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ESPN: Mongolia sows the seeds of a new national pastime

A national judo star and an English accountant have joined forces in an unlikely quest to bring the game of cricket to one of the world's most remote nations

Battulga Gombo is a Mongolian judo hero, tall, powerfully built and with the slightly mangled ears that characterise many devotees of martial arts. He has represented his country in many international competitions, including once winning a world championship bronze medal for Sambo, a Russian combat sport. But now he is something else: an evangelist for Mongolian cricket.

Gombo's infatuation with the game began 11 years ago. Visiting his wife, who was studying at Monash University in Melbourne, he saw cricket being played for the first time: in parks and streets, and then at the MCG, in a game being played to raise cash for tsunami victims. It was less alien than he had imagined: cricket reminded Gombo of matka, a Russian bat-ball game he played growing up in Mongolia; only, it had more depth. "The teamwork and the strategy was very intriguing," he says. And the whole ethos of cricket reminded Gombo of judo.

"Judo is not only a martial art. There is great philosophy behind it: the judoka must respect his or her opponents, the referee and the mat. In my opinion, this is very similar to the spirit of cricket and they are both one of the greatest sports in the world," Gombo says.

In 2009, Gombo returned to Melbourne, where his wife was studying for her PhD. A friend in Australia gave Gombo a copy of Don Bradman's How To Play Cricket, which he devoured. While he was there, Gombo attended the Cricket Coach Accreditation Course by Cricket Australia, becoming Mongolia's first ever qualified cricket coach.

"At first I just played cricket for fun. Then I got the idea to teach the sport to youngsters in Mongolia because I realised I needed to share the feeling of playing cricket, the teamwork and the fun. Soon my dream started turning into reality and I started understanding how big a responsibility this was."

Gombo took the task of spreading word about the game upon himself. In 2007 he founded the Mongolian Amateur Cricket Association (MACA). In 2012, with no regular funding, he started cricket outreach programmes to orphanages, schools, police training facilities and rural youth centres. He remains Mongolia's only qualified coach.

His challenge can seem overwhelming. Even now, nine years after MACA was formed, there are no proper grounds to play on in Mongolia. But to cricket lovers every field in the country is a cricket ground, even if they don't realise it yet: the country has bounteous vast flat areas, the grass perfectly mown by goats to make it ideally suited to playing.

Gombo has already helped achieve much, using cricket to do good in a country with deeply entrenched poverty. Ulaanbaatar, the capital and home of Mongolian cricket, suffers from particular problems. About half of the 1.4 million who reside in the city live in informal areas: they are exposed to temperatures below -40 Celsius, and have no public water, heating or sewage. While in theory the Mongolian cricket season is between May and October, even in summer snow can sometimes drift over from Siberia.

Battulga Gombo, Mongolia's cricket pioneer © Mongolian Cricket Seed Appeal

Notwithstanding the climate, Gombo leads cricket training sessions at some secondary schools and an orphanage centre in Ulaanbaatar. While adults remain oblivious to cricket, about 400 children have played the game so far. Seventy return for training every week, playing on an artificial soccer pitch surrounded by a running track, with plastic equipment Gombo sourced from Australia. Gombo runs most of the training sessions himself, though a small coterie of adult cricket evangelists have emerged in Mongolia, who sometimes help him with training.

Foremost among those is Chris Hurd, an Englishman who moved to Mongolia five years ago to set up an accountancy firm. Even accountants are allowed to dream. And, together with Gombo, Hurd's dream is to build a cricket ground in Mongolia. It will be called the Mongolian Friendship Cricket Ground.

The ground will be in the National Park of Ulaanbaatar. The vision is not merely of a wonderful place to play but a perfect setting from which to spread the word about cricket. A couple of thousand children visit the park every day; if Hurd and Gombo have their way, they will all be exposed to cricket and have the opportunity to play the game. The aim is for the first proper game to take place in May 2017, and the ground to not merely host games for Mongolian children but to also develop into an idyllic location for touring teams in search of something exotic.

Just before work on the project began, Gombo made a pilgrimage to Burkan Khaldun, the mountain in the bend of the Kherlen River where Genghis Khan was born. Gombo placed a cricket ball on top of the great pile of stones that marks the summit. He consulted the lamas and vowed to start construction, which has been undeterred by snow, blizzards or the need to truck equipment across the desert to reach Ulaanbaatar.

There is just one snag: this grand plan requires cash, and lots of it. US$121,000, to be exact. Half of this would pay for the construction of the ground; the rest would fund development, including satellite facilities, an outreach travel fund to allow underprivileged children to reach the facilities; also cricket kit, a basic pavilion and changing rooms. Using Gombo's fame from judo and Hurd's tenacity, the two have already found an eclectic array of financial backers, with a hefty contingent from England and Australia. The artist Emma Trenchard has donated a series of paintings depicting The Mongol XI.

The Batting Yak, artwork donated to the Seed Appeal by Emma Trenchard © Emma Trenchard

"You can say we have run on donations made by good-hearted people," Gombo says. So far the campaign has raised $34,000, with another $10,000 pledged - a formidable effort, but still short of the $63,000 they need to finish building the ground. Donations from around the world are gratefully received.

Hurd is already planning the next steps for Mongolian cricket. "Once we have a focal point, we will help orphanages and others develop nets, then teams will come to use the pitch and nets for games and practice. Perhaps these teams will become sponsored by companies that then get involved in helping the kids in more than just cricket. The aim is to create a new community with cricket at its core that brings together well off and badly off, expat and Mongolian. I think we both hope that forming a new community around cricket will lead to innumerable friendships across social classes in Mongolia, between expats and Mongolians, and of course in time with the outside world."

Over his years coaching Mongolian children the game, Gombo has been touched by their enthusiasm and joy for the game. "All of them just enjoy the game in general and have lots of fun. They always say 'Let's play' to me and ask me 'Can we play?' They are so excited to learn about cricket and play it. The most important thing about the game is to enjoy it and have fun. That's what cricket's all about. I think the kids understand this and they come every week to learn and have fun with their friends."

He hopes that the Mongolian Cricket Seed Appeal will kick-start the wider development of cricket in Mongolia. The country is not one of the 105 members of the ICC, but Gombo envisages that they will soon become an Affiliate member. However, the requirements for that status - including having eight senior teams playing in structured competition, four junior teams, and annual income of at least $2500 - are tough, especially considering that non-members like Mongolia are not eligible for any funding from the ICC.

If Mongolia becomes an Affiliate member of the ICC, the children in Ulaanbaatar might soon dream of representing the country in international matches: as an Affiliate, Mongolia would be eligible to enter regional qualification for ICC events, thus getting to the bottom of the pathway for events.

For now, all that can wait: Mongolia just needs to finish its first ground. Earthworks started last week, and if further funds are found, Gombo hopes that it will just be the start of Mongolia's cricketing odyssey. "My dream is to spread the great game and establish clubs and set up a national XI which can play against other international teams," he says. "I think it is a big responsibility because all the kids and all the cricket lovers believe in me and encourage me. This is why I will do my best and carry on."

Tim Wigmore is a freelance journalist and author of Second XI: Cricket in its Outposts

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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