Battulga Gombo is on a one-man mission to bring cricket to Mongolia, and is now hoping to get the country noticed on the international stage.
All photos by the Mongolia Cricket Seed Appeal
The ground has been dug out and the seeds ordered. Battulga Gombo's dreams are finally about to come true. Ulaanbaatar is getting its own cricket pitch.
In a city home to 50 per cent of Mongolia's population, the pitch will bring communities in the capital together and give its young residents a chance to enjoy the sport in an unlikely location.
It took just one match in Australia to convince Battulga – a former Judo champion better known as Tulga – to bring cricket back to Mongolia with him.
"The first time I saw a cricket match was at a local club in Melbourne," he told VICE Sports. "I was so interested by the white clothes and it reminded me of a bat-ball game that we played when we were children. We called it 'Matka' and played it on the street. I really wanted to play the game myself and I was intrigued."
Tulga set about creating his cricket dream in 2007, founding the Mongolian Amateur Cricket Association (MACA). At the time the country didn't have a single coach for the sport. So, Tulga decided to take matters into his own hands.
"In 2012, I attended Cricket Australia's 'Cricket Coach Accreditation Course' and became the first cricket coach in Mongolia," he explains. "At that time we were thinking of organising cricket sessions at secondary schools for the schoolchildren. To do that, of course, we needed coaches. I came back to Mongolia and started organising kids and youth cricket sessions and games for cricket lovers."
From there he continued to run cricket sessions for a variety of locals: a local school, an orphanage centre, and the police academy of Ulaanbaatar. He says the youngsters love playing the sport: "The young cricketers are so keen on playing the game and they are definitely learning to work as a team and have fun."
For Tulga, it's all about working to spread the message of cricket and hopefully build up enough players to carry his dream forward.
"We are working with local schools to teach and spread cricket so our next generation will be a generation of people who have good communication skills and can work together. For example, we started organising some after-school cricket programmes at secondary schools."
And so the Mongolian Cricket Seed Appeal was launched in October 2015 to try and build the country's first cricket pitch. Tulga was joined by a handful of helpers, including Chris Hurd, a British expat accountant. He says that Tulga is the man behind the success of the MACA, that his sheer enthusiasm and passion for the sport convinced him to become involved. As the cash and offers of help started to come in, they realised that the pitch was going to become a reality.
Not that it's been easy.
Building a cricket pitch comes with particular difficulties in a country where temperatures drop to -40 degrees celsius. The team have had to choose seeds that will be able to grow and cope with the country's harsh climate. The entire cost of excavating the ground is around £82,000, which includes planting the seeds and ensuring it's ready for use. The plan is to be playing there by May 2017.
As well as the weather restraints, building a cricket pitch in Mongolia comes with some interesting cultural aspects. Hurd says that, in keeping with the country's tradition, a Buddhist ceremony was held before they started excavating the ground.
"We asked a lama when the most auspicious time would be to start excavating. Two lamas did a ceremony for about an hour. We had a horsehead violinist, and an urn was burned in the middle of the pitch."
Just this week, the team have finished phase one of the plan with the nets open and being used by young cricket enthusiasts. The grass on the oval also appears to have taken well, but won't see any play until next year.
Now that the plans are fully in action, and the team are beginning to see the rewards, the emphasis is on bringing more young people to the sport and finding out what barriers need to be broken to allow them to take part.
With his dream of having a pitch to play on coming true, Tulga has his eye on one day joining the Cricket World Cup.
"Hopefully in a few years we will be able to join the International Cricket Council and play against international teams. Furthermore, in 25 to 30 years, we are hoping to participate in the ICC World Cup, so we will work very hard for that."
Hurd has no doubts about Tulga's determination and power to make this happen.
"For me, it's about getting the seeds sewn and playing on the first pitch, but for Tulga it's more than that. He's going to take his vision all the way to the World Cup, and I have no doubt he will."