Episode 96: Rebuilding Ukraine cricket and children’s lives – despite the ICC

Cricket authors (and obsessives) Peter Oborne and Richard Heller launched a podcast early in 2020 to help deprived listeners endure a world without cricket. They’re no longer deprived of cricket, but still chat regularly about cricket topics with different guests each week – cricket writers, players, administrators and fans – hoping to keep a good line and length but with occasional wides into other subjects.

When Peter Oborne and Richard Heller last spoke to Kobus Olivier, CEO of the Ukraine Cricket Federation, he and his four dogs had escaped to Poland from the war-shattered city of Kyiv. A lot has happened since to him and to Ukraine cricket. He updates Peter and Richard as the first guest in their returning cricket-themed podcast.

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He describes the bureaucratic problems which forced him to leave Poland after just eight days, buy a second-hand car and drive him and the dogs to distant Croatia. Further problems forced them to spend two nights in the car in a frozen field just inside the Hungarian frontier. They have since been settled in Zagreb for five months – and the dogs are enjoying the resumption of the peaceful routines they enjoyed in Kyiv before the war.

He outlines the impact of the war on Ukraine’s thriving cricket scene. Most of its senior players, the Indian medical students studying in Kharkiv were evacuated after a terrifying ordeal with weeks sheltering in the metro from the bombardment. He had no reliable information about their new stadium on the outskirts but thought it very unlikely that it had survived the devastation of the city. Three Ukrainian board members of the Federation had not been allowed to leave the country and were heroically delivering essential supplies under intense fire on the front line.

Before the war, Kobus had prepared Ukraine’s application for Associate Membership of the International Cricket Council. He had been confident that it had met all the ICC’s criteria and would be accepted. Despite the intervention of the war, he had hoped and believed that the ICC would accept the application in principle, accommodating Ukraine’s unique circumstances, which were not of its own making, as it had done previously for Afghanistan and Pakistan, and as the EU had done in accelerating the timetable of Ukraine’s application for membership. Given the world’s general support for Ukraine he thought that few countries would have objected if the ICC had accepted its application. He had received many messages of support for it – even from the Russian Cricket Federation.

In rejecting Ukraine’s application the ICC, in his view, had missed the chance to grow the global family of cricket and support the game in countries caught by war or other disasters.

He explains that the Russian Federation had been suspended from the ICC, for administrative failings, before the war.  The unintended consequence of the ICC’s decisions was to deliver no further sanctions on cricket in the aggressor nation but to penalize cricket in the victim nation. He agreed that the ICC might have wished to avoid passing any judgment on the war,  in alignment with the policy of its dominant member, India.

He believes that the ICC was under the false impression that all organized cricket had ceased in Ukraine because of the war. He cited the school and youth programmes that had re-started in Kyiv and elsewhere in unoccupied Ukraine where life was normal. More schools in Ukraine now offered cricket in their physical education curriculum than in many other ICC members. Despite the many visits to Ukraine of Boris Johnson and other leaders, the ICC has sent no one into the country. Nor did they visit before the war.

Kobus outlines the financial consequences of the ICC rejection. It denied the UCF a “starter grant” of US $18,000 – which would have made a major difference in a country which now had no funds to spare for cricket programmes. In spite of a promise of assistance, the ICC has released no alternative funding for any Ukrainian cricket activity.

Kobus describes the softball cricket programme he initiated in a public park in Zagreb. It started with a casual encounter with a few soccer-playing Ukrainian children in exile in Croatia. It now involves over 200 Ukrainian children of five and upwards and their mothers, for two hours three days a week. Apart from physical exercise, fun and post-session pizza the children and their mothers make new friends and networks in exile and derive solace and healing from the trauma of war and the anxiety over family members still in Ukraine.

The programme is now run by Ukrainians, mothers and older children are learning to teach cricket, and, above all, the children want to continue playing cricket on their hoped-for return to Ukraine. With support from the ICC, Kobus believes that the programme could have been expanded to provide a nucleus of young cricket players and coaches in every city of a restored Ukraine. Over time, participants might have formed successful youth and women’s teams for Ukraine.

Anna, the chief coach, has just become the first Ukrainian to qualify as an ICC-recognized coach. She describes her unexpected journey into cricket and her new passion for it, and how the hours of happiness given by the cricket programme are helping the well-being of children and their families. Sveta, aged thirteen, one of the participants, eagerly describes her own new dedication to cricket and how the programme gave her new friends.

Peter and Richard have invited the ICC to appear on the podcast and explain their treatment of Ukraine. They have also invited the British embassy in Zagreb to send an observer to the programme, to see whether Britain’s substantial aid to Ukraine might include a tiny sum (by comparison) to invest in the country’s young cricketers in exile.

The programme received eight boxes of softball cricket equipment from the Lords Taverners but extra support and donations need to be found urgently. To continue through the winter it needs to rent indoor premises, and Kobus also has plans for an international tournament in which the children could represent their country in Ukrainian clothing and caps.  That would complete a journey for them through cricket from trauma into happiness and pride.

Donations to the programme can be made directly to Kobus Olivier through PayPal to @wardogsandI
We will update this page once more methods to support the programme are available.

Follow Anna’s journey on Facebook and Instagram.

Get in touch with us by emailing obornehellercricket@outlook.com, we would love to hear from you!

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Peter Oborne & Richard Heller

Peter Oborne has been the chief political commentator for the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail, a maker of several documentaries and written and broadcast for many different media. He is the author of a biography of Basil D’Oliveira and of Wounded Tiger, a history of Pakistan cricket, both of which won major awards.

Richard Heller was a long-serving humorous columnist on The Mail on Sunday and more briefly, on The Times. He worked in the movie business in the United States and the UK, including a brief engagement on a motion picture called Cycle Sluts Versus The Zombie Ghouls. He is the author of two cricket-themed novels A Tale of Ten Wickets and The Network. He appeared in two Mastermind finals: in the first his special subject was the life of Sir Gary Sobers.

Oborne & Heller cricketing partnership

Jointly, he and Peter produced White On Green, celebrating the drama of Pakistan cricket, including the true story of the team which lost a first-class match by an innings and 851 runs.

Peter and Richard have played cricket with and against each other for a variety of social sides, including Parliament’s team, the Lords and Commons, and in over twenty countries including India, Pakistan, the United States, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, France, Greece, Australia, Zimbabwe, New Zealand and Morocco.

The Podcast is produced by Bridget Osborne and James Willcocks at The Chiswick Calendar.

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