'Developing cricket in Ukraine has almost been an obsession' - Kobus Olivier

Amid the bombings, the Ukraine Cricket Federation CEO who's been introducing schoolkids to the game hunkers down in Kyiv and holds on to hope for Associate status

Firefighters work at a damaged residential building in a suburb of Kyiv, following Russia's invasion of Ukraine, February 25, 2022

Firefighters work at a damaged residential building in a suburb of Kyiv, following Russia's invasion of Ukraine, February 25, 2022  •  AFP/Getty Images

In the early hours of Friday, with Ukraine's army desperately trying to repel a full-scale Russian invasion on the outskirts of the country's capital Kyiv, Kobus Olivier sprung into self-preservation mode in his seventh-floor apartment close to the city's centre.
"I've put a mattress with some cushions on top to barricade the windows in case there is a blast outside, so glass won't shatter into the room," Olivier, the Ukraine Cricket Federation chief executive, told ESPNcricinfo. "No one had taken it seriously in the weeks leading up. Everyone thought it was Russian propaganda. When I walked my dogs on Thursday morning, I heard huge blasts and ran straight back to my apartment. It became very real. It's a terrifying feeling and you feel helpless."
The self-confessed "cricketing nomad", who has been credited with fuelling a surprising rise of the sport in Ukraine, has so far remained remarkably stoic given the grim situation. The improved deeds of his compatriots in New Zealand have provided a much-needed momentary distraction for Olivier, who played domestic cricket in South Africa and for 14 years was director of cricket at the University of Cape Town, where Graeme Smith came through the ranks.
"The guys coming back well after the first Test defeat has lifted me…[Sarel] Erwee getting a century has cheered me up," he said. "I'm keeping an eye on the cricket to help get me through this horrific situation."
With panicked residents trying to flee Kyiv on Thursday, leading to chilling images beamed worldwide of a traffic backlog, Olivier decided to hunker down at home. He could not leave his four dogs behind and also abandon cricket, which he had helped build from the ground up in his adopted country. So he emptied his bank account, exchanged his money into US dollars and stocked up on food for a month.
"Developing cricket in Ukraine has almost been an obsession," said Olivier, who in his day job is a principal at a private school in Kyiv. "I've worked so hard, every day, for the last few years.
"When I go to school, kids are always saying 'when are we playing cricket'. Just two days before the bombings, it was a nice sunny day but still only 5 degrees C. The kids asked me if we could play cricket outside, so we did and they just loved it.
"If I left, I don't know if I could return. It would be so sad to give up on cricket here."
Olivier moved to Kyiv four years ago in a career change to take a breather from cricket, following among other things stints as Cricket Kenya chief executive, national youth coach in the Netherlands and setting up academies in Dubai.
The only cricket played up to that point in Ukraine had been by medical students from India, who played among themselves. A few months into his new job, in an attempt to rouse interest among students bored of learning English, Olivier sought a left-field approach and unveiled a game they had never heard of.
"I'm not sure if our cricket oval will survive the bombings. It's a new ground with pavilions being installed and there is a beautiful indoor facility with nets to be set up. That was going to be our cricket headquarters… I'm not sure now"
Olivier on the cricket facilities in Kharkiv
"I decided to show them cricket and try to help them learn English in a fun environment," Olivier said. "Luckily I had with me a plastic cricket set. They thought cricket was croquet and had never seen it before. I told them that it was like baseball but more exciting. The kids loved it."
This mysterious bat-and-ball sport soon took off school-wide and beyond to the extent where Ukraine is poised to become an Associate member at the ICC's annual general meeting in July. Olivier believed Ukraine had satisfied the ICC's strict membership criteria, which includes the requirement of junior and women's development, leading to invaluable funding and T20I status.
Without sources of funding - cricket is not deemed an official sport by the Ukrainian government - Olivier has had to tap into his reservoir of influential connections to provide equipment and attire.
"We've submitted a final application to the ICC and it's ticked all the boxes," he said. "We've done everything we can. We are looking at USD 18,000 a year (ICC funding) if it's successful. But we want to use the membership to make our own money because we can then approach sponsors that we are an Associate member of the ICC and will be playing international cricket through T20Is.
"Without membership we have little credibility and we are essentially playing unofficial cricket in the park."
The developments in the past few days has halted momentum and there is an unknown over Ukraine's cricket future although an indefatigable Olivier has remained positive. "If this was closer to July then the ICC might be uncertain to give us Associate membership," he said. "No one knows what will happen after this but we still have time. The cricket programme will continue."
While he remained hopeful of attaining Associate membership, Olivier's main concern centred over Ukraine's cricket hub in Kharkiv, the second largest city in the country and a major target of Russia's invading forces.
"I'm not sure if our cricket oval will survive the bombings," Olivier said. "It's a new ground with pavilions being installed and there is a beautiful indoor facility with nets to be set up. That was going to be our cricket headquarters… I'm not sure now."
Amid such a dire predicament, Olivier finds strength in the resolve of hard-bitten locals, particularly the youth he has made such an unlikely connection with through cricket.
"People here are tough and hard, they are survivors," he said. "Cricket has really caught on with the youth because they want to try something new. We have an ambition for Ukraine's senior men's and women's teams to mainly comprise local players by next decade. The girls particularly have taken to cricket remarkably quickly.
"I'm just hoping for the best. There's not much else to do."

Tristan Lavalette is a journalist based in Perth