It was soon clear that there was nowhere I could sit in the small gymnasium at School No. 34 where I would be safe from flying balls.
At 9:00 a.m. on Saturday morning, 14 boys aged between 11 and 14 had dragged themselves out of bed from the surrounding ger district of the school to practice throwing and catching cricket balls.
Cricket, which originated in England, is popular in Australia, the Caribbean, South Africa, India and Pakistan and is being launched in Mongolia by sports enthusiast Battulga Gombo.
Tulga, as he is known, is now trying to raise enough money to create the country’s first cricket pitch in the National Park of Ulaanbaatar. In total, he needs to find 120,000 USD and is doing so through a crowdfunding website. So far, approximately 30,000 USD has been raised and it is hoped the pitch will open in 2017. He founded Mongolian Amateur Cricket Association NGO in 2007 and doesn’t get paid for any of the coaching or sessions he provides.
Five years ago, Tulga moved to Australia with his wife, who was studying for a Ph.D. at university in Melbourne. While living in Australia, he fell in love with cricket and trained to become a coach in 2012. Today, he is Mongolia’s only qualified coach and has spent the last three years teaching children throughout the country how to play the “gentleman’s game”.
Cricket is a team sport involving two sides of 11 players. It is played using a bat and ball on a 22-yard long pitch and is the second most popular game in the world after football. It is played by an estimated 120 million people around the globe.
Games can last for up to five days, and each team takes it in turn to bat, attempting to score runs while the other team tries to catch the ball while fielding the pitch.
The bowler throws the ball to the batsman who attempts to hit the ball away from the fielders so he can run to the other end of the pitch and score a run. Each batsman continues batting until he is out.
This continues until 10 batsmen are out, or a specified number of balls have been thrown, at which point the teams switch roles and the fielding team comes in to bat.
“It reminded me a lot of a Mongolian game called Matka, which I played when I grew up here”,
Tulga, who is a university lecturer, told me, while we drove out of Ulaanbaatar towards the airport in his car on Saturday morning. “Cricket is just a brilliant sport, and the kids, they just love to play it.”
The 37-year-old coaches a mix of kids, but most of them are from the “underprivileged” ger districts and orphanages. In total, he teaches around 40 children a week.
“There is nothing for them to do, there is a lack of facilities and sports gear, and in general, there is not a big emphasis on team sports in Mongolia – it is all about the individual: horse racing, wrestling, but none of it promotes working together… but cricket changes that,” he says as we pull into the school’s car park.
This is why he, and a handful of others, are working so hard to build Mongolia’s first cricket pitch. In summer, the kids practice on an Astroturf football pitch and in winter, they are restricted to practising inside, in small school sports halls.
At School No. 34, a handful of boys are already waiting for Tulga when we arrive. He starts off by getting them to divide into pairs and throw red plastic balls to each other. Then they run around the hall and split into two teams and start throwing balls to a batsman.
The boys shriek and laugh and jeer at each other, their voices carrying over the sound of sneakers squeaking on the green laminate sports hall floor. Many of them have been coming to the sessions since they started two years ago and wear white polo shirts with Cricket Mongolia stitched in red on the back.
The plastic stumps, balls and bats they are playing with have mostly been donated or sent from Cricket Australia which has an initiative called “Milo” encouraging youngsters into the game.
The hall is so small that balls regularly smack into the walls, windows and other people. But the kids don’t seem to mind and are eager to play.
As the practice games stop and they move on to playing a real game of cricket, Tulga comes over to the window ledge I’m trying to shelter in and says, “They have all improved a lot since we first started playing. Not just in terms of technique but also attitude.
“The first couple of months, some of the bigger kids were bullying the smaller ones but now you can’t see that attitude. I don’t tolerate it.
“They congratulate each other and clap when the other team gets a run, and they apologize if there is an argument.
“Cricket has a big philosophy, that it is a gentleman’s game played by gentlemen and I want to get that spirit across in Mongolia.
“It is a friendly game and promotes teamwork. Hopefully, it helps them not only physically but mentally too.”
The ball flies my way again and I duck for cover. It makes me think just how much they need a real place to play.
On the Thursday of Tsagaan Sar week, English accountant Chris Hurd, who has helped draw up designs for a pitch, took me along to see where it will be built.
Half way around the path at the National Park of Ulaanbaatar, next to a huge hole which looks like the surface of the moon, is hopefully where – if the money can be raised – the first pitch will be. There will be a bank around the edge of the pitch for seating, a water tank to keep the grass healthy and a pavilion.
Our job for the day was to take soil samples to see what condition the frozen earth was in. After scrapping away the snow and filling four Tupperware boxes we relocated to a cafe and Chris told me why he had gotten involved with the project.
Over hot cups of juice and burgers, the 38-year-old told the UB Post, “It is a good opportunity for the ex-pats with cash and a good way of getting cricket kicked off in Mongolia for the kids.”
In England, there is the preconception that cricket is more of an upper-class game and that more boys play it than girls. But Chris said one of the most exciting things about “re-launching” cricket in Mongolia is that none of those issues were known here.
Although more boys tend to come to the ger sessions than girls, in the orphanage sessions, the ratio is 50:50.
“The great thing is that over here there are no preconceptions of cricket at all,” he said. ”So the only marks on the canvas, so to speak, are what Tulga has been doing over the past two to three years and it has been a great way for the kids to build friendship and teamwork in that context.”
Chris became involved in the project after meeting Tulga. When he first moved to Ulaanbaatar, he started playing with a group of expats and when he heard about the project, he was desperate to get involved.
He started playing cricket at school and that love continued into adulthood. He drew up plans for the pitch and is now trying to find funding for the appeal.
“I think first and foremost it is about bringing a new team sport to a country that has a massive lack of team sports. It also gives kids with nothing that change to get involved with something, to get them working together, learning and supporting each other,” he said.
“There is also a tangible need for expats to have stuff to do and we can share these facilities with the kids – it is the perfect situation.”
Back at School No. 34, the session has drawn to a close and the kids are putting the bats and balls away.
I ask them, through Tulga, what they like about playing cricket.
Bagana, 13, who is wearing a green baseball cap back to front, says, “It’s fun to spend my free time with my friends playing sports. It’s a really interesting game to learn.”
A small boy with freckles and a grey cardigan called Angara came to the practice session for the first time today. He tells the UB Post he will definitely be coming back again.
“I like playing team sports,” he said. “I had a lot of fun today. I liked bowling a lot but it was difficult, I want to get better.”
Baatar, 14, also said that playing team sports with his friends was a reason he came along to the Saturday sessions.
On the drive back to central Ulaanbaatar, Tulga tells me about his dreams for the project.
“Little by little, step by step, I think it will be good,” he said. “But you know the saying ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’? Well that is how I feel.
“There is such a need for sports like cricket that emphasis teamwork, because traditionally,
Mongolian people lived isolated lives as herders moving around a lot. It is why we have a lot of individual sports like archery and horse racing.
“But this is the 21st century and the kids need to get other skills about how to work together to get on in life.”
He adds that football and basketball are thriving and popular sports in the country and that the children’s parents have all been hugely supportive; helping them get to matches and fundraising nights.
“My dream,” he says. “Is that one day I can take them to Australia or England, India or even Hong Kong, and I can show how cricket is really played. It would be such a great experience for them – they wouldn’t believe it.”
For more information and to find out how to donate to the cricket pitch visit www.fb.com/mongoliancricketseedappeal or https://www.goldengiving.com/charity/maca
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