batsman Hylton Ackerman failing to recognize Don Bradman who had come to greet him at an Australian airport and asking him to help carry his bags.

Everything changed when he went for a holiday in Ukraine. He fell in love with Kyiv in the snow, with its beautiful old buildings, its café society, its energetic people, many still favouring their national dress. He returned several times and decided to make a new life there, first as a wine importer, then as a teacher and director of one of Kyiv’s leading private schools.

But cricket called him back – through the children. They were getting bored in English and PE. To give them something completely new, he introduced cricket into PE, with a softball cricket set. They took to it enthusiastically, and he was asked to introduce it in more and more schools.

With more kit from Dubai and the Lords Taverners, and the backing of Kyiv’s mayor, the former boxing champion, Vitaly Klitschko, he scaled the programme upwards, training PE teachers to give the basics of cricket in public parks. “We focused on girls’ cricket,” he says. “Ukrainian girls are often phenomenal athletes and ahead of the boys of the same age.”

His youth programme filled a void in Ukraine cricket and allowed it to begin membership negotiations with the ICC. He was invited to the board of the Ukraine Cricket Federation, which had run the adult cricket, almost all for expatriate students, and he became its CEO.

Ukraine cricket was thriving before the war. Hundreds of children were eager to try hardball cricket and Kobus was seeking equipment and a supply of nets to satisfy them. New coaches were being trained. Around 600 adults were set to play a range of competitions. There were internationals against Hungary and Malta. There were new purpose-built grounds in three cities, the best of them a national stadium in Kharkiv. There were high hopes of ICC membership at the forthcoming meeting this July. Kobus had reached out to his counterpart in the Russian Cricket Federation.

Everything crashed when the Russians attacked. It fell on his day off school. He was walking his dogs very early in the morning when he heard a series of explosions.

“I knew what was happening. It was the start of the war.”

He had prepared for it, stockpiling provisions, especially dog food and water, and emptying his bank accounts. He earned mockery and even hostility from local people, who had never believed the Russians would actually attack.

He hurried the dogs back into his apartment where he barricaded the windows against blast with mattresses. They have not left it since. The dogs chase each other for exercise in a small space. When they are terrified by explosions or gunfire he huddles with them in the bathroom and plays them recorded cello music by Hauser.

His once bustling suburb is a ghost town, empty of people and cars. At night he and the dogs have the apartment building to themselves: his neighbours have left for other countries or relatives in the countryside and the dogs are not admitted to the subways.

Fortunately, he still has power and communications. He has heard from many children at his school and others he has coached. Some have gone abroad with their families: none has been hurt. But some of his fellow teachers, men between 20 and 60, have not been allowed to leave Ukraine. The government has armed them and expects them to fight for the country – including some British and American.

They may be in great danger if a Russian satellite government is forced on the country. The plight of the trapped Indian student players gets worse each day and their showpiece new stadium is unlikely to survive the fighting in Kharkiv.

Kobus was expecting the Russian army to penetrate Kyiv within hours of our conversation.

“It will be hell. If you see what’s happening in Kharkiv this is going to be worse, we’ve got three million people.”

But he will never leave the city which is his home, nor give up his mission and his hopes for cricket in Ukraine.

“Maybe we can do another interview and you can congratulate us on our associate membership of the ICC.”

It seems unreal at times to be talking about cricket in a country overwhelmed by war and terror, where people’s only focus is on survival. But cricket is just one of the beautiful things in Ukraine which Putin seeks to destroy. The vanishing hopes of its players, young and old, show the power of one man’s sick fantasies to wreck millions of dreams.

Listen to the full episode here:

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