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Essays

The war in Ukraine

Anything but Russia

Alex Preston
A game in the Ukraine Premier League  •  Ukraine Cricket Federation

A game in the Ukraine Premier League  •  Ukraine Cricket Federation

The history of cricket in Ukraine is typical of the sport's global growth: a large subcontinental expat community, a group of engaged locals and a few aficionados with deep pockets. It is also unique, a reflection of the country's wish to identify with cultures other than the hegemonic power with which it finds itself at war. Cricket in Ukraine has followed a complex and fascinating path, with the game a microcosm of broader efforts to nurture an identity that is, above all, not Russian. To understand this path, you need first to understand one of the positive legacies of the USSR: a world-class education system. Ukrainian universities are superb and, crucially, charge lower fees than comparable institutions in Asia or Africa. There was some bafflement in the West when, following Russia's invasion in February 2022, stories emerged of the vast numbers of Indians, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans or Nigerians stranded in Ukraine. They were almost all students at local universities, or graduates who had decided to stay on in the country.
Hardeep Singh, the president of the Ukraine Cricket Federation and one of the main financial backers of the sport there, first came to the country as a student in the late 1990s. He was so impressed by the quality of his education that he set up a business, Bobtrade, to facilitate the arrival of other Indian students. Before the war, there were more than 20,000 in Ukraine's universities, most studying medicine or engineering. "Cricket came to Ukraine from India," says Hardeep. "We found that students often didn't want to return home for the summer vacation, and would ask to remain in the hostels we provided. And anywhere there are many Indians, there is cricket. They began to play on football pitches, on basketball courts, wherever they could. It grew naturally, until every weekend in the summer was like a festival of cricket."
Hardeep set up a league between the big universities in Kyiv, Kharkiv and Odessa, and crowds turned up. "We flew in Indian chefs, and there were stands around the ground where people could get food. Ukrainians saw this, and wanted to be part of it." Most of Ukraine's team are of Indian origin. Take opening bowler Faizal Kassim. Originally from Kerala, he came to Odessa to study medicine, joined the cricket team and was swiftly promoted to the national side. He moved to Kharkiv to continue his studies and work in the hospital. Kassim spent the days immediately after the invasion in an air-raid shelter with a group of fellow Indians. One of his friends and fellow medical students, a cricket-mad 21-year-old called Naveen Ganagoudar Shekharappa, went out to buy food one morning, and was killed by a Russian missile. Soon after, Kassim returned to Kerala.
There are two important exceptions to the subcontinental dominance. Wayne Zschech was just shy of his 18th birthday when he came to Ukraine from Australia on a gap year in 1993; he had been intending on his return to join the Australian Air Force. Instead, he found his calling as an evangelical pastor, heading a thriving congregation in Kaharlyk, a small town south of Kyiv, deep in agricultural countryside. Zschech has Ukrainian heritage, and now - 30 years after his arrival - is married to Olya, and has four sons. Zschech's impact on cricket's development runs in parallel to, but largely separate from, Hardeep and his Indian students. There's something incongruous about a cricket pitch on Kaharlyk's outskirts. It's here, though, that Zschech started the first youth programme, initially for his congregation, then for local schools. He enlisted one of his church helpers, Yuri Zagruskiy, as a fellow coach, and the sport spread from town to town, carried on the tide of their enthusiasm.
Hardeep and his colleagues soon heard of this rural expansion, and Zschech and Zagruskiy were invited on to the board of the UCF, then into the national side. Zschech is an opening batter, Zagruskiy a hard-hitting No. 5. In 2016, they helped lead the team to victory in the first T20 Mediterranean Cricket League. In 2018, they won the Euro T20 Cup, beating Hungary - who are Associate Members of the ICC - in the final.
Cricket's popularity spread to schools across the country until, by the end of the 2010s, it was a staple of many PE classes. Why does Hardeep think it struck such a chord? "In part, it's because cricket is a sport that can be played by boys and girls together up to a certain age. In part, it's because you can play on a football pitch. Mostly, though, I think it's because Ukraine is always interested in ideas that help it to identify with cultures that aren't Russian. Cricket helps connect Ukraine to India, Pakistan, Australia, England…" Hardeep says the UCF actually have a good relationship with their Russian counterparts, but adds: "It is very difficult for them. In Russia, cricket isn't even officially recognised as a sport. It is classed as a hobby, the same as knitting or backgammon."
The UCF had been working for years to achieve ICC associate membership, which brings a host of benefits, including access to World Cup qualification leagues, a programme of international tournaments, around $18,000 funding, and the visibility and credibility that come with official recognition. The UCF had been told they needed to put in place a number of elements in order to become Associate Members - greater support for the women's game, better facilities, a more joined-up youth programme. These improvements had been met and, at the start of 2022, the ICC indicated to Hardeep that, barring a catastrophe, associate membership would be conferred at their AGM in July. There would also be a symmetry for a game that had always helped set Ukraine apart from Russia, a reflection of a different, more globalised culture: at the same meeting, Russia, whose federation had been suspended from the ICC, were likely to be expelled, for breaches of membership criteria.
Then, on February 24, Vladimir Putin's troops invaded, and cricket was one of many activities that stopped. Far from giving up, though, the UCF went on a PR drive. The ICC decision was presented as a kind of moral referendum, an opportunity for the sport's authorities to strike a blow for Ukraine. A UCF spokesperson put it in stark terms: "If we don't get membership, that is the end of Ukrainian cricket. If the ICC does not give us membership, that would be like a Russian missile hitting and destroying Ukrainian cricket."
As the Indian students returned home, and as schools were either shut or forced to operate under the constant threat of air raids, Zschech and Zagruskiy undertook daring aid operations to the country's embattled east. They would set out from Kaharlyk in vans loaded with food, blankets and medicine, then return laden with refugees fleeing Russian bombs. One day in March, Zagruskiy was driving his van, clearly marked as a vehicle on a humanitarian mission, towards Mariupol, when it was hit and destroyed by a Russian mortar round. He was bruised and shaken but otherwise unharmed, and within days was again managing the convoys with Zschech.
The ICC's judgment, when it came, was brutal, and they did not respond to numerous requests for comment or clarification. All that came out was a terse press release, beginning: "In light of the ongoing war, there is currently no cricket activity taking place in Ukraine." The ICC said there was "evidence of some cricket activity being conducted in refugee camps (outside Ukraine) through the UCF", but that a lack of cricket within the country meant they fell short of the membership criteria, "through no fault of their own".
Tristan Lavalette, an Australian journalist who has covered Ukrainian cricket closely, says: "I'm afraid this is just how it goes with the ICC. Ukraine needed to fulfil certain obligations; the war made it impossible for them to do so; so they don't get membership. You can see from the ICC's perspective that they need to make a sporting decision, rather than a political one, but it's heartbreaking for the guys who've worked so hard to make it happen."
It may have been some small comfort that, at the same meeting, Russia were indeed expelled. Hardeep remains undaunted. "What I've seen happen in Ukraine is astonishing," he says. "I don't think the sport will disappear. It's being played in refugee camps and bunkers. I'm in touch with the Indian players who were here previously, and they are all keen to return once this is possible." Hardeep has already begun to establish a cricketing outpost in Tbilisi, Georgia - a home away from home for the Ukrainian team. "I am 100% convinced we will achieve our membership of the ICC once the war is ended. Cricket is in the blood of Ukraine now."
Zschech has continued his relief work. There are refugees sleeping on the floor of his church, while he and Zagruskiy have been working on alternative energy sources, trying to overcome the blackouts that hit with increasing frequency. He hasn't had time for cricket. "All energy has gone into helping Ukraine survive," he says. "The winter is so tough. Your life in a war zone becomes very simple - smaller and slower. After victory, we will be happy to become a hub for cricket lovers again." Like many, we wanted to do something when the war started, so my wife, Ary, and I invited a family from Lviv, in the west of Ukraine, to live with us in Rye, East Sussex. Liliia, her mother Halyna, and her 11-year-old son Daniel, arrived in early April, just as I was setting up the cricket net in the garden. There was some initial awkwardness: they spoke no English, so we communicated via Google Translate. Yet on his first day with us, Daniel walked over to the net, gestured for me to bowl, and drove me hard over my head, through the hedge and into a neighbouring field. It was a moment of grace, of connection, an illustration of the transcendental power of cricket. Daniel apparently learned it at school, and has continued to play in the UK, hitting better bowlers than I ever was over their head for six. When he goes back to Ukraine, he wants to play for the national side. I have made sure Hardeep Singh has his number.
Alex Preston is a novelist and a member of the Authors XI Cricket Club.