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Feature

Torn by war, Ukraine still has cricket

At a time when the country's very existence is at stake, a few hardy souls are making a pitch for Associate membership of the ICC

Osman Samiuddin
Osman Samiuddin
13-May-2022
Ukraine Premier League - team shot

At the Ukraine Premier League, 2019: cricket is a piece of home the subcontinental expat takes with them  •  Ukraine Cricket Federation

You have probably not heard of Wayne Zschech. He's the opening bat for Ukraine, and there's a good chance you did not know that Ukraine had a cricket team. They do, more on which in a bit.
Zschech is originally from Australia but he has been in Ukraine since 1993, when he first visited that country as a a 17-year-old. It was supposed to be for a year but he never left. He's an opening bat by trade (and a vice-president of the Ukraine Cricket Federation) but a church pastor by calling. He is also a field leader for Operation Mobilisation, a global Christian missionary organisation, and has been to-ing and fro-ing from the front lines of the Russian invasion, arranging food, shelter and safe passage for refugees. His social media timelines are cluttered with daily updates from the relief work he's leading. He lives with his family in Kaharlyk, about 80km south of Kyiv, in a church that is doubling as a refugee shelter.
Zschech and team-mate Yuri Zagruskiy (also a UCF vice-president) will almost certainly not play in what Ukraine hope will be their next assignment, the annual Mediterranean Cricket League (MCL; brand ambassadors, Simon Katich and Brad Hogg) in July in Zagreb. Ukrainian men between the ages of 18 and 60 are not allowed to leave the country.
Ukraine itself may not be able to participate in that tournament. Other than Zschech and Zagruskiy, the men's national team is made up of expats from the Asian subcontinent who either work or study in Ukraine. Most of them are now back in their home countries. For the tournament, they would need to gather for a training camp in neutral territory, somewhere like Dubai, before flying out to Croatia.
On the fringes of the cricket world, teams like Ukraine are on the outside looking in, and getting in to play is the hardest bit. Participation will depend on whether they can find funds for it.
Ukraine is not an ICC member. It is a country in which some people happen to play cricket, but is not yet a cricket-playing country. Later in July, though, the UCF's application for Associate membership will come up in front of the ICC board. Kobus Olivier, the UCF CEO, is pretty clear it is now or never: miss out on membership, wipe out whatever tiny inroads the game has made in Ukraine.
The fatalism is very cricket, but then, in very few circumstances will it resonate as it does now for Ukraine. The continuing Russian invasion renders existential dread about cricket somewhat insignificant but in recent times only Afghanistan, in the early years of this century, has been at war while being close to ICC membership.
Olivier was a decent club cricketer in South Africa and he has been a better coach since (he was coached by Bob Woolmer at school and then opened with him in club cricket). A well-travelled one too, having worked in South Africa, Scotland, Netherlands, Kenya, Dubai, and now Ukraine. More than anything, though, he is an indefatigable rallier. If he were part of a school parents' WhatsApp group, he'd be that one very active contributor (there's always one), unendingly eager, an energetic forwarder, and indisputably the one who keeps the group's purpose alive and makes it so that things get done. In short, he is the kind of person you might throw into a place like Ukraine and say, "Build it, and see what happens."
Olivier did not lay that first brick. He arrived in Ukraine in June 2018, by which time cricket had already broken out in a mildly organised manner, played mostly by students and professionals from the subcontinent. The UCF, in fact, was set up as long ago as 2000. But it's fair to say that Olivier has set that organising body towards a deeper purpose, with a visible endpoint in acquiring Associate membership.
When he arrived in Ukraine, for a school teaching job, there was no junior development programme in the country - an essential box to tick for ICC membership. Frustrated initially by the rigidly structured ways in which English was taught, he introduced cricket as a way of learning the language. That led to cricket becoming an official part of the physical education programme in a ring of private schools. Olivier estimates that around 2000 children - all native Ukrainians - have come through that programme over three years; that is, 2000 kids who had no idea of what cricket was are now familiar with a sport that is inherently difficult to become familiar with.
This, Olivier says - without intending any disrespect, he stresses - is what many development types are unable to get right. Getting the game into schools in countries with no cricketing culture is critical, not setting up out-of-school academies (to be fair, it's also probably not as easy to do that as it has been in Ukraine). Olivier thinks that in five to eight years we could see a national team made up entirely of Ukrainians. That feels optimistic, especially at this point in Ukraine's history, one that is so fraught that looking that far ahead for anything is ill advised. But it is totally on-brand for Olivier.
He is now in Zagreb, having tried to stay in Kyiv for as long as he could when the invasion began. He's not sure whether he'll ever go back but that's not to say he's done rallying. No sir.
As well as continuing to lobby for Ukraine's membership he enlisted the aid of the Croatia Cricket Federation, which has been an ICC member since 2001. There are 13,000 Ukrainian refugees in Zagreb, the vast majority of whom are women and children. This to Olivier is an opportunity. There must be, he has figured, six to seven thousand children. So, naturally he has put wheels in motion to get cricket on to the curriculum in schools being launched in Poland and Croatia for these children. He's hopeful that coaches from both countries can be used to ensure that, even in exile, the junior programme for Ukrainian children is not massively disrupted.
In June he's hoping to hold the Ukraine Freedom Cup in Zagreb, co-hosted with the Croatia Cricket Federation. It's a single-day event but will feature two teams of Ukrainian refugee children, and teams from Hungary, Croatia, Slovakia and Serbia, playing mini-cricket matches with a soft ball. The equipment will be provided by Shyam Bhatia, a millionaire businessman based in Dubai whose love for the game is well known in that region. Bhatia runs a renowned private cricket museum in Dubai and is also, lately, an official patron of the UCF.
If it sounds to you like all this could make for a great documentary you're too late. Stefan Enslin, an award-winning South African film producer, has beaten you to it. A film crew has been following Olivier around in Zagreb.

****

The Russian invasion began early on the morning of February 24. Kharkiv, in eastern Ukraine and less than 50km from the Russian border, was one of the first cities attacked. It is where Faisal Kassim spent five days in a bunker once the invasion began. There were 200 other students from Kharkiv National Medical University there with him. They had access to two toilets and no heating. One of his batchmates, Naveen Shekharappa G, was killed in shelling when he went out on a grocery run one morning - the only known Indian casualty of the war. The Indian students were left there, Kassim says, to fend for themselves with no assistance from the Indian embassy.
Eventually they organised themselves into groups of 50-60 apiece and struggled their way onto trains to Lviv, east to west across Ukraine, a fraught journey that took 23 hours. They arranged themselves so that there would always be more females than males in any one group, because it was more difficult for adult males to get out of Ukraine than for women. And for a number of foreigners of colour, there was racism to contend with in trying to get out - a racism that is implicit in Kassim's account (as well as what Olivier has heard from others).
From Lviv they took a car to the border with Poland, where they waited six hours before they were allowed through. It was, Kassim says with magnificent understatement, a worrying time.
Meanwhile, at 4.50am that first morning, also in Kharkiv, Binil Zachariah George heard what he thought sounded like crackers at a birthday party but what he knew were missiles. The first, ominous wails of war. He could see missiles raining down a little distance away from his apartment window and he said he used the word "rain" deliberately, to show that it was entirely indiscriminate in where and whom the missiles fell upon. It took him and his family 15 minutes to pack up and leave their lives behind, then run ten minutes to the nearest train station. They were trying to get out of the city, but instead, with trains not operating, the station became their shelter for the next 11 days.
Like most people there, Zack (as he is known) and his wife, with baby daughter in tow, had grabbed a bit of food from the fridge and some clothes as they fled their apartment. After a couple of days the shelter ran out of food. So the station's security guards broke into a nearby McDonald's and brought back supplies of bread and cheese. Zack's wife is Ukrainian. Her family home in Izium (about 100km south-east of Kharkiv) was destroyed; more distressingly, they have not heard from her parents. They have been sent images of the destruction and death from the bombing around that area.
Kassim is a fast bowler for the Ukraine national side and Zack is part of the board's cricket committee, head of their media and communication. Both are now safe and out of Ukraine, Kassim back in Kerala, Zack in Warsaw - he didn't want to return to India because his family didn't have passports for international travel, and he thought going to India as refugees would have been difficult, if not impossible.
As much as these are first-hand accounts of war, there is underlying context about how cricket now spreads around the world. These days cricket goes where the subcontinental migrant/refugee/expat takes it with them, a piece of home, some emotional luggage, whether that be to Germany, UAE, Oman, Norway, Hong Kong or any country where cricket is now a formal, recognised sport.
And largely this unintended evangelism - a by-product really - goes unsung and unacknowledged. Very often, in countries where these people end up playing for national sides, it is derided and seen as harmful, as if their playing cricket in and for a country they are not necessarily citizens of is a stain on them and on cricket. This is a central tension in Associate-world cricket: expat player bad, home-grown good. It's far too reductive in a world where identity has never been more fluid or transient and a passport a wholly inadequate means to define or capture it. Using that kind of binary to understand anything is misplaced.
As just one example, take the UAE. Nobody says it out loud but it's undeniable they're second-class citizens in cricket's development stakes. The likes of Nepal or Papua New Guinea are considered more authentic because they play with home-grown players. UAE? A shortcut team, relying on a bunch of migrants who happen to be working in the country but can't ever become its citizens and have no organic connection to the land. They're viewed with the same disdain shown for mercenaries.
This attitude ignores the origins of the game in the UAE; that it was actually a handful of Emiratis who studied in the subcontinent, fell in love with the game, and brought it back with them, and that five decades later cricket is, arguably, a bigger part of the country than it has ever been. Expat players sure, local involvement minimal, but world-class infrastructure, cricket's HQ, a captive (expat) population as fans but also as a pool of talent to draw from; it takes a peculiar kind of snobbery to look down on that, but entirely at one with a game that has grown as feebly and reluctantly as cricket has.
So, it would be great if Ukrainians took to the game. But it's genuinely worth celebrating the contributions of Kassim and Zack, who make time for the game despite the lives they must lead, not being fortunate enough to call cricket their one and only profession - in other words, when cricket is the life they lead.
A few days before he began organising a passage for his fellow students out of Ukraine, Kassim was arranging pre-season indoor nets for national team players who were in Kharkiv. He's in the fourth year of his degree, so it's not like there was much time for anything that is not medicine. Still, every day after 4pm, he made sure they all practised at least for an hour. Back in Kerala, he's playing in local tennis-ball tournaments. He's also organising online study for his fellow students, and for practical learning he spends time in hospitals in, what he calls, observation. There's no sense of regret when he says that a few years ago he represented Kerala Under-16s in the Vijay Merchant Trophy. Or that he has played locally with the likes of Basil Thampi, Sachin Baby and Sanju Samson. There's little sense of the loss of a career that could have been. He's really hoping to just play in the MCL and that Ukraine then gains Associate membership.
Zack, one of the people behind that membership application, is now looking for a job in Warsaw. He's an engineer who studied in Ukraine and stayed on, working for an education group, and since November 2020 also with UCF. He has run out of his savings and is thankful for the good grace of his friends. While at the shelter, he maintained the UCF's website, handling social media and communication to do with the ICC application, missiles still raining down, food still scarce, a daughter to look after. Until as recently as a few days ago, with nothing of his own future certain, he was drafting a letter to the ICC to try and secure the UCF's future. Doing, he said, what little he can do.

****

It's difficult to say for certain but there does seem some (very) cautious optimism about the UCF's application. The ICC's Europe office has guided them through the process, to make sure everything is in place. The junior programmes are an important part of the jigsaw and if Olivier gets his way, those look set to continue even in wartime and in exile.
There are three grounds, including one in Kaharlyk that is the result of Zschech's persistence. He had written to the town's mayor years ago asking for a field to play cricket. For ages he received no response until, around 2010, the same mayor got back to him and asked if he was still interested. He was and by May 2014, Kaharlyk was ready to launch the cricket season on a shiny new artificial wicket in a brand new ground. In another important step, Ukraine's ministry of youth and sport has also officially recognised the UCF as the organising body for cricket in the country.
The ICC's membership committee will receive the application ahead of the AGM in July and discuss it at the conference, after which the board will make a decision. Usually an application for membership would require a site visit from either the ICC's regional office or Dubai HQ, but that will not happen this time. There is a provision to accept membership without it.
It'll be a momentous day should Ukraine be allowed into this members' club, and due acknowledgment of the work of the likes of Zschech, Olivier, Kassim, Zack and many, many others. It will also be a sobering one because that is when the work really begins, and, as has been the case since that February morning earlier this year, it happens to come at a time when the existence of Ukraine is at its most contested.

Osman Samiuddin is a senior editor at ESPNcricinfo