2021 has arrived, and the UK has left the Brexit transition period. This will bring lots of changes, including some in cricket; predominantly the rules surrounding Kolpak players. In this piece, I take a look at the possible effects on English and South African cricket...
2021 is here! It can't be much worse than last year, right?, I ask, tempting fate. One of the changes as we head into this new year is the end of the Brexit transition period. As I study politics and international relations at university, I can (and do, my poor family) talk for hours about Brexit (I'm great at parties). But, there is a cricketing point to this politics: Kolpaks.
As I'm sure we all know, in 2003, the European Court of Justice ruled that professional athletes are able to freely move and work across the EU, after a Slovak handball player named Maros (you guessed it) Kolpak brought forward the case so he could play in Germany. This meant that any athlete whose country had signed an Association Agreement with the EU had freedom of movement rights to live and work in the EU, meaning quotas on number of overseas players could be overridden, provided a player did not play for their country.
Now with that (not very simple) historical explanation out of the way, on to the here and now. As the UK has now left the EU, the Kolpak rule is null and void for the UK. Players born outside the UK can now only play for a county as an overseas player. Two immediate effects come from this: the number of players from outside the UK playing in the county game will drastically reduce, and the number of players available to play for their home countries again has shot up. First, the effect on the county game:
*It is worth noting that the ECB's response, and attempt to balance the situation, has seen them increase the number of overseas players allowed in side from one to two for the Championship and Royal-London Cup, bringing them in line with the Blast.
While county cricket's Kolpak players come from a few different countries, given the quota system in South Africa, and the lack of money in their domestic game, most of the Kolpak players here are from South Africa. Be it Simon Harmer weaving his web for Essex, Colin Ingram battering the ball in the Blast for Glamorgan, or Kyle Abbott's pace for Hampshire, the South African Kolpaks played some great cricket, and upped the standard of the game.
Hampshire, along with many other sides, have understandably made good use of the Kolpak system. But despite the increased quality these players bring, they also reduced the number of English players, with Hampshire having 4 overseas players in their XI on multiple occasions in the 2019 Championship.
Ahead of 2021, Hampshire have signed Abbott as one of their now two overseas players, and given the second overseas will probably be a batter (previous Kolpak Rilee Rossouw would be my guess), former West Indian quick Fidel Edwards has, in all likelihood, played his last game for the club.
Hampshire's situation neatly sums up the effect the ending of the Kolpak system will have. Fewer overseas players will create more opportunities for young English players coming through the system, as there are no longer Kolpaks to take their places. However, the loss of players of international quality and experience will reduce the standard of county cricket. Given the large size of England's county game, with eighteen sides, an increasing number of young players, while good for their exposure, will likely lower standards, making the step-up from county to Test cricket harder.
While the effect on the county game will be seen throughout the next few years, I'd anticipate, especially given the chaotic government of South African cricket, that public arguments will ensue about what to do with returning Kolpak players. Simon Harmer could displace Keshav Maharaj in the test side, or at least provide a strong second option on turning ptiches. Kyle Abbott and Duanne Olivier could challenge Anrich Nortje and Lungi Ngidi for selection alongside Kagiso Rabada, and Cameron Delport will be pushing for a place in the Proteas t20 side.
However, it is easy to perceive now former Kolpak players as having given up on their countries. While some will understand they wanted to make money, to provide for their families, others will not be as kind, and will not want them in the side, given they have not stayed through the hard times South African cricket endures. This can be seen perfectly in the AB de Villiers situation, who is seen as having sold out by retiring from internationals when things got tough to go play in the IPL, but now wanting to return for the World t20.
South Africa have suffered a fall from the top of cricket, having been hampered by the loss of form and then retirements of greats such as Dale Steyn, Hashim Amla, Morne Morkel, Jacques Kallis and Graeme Smith. They have stumbled, with the recent chaos over players' pay and the structure of their game only hampering them further. A looming argument over returning Kolpak players will only add to this, in an already desperate time for them and cricket generally.
How the English county game balances out, and what happens in South Africa is yet to be seen, and the effects will be long-term, and are unlikely to prove obvious. The county game will have more youngsters gain first-team games, but with less international quality players in the circuit. South Africa, and other predominant Kolpak exporting nations will receive an influx of talent, but will be divided about whether players should be allowed back into the national side.
While I am increasingly trying to keep politics out of this article (and my life!), I hope I can conclude by saying that, as with all things Brexit, the effects will be felt for a generation, and while "done", Brexit means that cricket, as with all aspects of our lives, will change.