With the Brexit transition period set to end in December, the future of South Africans playing in England is unclear, writes DANIEL GALLAN.
Like the breaking of a long-prophesised storm, it arrived on 31 January 2020. Or should it be likened to the dawning of a prosperous golden age? Or an asteroid crashing through the earth’s atmosphere to knock a once-mighty civilisation back to the stone age?
Whatever opinions you hold on the United Kingdom’s divorce from the European Union, colloqualised as Brexit, there is no doubting the fact that a seismic political and cultural event has taken place. Everything on the frigid island nation swimming in the North Atlantic will be impacted by the result of 2016’s divisive referendum. From foreign nurses in hospitals to the sale of tropical fruit in local supermarkets, every facet of life will be touched in some way.
Cricket, despite its best efforts, does not exist in an isolated bubble, separate from the rest of the world. Even this antiquated game will feel the effects of Brexit. As far as South Africans are concerned, the most pertinent issue will focus squarely on the complicated narrative that is Kolpak-contracted players.
The morass of opinions on the subject is already heaped high but some overview is required. According to the Cotonou Agreement of 2000, professionals from the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States (ACP countries) could work freely within the borders of the EU provided they meet the legal requirements to do so (such as work permits and appropriate visas).
Three years later, Slovakian handball player Maros Kolpak won a court battle with his German club after he was denied a contract on the grounds that the team had filled its quota of foreign players. Kolpak successfully argued that under EU free-trader laws he had the right to work in Germany.
This meant professional athletes could represent European clubs as a local player if their country had an existing trade agreement with the EU. The only catch was that they could no longer represent their country while contracted as a Kolpak.
Since Claude Henderson became the first cricketer to steamroll through this loophole in 2004, a glut of South Africans have moved north in search of playing opportunities and the chance to earn pounds.
For most of the history of Kolpak contracts, those who migrated were past their prime. That changed in the summer of 2017 when Kyle Abbott and Rilee Rossouw joined Hampshire after establishing themselves as regulars with the Proteas. Others with international caps, like Simon Harmer, Hardus Viljoen and Stiaan van Zyl, were already waiting in Old Blighty. When Duanne Olivier legged it to Yorkshire after collecting the Player of the Series award in a home rubber against Pakistan in March 2019, the ill-will directed towards Kolpak players was solidified.
‘We’ve definitely been branded in a negative way,’ Dane Vilas tells SA Cricket magazine from Lahore, where he was on duty for the Qalandars in the Pakistan Super League. ‘It doesn’t really get to me. I’ve never been overly bothered with what other people think but there is no denying there is a stigma around Kolpak players.’
One Cricket South Africa (CSA) insider says this sentiment stems from the perception that some players callously use the organisation as a stepping stone in their career. He points out that ‘vast sums of money’ are invested in their development but are not repaid with prolonged stays in the local system. Instead, that investment is used as rocket fuel to propel them towards riches abroad.
All that will change. Although no one is certain what Brexit will entail, there is consensus from CSA and its counterparts at the England and Wales Cricket Board that after the ‘transitional period’, as this state of limbo is being termed, ends on 31 December this year, Kolpak contracts will no longer exist.
‘It’s strange to think about what comes next as Kolpaks have almost become a way of life for those of us involved in South African cricket,’ says Andrew Breetzke, chief executive of the South African Cricketers’ Association (Saca) that represents the interests of all professional players in the country.
‘There has been so much turmoil surrounding Kolpaks and there will no doubt be uncertainty. But at least we’ll be able to draw a line under this chapter, whichever way it plays out.’
Breetzke is non-committal regarding his views on Kolpaks and offers a nuanced outlook instead. On the one hand, the talent drain has impacted the entire ecosystem of South African cricket, from the highest echelons right through to the domestic game and even into the way younger players are plucked from the fringes and handed senior positions for which they are not quite ready.
The positive by-product that stems from this imbalance is that more space is made available for budding talents at home. Further abroad, Kolpak contracts have opened the door for a handful of cricketers to maximise their earning potential.
‘One of our positions is in keeping with any union,’ Breetzke says. ‘Cricketers have finite financial windows. When players have a chance to increase their income and support their family, we cannot begrudge them that and we encourage them do to so, even though we prefer to see all South African cricketers remain.
‘It is short-sighted to criticise them. Everyone wants security and most of us in the world accept promotions or new jobs without ever thinking of the broader implications that might have on our particular industry or company. We’re almost always looking out for ourselves and yet we seem to hold elite athletes to a higher moral standard.’
With Kolpaks coming to an end, restructuring at both ends of the globe will be required. Nothing is confirmed yet but the number of overseas players permitted to each English county team will likely increase from one, as has been the case since 1968, to two. This approach is backed by the Professional Cricketers’ Association, Saca’s equivalent in the UK.
That does not guarantee every Kolpak will remain. Overseas slots can be filled by players from any nation, not just those afforded Kolpak status. South Africans who do not already have settled status in the UK (such as an ancestral or spousal visa) will either have to sign as an overseas player or return home.
‘The good thing is they’ll be eligible to play for South Africa again,’ Breetzke says. ‘Whether or not they’ll be picked remains to be seen.’
Olivier and Harmer have both stated their desire to play for England. Neither conveyed a patriotic loyalty to their adopted homeland and certainly have not aped Kevin Pietersen by tattooing the Three Lions on their bodies. Instead they have positioned themselves as fierce competitors eager to return to the summit of their sport. But their comments chafed against the ideals so many South African sports fans ascribe to those men and women who represent the Rainbow Nation on the world stage.
‘Playing for your country is the ultimate for any cricketer,’ says Vilas, who did so in six Tests and one T20I between 2012 and 2016 before he joined Lancashire, where he is now the club captain. ‘But just because you can’t play for the country of your birth doesn’t mean the desire to play at the top goes away. I think the comments from Simon and Duanne have been taken out of context.’
Regardless, the return of Kolpaks would result in changes in a few dressing rooms. There is no arguing that every Kolpak cricketer would add value to one of the six franchises. Some cynical journalists and supporters have even suggested that a combined Kolpak XI would beat the Proteas. The challenge is to fit them all in. And what of the players who will have to make way? Breetzke is conscious of this impending dilemma and points to the Mzansi Super League as a cause for his concern.
‘Of the 270 professional cricketers in the country who are not Proteas, only 55 played for one of the six teams in the MSL this past season,’ he says. ‘The inclusion of all the nationally contracted players, the Kolpak players and a few overseas players meant there were very few places left for the rest. So large numbers of players were not given the opportunity to participate in this crucial T20 competition. That is not healthy.’
He continues: ‘This bottleneck of talent has already thrown up debates concerning a seventh or eighth team. We’re discussing the domestic restructure with CSA and we’re mindful of the ways returning Kolpaks will add an extra variable to the conversation. An extra team or two could be the solution if it is financially sustainable.’
Breetzke outlines byproducts of returning Kolpaks, focusing on the aforementioned bottleneck. Without an extra team, talented young players might not regard cricket as a viable career path and could abandon the sport altogether. Those who persist but find their progress blocked could move abroad at a much younger age in search of opportunities.
After an innings defeat to India in Ranchi in 2019, Faf du Plessis lamented the unavailability of Kolpak players. ‘It’s sad for South African cricket to not have that option,’ he said. ‘Simon Harmer has had an unbelievable season [starring in Essex’s 2019 title-winning campaign]. It would have been great for South Africa to be in a position where they could say, “He’s done well overseas. Let’s bring him on tour with us.”’
Du Plessis’ successor will not share his headaches and could even benefit from a system similar to the one utilised by the Springboks that welcomes overseas-based rugby players.
‘I’m in the last few years of my career so it doesn’t really impact me but I am fully in favour of something like that taking place in South African cricket,’ says Vilas. ‘Let’s take advantage of the skills and knowledge that can help improve the Proteas, wherever it may be.’
The countdown has begun. The days are numbered. What comes next could change the fate of South African cricket forever.
SA’S KOLPAK PLAYERS
2004 Claude Henderson (Leicestershire)
Greg Smith (Derbyshire, Essex)
2005 Riki Wessels (Northamptonshire, Notts, Worcestershire)
Charl Willoughby (Leicester, Somerset)
Martin van Jaarsveld (Kent, Glamorgan)
Zander de Bruyn (Worcestershire, Somerset, Surrey)
2006 Lance Klusener (Northamptonshire)
Paul Harris (Warwickshire)
2007 *Faf du Plessis (Lancashire)
Garnett Kruger (Leicestershire, Derbyshire)
Ryan McLaren (Kent)
Tyrone Henderson (Middlesex)
2008 Alfonso Thomas (Somerset)
Andrew Hall (Northamptonshire)
Charl Langeveldt (Derbyshire)Dillon du Preez (Leicestershire)
Friedel de Wet (Somerset)
Johan van der Wath (Northamptonshire)
Justin Kemp (Kent)
Nantie Hayward (Hampshire, Derbyshire)
Nicky Boje (Northamptonshire)
Shaun Pollock (Durham)
2009 Andre Nel (Hampshire)
2010 Neil McKenzie (Hampshire)
2011 Johann Myburgh (Hampshire, Somerset)
2013 Ashwell Prince (Lancashire)
2014 Colin Ingram (Glamorgan)
2015 Alviro Petersen (Lancashire)
Richard Levi (Northamptonshire)
2016 Hardus Viljoen (Derbyshire, Kent)
Simon Harmer (Essex)
Stiaan van Zyl (Sussex)
2017 David Wiese (Sussex)
Kyle Abbott (Hampshire)
Rilee Rossouw (Hampshire)
2018 Heino Kuhn (Kent)
Morne Morkel (Surrey)
Wayne Parnell (Worcestershire)
2019 Duanne Olivier (Yorkshire)
2020 Vernon Philander (Somerset)
Dane Paterson (TBC)
*Du Plessis returned to SA when a new Kolpak rule came into effect in 2010 and he made his Proteas debut in 2011.
– This feature first appeared in the April-June issue of SA Cricket Magazine