Out because money talks, and pounds talk louder than rands
A worrying trend of younger SA players choosing to play county cricket on Kolpak over playing for their country
Kolpak isn’t a swearword only in SA. It’s as unloved in English cricket except by the counties, who keep the stream of Saffers and other pseudo-Europeans flowing onto the circuit.
The issue rose like a stink again last week when Duanne Olivier became the 43rd South African to take up the option, signing a contract with Yorkshire that will stop him from playing for SA for at least the next three years.
Kolpak deals used to be sought mostly by cricketers nearing the end of their careers, but Olivier, 26, has become part of a worrying trend of younger players choosing that route. Like Kyle Abbott and Rilee Rossouw, who went Kolpak in 2017, Olivier has interrupted his career for SA despite being a regular member of the team.
They have been lured by the security offered in a system that could pay them more than they would earn even as leading players in SA and without the pressures that come with having to perform at international level.
More are likely to follow for as long as the UK remains part of the EU, which is uncertain. Other countries see Brexit as a looming catastrophe. But, for the England Cricket Board (ECB), it could be the most effective way out of a problem that has only grown since Claude Henderson became the first Kolpak player in 2004: at too many county matches you can’t see the wood of the English players for the trees of those from everywhere else.
Andrew Hall, who went Kolpak for Northamptonshire in 2008 and now heads sport at Milton Keynes Preparatory School 90km north-west of London, remembers being part of a game against Leicestershire that year in which 13 of the 22 players were not eligible for England.
They included HD Ackerman, Boeta Dippenaar, Henderson, Nicky Bojé, Lance Klusener and Johan van der Wath, along with Jamaica’s Jermaine Lawson, Ireland’s Niall O’Brien and Kepler Wessels’ Australian-born son, Riki Wessels.
The counties are willing and able to pay foreigners handsomely for their services, but the ECB are less than happy about trying to field competitive international teams from a smaller pool of homegrown players. “They’ve been trying to stem Kolpak signings for years; since I was playing for Northants,” Hall said. “So it may end abruptly. But while the uncertainty of your future is still so big for a lot of younger players coming onto the scene in SA, the Kolpak option is there.”
Money talks, and pounds talk louder than rands. And there’s little the ECB can do about the fact that the law is the law.
So four years ago they imposed what amounted to a tax. Counties would be paid £1,100 (R20,600 in today’s money) less per match for Kolpak every player they picked. And a change in the work permit regulations meant that before players could sign on the Kolpak line they had to have earned at least one Test cap in the preceding 12 months, or five in five years, or appeared in 15 white-ball internationals in the previous two years.
Did it work? No: Olivier was the 21st player to Kolpak since the new rules were adopted. Yes, it’s become popular enough to be used as a verb.
But for Francois Brink, a player agent with One World of Sport, the storm may be passing.
“I think Kolpak might’ve reached a saturation point,” Brink said in the wake of Yorkshire’s news on Olivier. “[There are] Not many players left who qualify, [and] not many counties left that can afford it. I’ve yet to meet a South African player whose primary ambition isn’t to play for the Proteas. Kolpak is a very personal decision depending on where the player believes he is in his career.”
From his lips, cricket-minded types in SA and England will hope, to the game’s gods’ ears.