Essay, 2021

The End of Kolpaks - The South African View

Daniel Gallan

Not many will shed a tear: Kolpak cricketers had long been seen as keener to inflate their bank accounts than serve their country. An over-simplification, of course, but sporting nationalism leaves little room for shades of grey. And no cricketing country was affected by the Kolpak ruling quite as much as South Africa.

When Claude Henderson moved to Leicestershire, he was barely known to most South African fans. But, as the years progressed, higher-profile names went north. Some, such as Shaun Pollock and Lance Klusener, did so once their international careers had petered out. Others, such as Faf du Plessis and Jacques Rudolph, treated cricket in England as a finishing school: when the national selectors came calling, they obediently returned home, equipped with new skills.

Matters took a turn for the frantic when the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union in June 2016. That November, Hardus Viljoen, Simon Harmer and Stiaan van Zyl all signed Kolpak deals before their 30th birthdays. A year later, Kyle Abbott, Rilee Rossouw and Marchant de Lange joined them. Several factors rankled with both Cricket South Africa and the average fan. There was the impression that players were using their status as international cricketers as a stepping stone for personal gain. The vast investment in their development was not being repaid with runs and wickets for the Proteas, but for counties with pounds to spare. Fast bowler Duanne Olivier reportedly earned not far off £150,000 a season with Yorkshire, three times the value of his central contract with CSA.

The exodus not only weakened the national team, but deprived emerging talent in the domestic set-up of the chance to rub shoulders with more experienced professionals. And no matter how many opportunities these vacancies provided, the perception was that South African cricket was diminished. "A lot has been lost," says Ashwell Prince, who extended his stay at Lancashire by becoming a Kolpak in 2013, after his Test career ended. "A lot of players took the easier option of leaving, rather than fight for their place in the national team. Maybe they didn't believe they had the quality."

On a deeper level, too, the Kolpak conundrum was a painful reminder that all was not well in South Africa, a generation after its first democratic vote. The promises made by Nelson Mandela's African National Congress party in 1994 had not been kept. State corruption and poor governance have entrenched divisions already cut along racial lines: according to the World Bank, South Africa is now the world's most unequal country. Desperately poor people have few options. Gender-based violence is a scourge, violent crime a familiar reality. The evils of apartheid linger.

Of the 40-odd South African Kolpaks to have played in England (Vernon Philander and Farhaan Berhardien had their plans scuppered by Covid), 36 were white. Most were products of elite all-boy schools that remain oases of privilege amid the struggle and squalor. For many critics, they embodied a wide migration of disgruntled and disaffected whites who turned their back on their homeland.

Following Rossouw's departure for Hampshire, former national coach Russell Domingo spoke for many: "We backed him when he made five noughts. If that had been a player of colour, everyone would have said 'transformation'." As it turned out, Rossouw's last five innings for South Africa - all during a home one-day series against Australia late in 2016 - produced 311 runs at 77. Rossouw might have added middle-order experience following ther etirement of A. B. de Villiers after the home Test win over Australia early in 2018 - just as Abbott, another Hampshire recruit, could have stepped in for Morne Morkel, who quit international cricket at the age of 33 to join Surrey. Harmer's off-spin, meanwhile, would have been useful during South Africa's drubbings in India in 2019-20. Instead, he was winning trophies with Essex, and briefly wondering whether he might qualify for England.

Yet in the vacuums they left behind, others have flourished. In the 2019 Boxing Day Test against England at Centurion, Rassie van der Dussen made his debut at 30; now he looks secure in the top order. When Dale Steyn struggled with fitness, Kagiso Rabada assumed the role of spearhead, bringing Lungi Ngidi and Anrich Nortje along in his wake, part of the seemingly ceaseless production line of talent in South African sport. Some were still green when thrown into the maw of Test cricket, but most have survived.

The tumbling repercussions of Marosˇ Kolpak's legal dispute may soon be remembered as a quirk. But if there are any winners from Brexit, CSA may be among them. No coach or captain wants to look longingly at cards he cannot use. With a major barrier removed, an organisation desperate to put a difficult period in the past can finally play something resembling their strongest hand.

The Kolpak players must now navigate new waters. Some will return to South Africa. Others will do what they can to play in the UK in an overseas slot. Whatever their decision, they will for ever be branded with a scarlet K. "I believe that the people who know cricket understood why we did it," says Abbott, who early in 2021 signed a contract with the Titans in South Africa's one-day competition, and will represent Hampshire as an overseas player. "I've been called a coward and a traitor. I knew I was going to upset people. Ultimately, I did what was best for me."

Daniel Gallan is a freelance journalist from Johannesburg, based in London.

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