Concern over the future of South African cricket is growing in the midst of a shallowing of their player pool as a result of the mass exodus by fringe players, who have retired from international cricket in order to earn a lucrative Kolpak deal in the English county game.
A number of high-profile names, including recent stars in both the Test and ODI arena, Kyle Abbott and Rilee Rossouw, have swapped international for county caps before Britain officially leaves the European Union, a move which will probably see the ending of the Kolpak decree.
The Kolpak ruling is a European Court of Justice agreement made on 8th May 2003 in favour of Maroš Kolpak, a Slovakian handball player. It decreed that citizens of countries, like South Africa, which have signed European Union Association Agreements have the same right to freedom of work and movement within the EU as EU citizens.
“One cannot earn a Kolpak deal if they are an acting international, meaning you have had to have retired from the international scene to receive a contract.”
This meant that any restrictions placed on their right to work, such as quotas on the maximum numbers of such foreign players in sports teams, are deemed illegal under European Union law.
This means, after Brexit, the Kolpak ruling will have become void, meaning that it will then be very difficult for overseas players to earn county deals. Only the very best players from around the world, in theory, will be handed deals, meaning a number of South African players on the fringes of the international squad have made a dash to earn a contract in England before Brexit.
However, one cannot earn a Kolpak deal if they are an acting international, meaning you have had to have retired from the international scene to receive a contract.
But why would one swap the thrills of international for county cricket? There are number of factors, but perceived to be the main one is money. English county side’s pay significantly more than the Board of South African cricket, and with the weakening of South Africa’s currency, the Rand, against the Pound Sterling, the economic initiatives, for some players, are simply too great to turn down.
While the retirement by a number of players who had played for South Africa in the past twelve months, but had lost their place, is worrying for the size of their talent pool, the retirement of current players is disastrous for the Proteas.
Fast bowler Kyle Abbott, after years of being in and out of the South African side, had recently finally nailed down a spot in the team for the foreseeable future, with the long-term injury to Dale Steyn.
“Although money was undoubtedly a factor in Abbott’s decision, the seeds of doubt had been sown a year earlier.”
He had just come off a fine series on both a team and personal level in Australia and was a key part of the side in the process of comfortably beating Sri Lanka on home soil. All seemed well. But, out of the blue, the news that Abbott had reportedly agreed a Kolpak deal with Hampshire CCC quickly became a reality as he announced his immediate retirement from South Africa after the second test had finished.
In the aftermath, Abbott spoke of having ‘‘gone through all this at length with family and friends. I am proud of the cap that I wear – 81 will always stay with me as a Test number. It’s the cycle of life and things change. I believe this is the right time for me to go. I don’t want to be sitting here in 12 months’ time, when everyone is fit again, and I am wearing a bib and I am 30.
“At some point, you’ve got to make the tough decision. It’s the time for me. I think I am ahead of my game at the moment, there’s other opportunities around the world, and as my past suggests, I’m pretty good at taking opportunities. I can’t see how anything is going to change.”
Although money was undoubtedly a factor in Abbott’s decision, the seeds of doubt had been sown a year earlier. At the World Cup in 2015, an in-form Abbott, South Africa’s leading wicket-taker in the tournament, was left out of South Africa’s semi-final tie versus New Zealand. He was not being dropped on a performance basis, but because he had to make way for the return of Vernon Philander.
“Although there is talent coming through the ranks and Brexit will at least signal the end of the Kolpak departures, T20 leagues around the world, played all year round, are easily mouth-wateringly lucrative enough to force yet more retirements.”
Despite the fact that Philander is a very fine bowler, he had been injured all tournament and, although Cricket South Africa deny it, was widely believed to have been reintroduced in order to fill South Africa’s quota of black players – something they hadn’t been doing up until that point in the tournament.
Not only do South Africa have one of the best seam attacks in world cricket, but they now must also have at least six black players in their playing eleven.
Although I personally agree with the quota system, it is not difficult to see why someone like Kyle Abbott had become disillusioned – it is hard enough to break into that team without competing against a quota ruling.
Abbott is a fine bowler, but not quite at the level of South Africa’s very best quicks. This makes his decision understandable, but it is one that has sent shockwaves through the whole of South African cricket.
He is not actually earning that much more at Hampshire than for South Africa, meaning his decision surely was influenced by a lack of guaranteed action in the coming years through a culmination of stiff competition and quotas.
Although there is talent coming through the ranks and Brexit will at least signal the end of the Kolpak departures, T20 leagues around the world, played all year round, are easily mouth-wateringly lucrative enough to force yet more retirements, and with the long-term future of stalwart batsman AB de Villiers in increasing doubt, Cricket South Africa need to find a way to stop the bleeding.