Just a few months into a new job in his adopted homeland, self-confessed “cricketing nomad” Kobus Olivier found himself at wit’s end attempting to stir interest amongst English students in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital city.
In a rut amid the drudgery of the classroom, the affable South African needed an intervention so he desperately turned to a reliable source – one that was innately British.
“The kids were getting bored, I was too, so I decided to show them cricket and try to help them learn English in a fun environment,” Olivier, who ironically journeyed to Ukraine in an effort to take a breather from cricket, told me. “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.”
Quite clearly more than just a clever distraction technique, Olivier then started cricket lessons and suddenly this mysterious bat and ball sport took off school-wide despite initial skepticism.
“Some of the teachers thought I was the devil and nearly had a heart attack when I started cricket,” chuckled Olivier, who was Cricket Kenya chief executive in 2014. “But the teachers soon asked me to do it as part of team building exercises. I taught the other PE teachers about cricket so they knew the basic rules.”
This auspicious start three years ago fueled a remarkable rise for Ukraine, whose flourishing cricket development at the grassroots level has it poised to become an Associate member.
In a level below the 12 Full Members in cricket’s archaic tiered system, Associates are governing cricket bodies of a country recognized by the International Cricket Council (ICC) but the criteria is strict and includes the requirement of junior and women’s development.
There are 92 Associates with the last member admitted being Serbia in 2017. Membership is coveted and provides a line to invaluable ICC funding – remuneration which has occasionally fallen into nefarious hands among shady boards, it has been alleged to me by industry sources.
Given his wealth of experience, 61-year-old Olivier – who has become the Ukrainian Cricket Federation chief executive and is also the highest accredited cricket coach in Eastern Europe – can safeguard against any suspicious activity with Ukraine targeting Associate membership by mid-2022.
“The ICC gives money and grants to Associates, so it is incredibly important that people in these developing cricket countries have the knowledge and put proper structures in place,” he said. “We are on track to become an Associate country.”
Cricket has been played in Ukraine, once part of the Soviet Union, for more than 20 years but almost entirely by masses of medical students from India, who congregate just out of Kyiv for a hit of the willow.
But for cricket to truly resonate beyond its heartland, locals need to be engaged and exposed, while administrators have to avoid merely relying on national team success with many Associates shoehorning expats from the subcontinent.
Olivier experienced a version of this with Kenya, who were once an Associate power having spectacularly reached the semi-finals of the 2003 World Cup. But the East African nation became a cautionary tale after little emphasis was put on development beyond the national team and cricket in Kenya quickly nosedived once their golden generation of talent ended.
“Kenya never developed the young players, everything went to the national side,” Olivier said. “The school cricket was very weak and there wasn’t even proper equipment.
“When the top players retired, they were left with nothing. That’s one of the biggest lessons I’ve learnt from Associates cricket – there has to be proper pathways. Kenya totally neglected that.”
Without funding sources – cricket is not deemed an official sport by the Ukrainian government although Olympic status could be a game-changer – Olivier has tapped into his reservoir of influential connections to provide equipment and attire for motivated youth unshackled amid an evolving Ukraine, which remains one of the poorest countries in Europe.
“People here are tough and hard, they are survivors,” he said. “Kids want things to change, that’s why it’s the perfect place to start cricket because they are hungry to try new things.”
With the emphasis firmly on building cricket from the ground up, there is genuine ambition for Ukraine’s senior men’s and women’s teams to predominantly comprise local players by next decade. The confidence is well justified after Olivier recently struck a deal to run his cricket program in numerous schools in the Kyiv and Odessa regions.
“My passion is junior cricket. Structures have to be put in place otherwise the whole thing can collapse really quickly,” said Olivier who for 14 years was director of cricket at the University of Cape Town, where former South Africa captain Graeme Smith came through the ranks.
“There are more girls playing cricket. I believe Ukraine will have a strength in women’s cricket. We will focus a lot on girl’s cricket.”
Believing this is his “last stop”, the cricket lifer, who has traversed the globe as a professional player, coach and administrator, is still coming to grips with this unexpected late career twist.
“Cricket follows me, I can’t get away from it,” Olivier chuckled. “I’m making a huge difference and it is amazing seeing kids playing cricket for the first time. I’m doing this 100% out of passion.
“If I can achieve this dream of Ukraine being an Associate from zero, I can say I left a legacy here.
“I’m the guy who started cricket in Ukraine.”