The Kolpak player: an indelible fashion in the English Game?


On November 18th 2016, Kyle Abbott posted a photo on his Instagram account: the pair of Kagiso Rabada and Vernon Philander were stationed either side of him, and the trio in unison clutched a used cricket ball. The caption read, “Known as the engine room !!! Always a partnership”. It was in reference to the test match three days prior, in which the Proteas trio had devastated the Australian batting line-up with their relentless bowling in Hobart to claim series victory, and Abbott finished with a second innings haul of 6/77.

Only two months later, however, after a home series win over Sri Lanka in which Abbott played the first consecutive test matches of his career, the bowler announced his retirement with immediate effect in a tear-laden press conference. He was to join English County side Hampshire for the 2017 season on a Kolpak contract.

This is the legacy that Slovakian handball player Maroš Kolpak has left with the modern English cricket game

For this is the legacy that Slovakian handball player Maroš Kolpak has left with the modern English cricket game. A member of German second division handball team TSV Ostringen, Kolpak had his contract extension blocked in 2000 as he represented a surplus of Non-EU players, exceeding the league’s maximum quota. Kolpak argued that an illegal restriction had been placed on his freedom of movement as a worker, and on the 8th May 2003 the European Court of Justice ruled in his favour, declaring that citizens of countries with signed European Union Association Agreements, such as Slovakia in 2003, and present day South Africa, should attain the same freedom of movement within the EU as EU citizens.

The County Championship begins this Friday, and the season has been handed an intriguing sub-plot in the form of a mass influx of South African talent on Kolpak rulings. In addition to Kyle Abbott (Hampshire), Dane Vilas (Lancashire), Hardus Viljoen (Derbyshire), Stiaan Van Zyl, David Wiese (both Sussex), Rilee Rossouw (also Hampshire) and Simon Harmer (Essex) have all been handed the lucrative contracts, turning their back on International selection and the previously perceived pinnacle of their careers.

Ever since the first Kolpak signing – Leicestershire’s capture of South African spinner Claude Henderson in 2004 – there has been a constant flux of imports exploiting the loophole, and potential Achilles heel, of the domestic game. Players such as Dale Benkenstein, Neil McKenzie & Alfonso Thomas are among those who have achieved considerable recent success as Kolpak players in the twilight years upon conclusion of their South African duties, but very rarely before have such prominent internationals been synonymous with the exodus from their homeland.

Cricket South Africa Chief Executive Haroon Lorgat described the world as a “global village with people very mobile”

The South African economy continues to weaken, and the lure of financial security in the face of such adversity is a strong one, as is recognised by Cricket South Africa Chief Executive Haroon Lorgat, who describes the world as a “global village with people very mobile”; the mobility not limited to cricketers who venture abroad to take advantage of employment opportunities and stronger currencies. Yet, in the past, both Jacques Rudolph (Yorkshire, 2007-2010) and Ryan McLaren (Kent, 2007-2009) have renounced their respective Kolpak statuses after stints in England in order to rejoin the South African setup. This time around, though, there is an ominously terminal feel about the parting of ways.

It was a left-field repercussion of two entirely separate events in 2016: the United Kingdom’s impending exit from the European Union, coupled to the South African sports ministry’s aggressive transformation agenda, created a marriage of uncertainty for the future of white South African cricketers. In line with the grassroots development in both the domestic franchises and semi-professional provincial teams, Cricket South Africa announced targets had been set for the National side to constitute six players of colour, of which three must be black African. Acknowledging that immediate success may be detrimental to performance, a degree of leniency was instilled in the form of a yearly average quota (as opposed to a game-by-game basis), providing a short-term window of opportunity for the selectors to toy with their best XI. Instead of engaging in such competition for places, however, players such as Kyle Abbott may have been inadvertently forced, due to the cloud that Brexit has cast over the future of the Kolpak ruling, into making imminent decisions over their futures. Whilst some, such as Rilee Rossouw, have left in more acrimonious circumstances than Abbott’s emotional farewell, it is difficult to envisage any future path back for even the most dignified under such circumstances, and so the impact on the English game must be examined with careful foresight.

There is an element of Groundhog Day in all of this, for it is not the first time that the contentious issue has breached a threshold level required for evaluation. Some fifty registrations were recorded hastily on the back of Henderson’s, and the Kolpak player quickly became the vogue fashion of the English domestic game. Some, such as Glamorgan, adopted a stance of opposition, but there was a more widespread impotence to the burgeoning dilution of homegrown talent, encapsulated in part by a particular domestic encounter between Leicestershire and Northamptonshire at the County Ground in 2008, in which no fewer than ten of the 22-strong party were South African players.

In a domestic encounter between Leicestershire and Northamptonshire at the County Ground in 2008, no fewer than ten of the 22-strong party were South African players

The ECB attempted to reduce the number of Kolpak signings with financial sanctions. First, in 2005, there came a £340 fine for each Kolpak player exceeding a total of two in a County Championship match, and then the heftier sum of £1100 upon review in 2007, but it wasn’t until an amendment to South Africa’s EU Association Agreement – the Cotonou Agreement – that the board was able to impose any genuine restriction. In 2009, the illegibility requirements for a Kolpak contract were amended so that any potential suitor would be required to have had a valid work permit for four years previous (or either a single test cap in the previous two years, or five within five years), and players such as Dwayne Smith (Sussex) and Mattheus Wessels (Northants) were forced to relinquish their contracts. The level concomitantly dwindled, from almost 50% in that game, to a steady level of around 3-4% of the domestic pool.

Prior to the changes, attitudes towards Kolpak players were ambivalent, but often distasteful, too, exacerbated by rumblings of waning camaraderie, and the notion that Afrikaans had replaced English as the dressing room language. In 2014, the Roses Match at Old Trafford was dogged by the racist abuse of Lancashire’s South African batsman Ashwell Prince, to whom Yorkshire Captain Andrew Gale referred as a “Kolpak fucker.” But make no mistake, Gale’s comments are utterly prehistoric. Fellow professional Chris Nash offered a more representative view via Twitter in January, in reply to a fan concerned with the “bittersweet” nature of the Kolpak signing David Wiese. The Sussex batsman, who has been at the club since 2002, announced his enthusiastic support for the import, and recounted: “When I started, we had two overseas and a Kolpak player. The standard was excellent and the best young players made it.” The fan then pressed Nash with his concerns over the Kolpak situation becoming an “endemic in the county game”, but for all the hyperbolic clamour that this is a recurrence of the counterintuitive scenario of the decade gone by, that is far from the truth. “Don’t see it being a huge problem, visa qualification keeps Kolpak standards high, as does cost implication to counties,” Nash stated, and he is almost certainly correct; the Kolpak player may be an inexorable fashion in the English game, but the glass is half full.

Lancashire signed South Africa’s replacement wicket-keeper Dane Vilas over the winter, and on the prospect of exploiting the Kolpak market, new head coach Glenn Chapple felt no pressure to be coy. Rivals Yorkshire have exhibited an admirable insularity from such foreign imports in recent years, instead blooding a plethora of young talent, but such luxury is afforded to them by the successes they have achieved (County Championship Winners 2014 & 2015). Referencing the incredibly competitive nature of Division One, where now a quarter of the eight sides are relegated each season, Chappell said his newly inherited side would need to “move with the times” to “prioritise having the best team we can possibly have all the time.”

Such is the intricate balance between sustaining high levels of performance and developing young talent – many of the Counties are frequently guilty of getting it wrong

Such is the intricate balance between sustaining high levels of performance and developing young talent – many of the Counties are frequently guilty of getting it wrong. And there lies within the inherent covet for the Kolpak market. Evaluating the impact of Kolpak players on youth development in an interview with Sky Sports, Kent and England stalwart Rob Key pointed to the “outstanding” impact that Martin van Jaarsveld had on the club in his six-year spell (2006-2011), plundering huge quantities of runs in addition to the invaluable tutelage he provided. Andre Adams, too, is a fantastic example, for the headline act of 344 first class wickets at 24.18 apiece in his time at Nottinghamshire (2007-2014), including the Championship-clinching wicket in 2010, but also for his personal role in the development in the fast bowling attack that has come to fruition now. The performances of Jake Ball and Luke Wood are “massively symbolic” of Adams, a Notts statement read upon his retirement, and former teammate Paul Franks added: “You can’t do justice to the impact he had.” In addition, Colin Ingram may have only been at Glamorgan for two seasons, but he is a flagship success, and it is easy to see the impact he has had on the immensely talented big-hitting Aneurin Donald.

Key, however, was adamant on two defining features that are prerequisites for mutual success in a Kolpak signing. The first is that it would be definitively wrong to bring in a Kolpak who could block the path of a young English player who had a chance of making a career, and acquisition should ultimately act as a “stop-gap”, supplemented with a redouble of efforts to ensure a future lineage of players in that area. This has not been compromised with any of the latest batch, and particular reinforcement of the point can be found in the signing of Simon Harmer by Essex, who have notoriously struggled in the department and have young talent Aaron Nijjar to develop. Essex may be sharply aware of the potential negative influence of such a signing, however, after Lonwabo Tsotsobe’s spell at the club in 2011, which he described as “the worst two months of my life”. Thus Key’s second point is that the attitude of the player will ultimately define his impact. Skepticism has been garnered from failed Kolpak spells – mercenaries who adopt a smash and grab mindset – but a hungry, selfless international talent is an invaluable asset in the development of young talents, and there have been some incredibly refreshing early signs among the latest batch of recruits, including most notably Dane Vilas’ recognition of Lancashire gloveman Alex Davies’ own England ambitions, and his desire to help him achieve them.

The attitude of the player will ultimately define his impact

With Cricket South Africa’s understandably dim view of the proliferating leak in their talent pool, it is increasingly likely that their domestic competition, The Sunfoil Series, will be subject to a franchise cap on the number of returning Kolpak stars. The ECB’s 2009 visa restrictions have already ensured that Marchant De Lange and Colin Ackermann were rejected Kolpak status, and instead contracted under EU passports, rendering them ineligible in the Sunfoil Series as local players, and there have also been reports of counties being forced to use overseas slots for players failing to meet the now stringent requirements. These factors, alongside the financially-motivated standpoint to refuse second-rate South African players, will ensure that only a gentle stream of the highest calibre players are welcomed, which will serve only to improve the game, and the development of English cricket. There is, however, a bitter taste left in the mouth over the treatment of Durham last season; their academy-packed side was relegated and forced to jettison their finest talents, while Hampshire enjoy the grandeur of another Division One season with their fine South African imports.