The 23rd day of June 2016 was a seismic day in British politics, and the full fallout from it for the UK’s economy and institutions is still unclear. A consequence that would have been far from almost every voter’s mind when they were deciding whether the UK should remain in or leave the European Union, would have been its impact on cricket. But just as with every other aspect of British life, cricket has been affected by the victory for the Leave campaign. Players are rushing to take advantage of the European law before the UK’s departure from the EU is finalised.
All this stems from a ruling by the European Court of Justice in 2003. Maros Kolpak, a Slovakian handball player, was told he could not work in Germany as he was a non-EU citizen. He argued that this was a restriction of trade. As Slovakia had an Association Agreement to trade with the EU, he argued that this was illegal. He won his case and it was decided that any person who was a citizen of a country that had a trade agreement with the EU could not be included in any quotas. In essence, they could not be considered an overseas player.
This had an almost immediate effect on cricket. Countries in the African, Caribbean and Pacific group of states such as islands in the West Indies, South Africa and Zimbabwe, have a great number of cricketers that are keen to play in England. With the relative strength of the economies, the chance to earn a steady and sizeable income from the county game is very attractive. But once the UK has departed the EU, this loophole will be closed. Suddenly, we have seen a number of players that may not have considered going down this route before, signing for English counties.
In the past, most players that have decided to become a “Kolpak” player were at the end of their careers, with players from Zimbabwe being a notable exception. The news that Kyle Abbott, a 29-year-old who is a regular in South Africa’s Test team, had decided to turn his back on his international career and sign for Hampshire has brought the issue to the forefront on people’s minds.
This isn’t a man who has had his time in international cricket, or a Zimbabwean player that has gone without a salary for years. This was a frontline player for a team ranked fourth in the world in Tests, second in ODIs and third in T20s. A team that has been the best ranked side in the world in recent times. If they are struggling to keep hold of their players, cricket is in trouble. There are so few international teams that play the sport, if one of the best sides is losing their players, there is a legitimate concern for the future of the international game.
There is no blame to be laid at Kyle Abbott’s feet, he is a man with a short career that needs to make decisions that are best for him and his family. Ultimately, he will have a more secure income on a lucrative multi-year county deal than he will as a South African player on a rolling one year central contract. The fact that the pound is so strong against the South African rand only makes that deal more attractive.
And then there is the quota system. In an attempt to redress the imbalances caused by years of Apartheid, the government have pushed for national sides to have a certain number of players of colour in their teams. Abbott was at the centre of a controversy surrounding the informal targets that were in place, when he was left out of the World Cup semifinal in March 2015, with Vernon Philander taking his place.
Cricket South Africa were punished in April 2016 for failing to meet transformation targets. The Sports Minister said that they would not be allowed to bid to host any international tournaments as a result. Last September it was announced that a strict quota would be introduced, with a requirement that the cricket team needed to have at least six players of colour, two of whom were to be black Africans.
Abbott has said that he won’t use quotas as the excuse for his departure, but it would be naive to think that they hadn’t played a part.
“February would be four years since my international debut,” Abbott said after the recently concluded Test against Sri Lanka. “Ever since I played in South Africa, at every level, there has always been a quota system. I have never used it as an excuse and I won’t now. I need to pay bills, I need to buy groceries.”
Abbott’s captain, Faf du Plessis, expressed his disappointment at his decision, saying he didn’t really understand why he had made the call when he did, but du Plessis is acutely aware of the reasons players will give.
“Opportunity, money, transformation. There are a lot of factors guys will look at as their excuse or as their reason. What Kyle’s is, I am not sure. Every single reason is a concern. He is someone who has not been sure for a period of time. He wants security,” du Plessis said.
And it isn’t just Abbott who is walking away from the South African national side. Simon Harmer, who played Test cricket for South Africa in November 2015, has joined Essex. Stiaan van Zyl, who played for South Africa in August 2016, has signed for Sussex. Hardus Viljoen, who played his only Test against England in January last year, has signed for Derbyshire. Rilee Rousouw, who has been a fixture in South Africa’s limited overs side in recent months, will be joining Abbott at Hampshire. There is even talk of Dane Piedt, a player of colour, leaving South Africa for county cricket.
This drain of talent from the South African system has become a full blown exodus, and while it may be only fringe players that, leave that will have an impact on the strength of domestic competitions that develop players for the international game. Cricket South Africa have started saying that the number of Kolpak players that appear in their domestic competitions may be restricted. They are certainly keen to do something, although their CEO, Haroon Lorgat, admits they are pretty powerless to stop this from happening.
“If somebody gives up their right to play for the Proteas, there’s not much more we can do,” Lorgat said. “Instead of crying over spilt milk, we will invest in future Proteas.”
While it is understandable for the cricketers and the counties involved to want to take advantage of this Kolpak ruling before it is no longer a possibility, it is a worry for English, South African and global cricket. While some Kolpak players can strengthen the English county competitions, too many and the chances of England qualified players to prove themselves are limited. For South Africa, their players choosing the financial security of a county deal that pays in sterling, should be a massive concern as it reduces their player pool and their bench strength. In fact, all cricket fans and boards should be concerned. A weaker South Africa is bad news for everyone.