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Mongolia, cricket's field of dreams

One of the first things that psychologist and park cricketer Doug Scott noticed about Mongolian teammate Battulgaa Gombo at the crease was that when a ball hit him, he did not flinch. ''They're a nation of herders,'' Scott said. ''They're tough people. Tough and strong.''

Gombo is the founder, head and sole qualified coach of the Mongolia Amateur Cricket Association. It is, to say the most, a fledgling organisation. It consists of a handful of Mongolians in Melbourne and expat Australians, British and Indians in Ulan Bator.

Illustration: Jim Pavlidis.

It has some donated gear, but no clubs or teams, nor a ground. It is scouting for a suitable and affordable block of land in Ulan Bator. Scott sees it this way: ''Mongolia is all steppes. The whole country is a cricket ground.''

Gombo's mission is for Mongolia to field a team in international cricket. ICC staff, though encouraging, have told him to think of it as a 50-year plan. Gombo is undaunted. He looks around his region. Some cricket is now played in China, and all of the 'stans have teams, foremost among them Afghanistan, which will play in next year's World Cup.

Gombo fell under cricket's spell in 2005 when his wife, Daariimaa, was studying at Monash University. Visiting, he saw the tsunami benefit match at the MCG and was entranced.

It was similar to matka, a Russian bat-ball game played by some in his homeland, but, to his mind, better.

Moreover, the team aspect appealed. The predominant sports in Mongolia are horse-riding, archery and wrestling, all for individuals. Gombo was himself a national judo champion.

Dimly, he discerned in cricket's complex dynamics, its delicate balance of team and personal ambition, a guide. ''It's sport,'' he said, ''but it's good to teach about life.''

In 2009, the Gombos returned to Melbourne, she to do a PhD. Meantime, Scott - who specialises in suicide prevention - had been to Ulan Bator to run a seminar at the National Centre Against Violence. About 30 per cent of Mongolians are nomads, but in an all-too-familiar tale, drought has forced many into Ulan Bator, swelling it to three times its ideal size, creating ghettos with all their attendant social problems. It struck Scott that a sporting outlet would help.

Through mutual friends at Monash, he met Gombo, who on Christmas Day, 2009, said to him: ''Teach me how to play cricket.'' They went to a nearby park with a tennis ball, and began. They've been playing ever since, formally and informally. Gombo quickly found that cricket met two needs, to fulfil his sporting urge and as an entree to Australian society. ''I like the strategy, the teamwork and the sportsmanship,'' he said. ''And I like playing with friends. It's good for socialising.''

Evidently, Gombo is also a fast learner. Scott described his bowling as ''nippy'' and his batting as replete with ''natural aggression and confidence''. Soon after their first meeting, Scott gave Gombo a copy of Don Bradman's How To Play Cricket, which he devoured. It was the start not just of an education, but an enculturation. Just this week, he finished a thick biography of Shane Warne. Scott knew that Gombo was fully immersed in cricket during the Boxing Day Test this summer when he heard him and his fast bowling friend Bayar Purevdorj debating the merits of the Duckworth-Lewis method.

Cricket always will be an easier game to play than to deconstruct. Initially, Daariima found it boring, but dutifully came to matches, anyway. Scott recalls a day at Fairfield when the wives of the Mongolians brought exotic food and a festival atmosphere, but were puzzled after a couple of hours because the men were still playing. Cricket's timelessness is the aspect Gombo finds hardest to explain to mystified compatriots. ''How many days?'' he mimicked. ''A draw? What's going on?'' In any case, Gombo says his wife now watches cricket on TV with him, and their two children are Australian fans. So, to the cause of MACA. While in Australia, Gombo did a CA coaching course, and he and Scott are pretty sure he is the only accredited cricket coach in Mongolia. Last year, he ran a clinic at secondary school No.34 in Ulan Bator, and was delighted by his reception. Younger Mongolians, their horizons widened by television and the internet, were open to new sports and pastimes, he said.

Soccer and basketball were catching on, of course, but he saw a place for cricket.

He and his family are soon to return to Mongolia, and you suspect the proselytisation of cricket will become, if not his life's work, his lifetime hobby.

Already, he and Scott are planning for a joint Australian-Mongolian team to do an exhibition tour of Mongolia later this year. The loose change trailed over the bar by cricket's grand poohbahs in Dubai this week as they divide among themselves the spoils of the next 10 years would pay for the trip over and over.

That does not bother Gombo. He finds the game enriching in a way they will never understand.

Greg Baum is chief sports columnist and associate editor with The Age

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