Guess Who's Cheering for Brexit? South African Cricket - OZY | A Modern Media Company

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When Britain leaves the EU, its impact will be felt thousands of miles away in South Africa.

By Nick Dall

  • Of the 65 cricketers who have signed deals leaving their countries to play in the U.K. under the Kolpak ruling, 42 are South African.
  • Brexit will stop that flood of talent.

Over the past three seasons of the English County Championship, no cricketer has taken more wickets than Essex off spinner Simon Harmer. Meanwhile, Kyle Abbott, the Hampshire fast bowler who’s second on the county bowling charts in the same period, made history last September with a match haul of 17 wickets for 86 runs — the best figures returned by any bowler in more than 60 years.

In most circumstances, these two would be shoo-ins for their national teams. But thanks to an obscure European Union legal decision known as the Kolpak ruling, the two ex-internationals can’t represent their native South Africa. That’s all set to go out the window when Britain leaves the EU — as of now, the transition period expires on Dec. 31, 2020 — with the United Kingdom unlikely to try to retain its commitment to the ruling after Brexit, say experts.

“The U.K. is planning to keep those EU rulings that it likes and jettison those it doesn’t,” says Raquel Gómez Salas, an expert in EU immigration law at London-based Newland Chase. “Kolpak is likely to go.”

Anything that reduces the player drain … can only be a very, very good thing.

Tinus van Staden, South African cricket analyst

It’s unclear whether Harmer or Abbott will ever don national colors again. But the fact that no future cricketers from South Africa will be able to sign deals with English counties under the ruling could transform the fortunes of the South African national team, known as the Proteas. Of the 65 cricketers ever to sign Kolpak deals, 42 are South African, most of them former national players.

The end of Britain’s association with the Kolpak ruling promises to stop that flood — it’s the only major cricket-playing nation in the EU. “Anything that reduces the player drain and increases depth can only be a very, very good thing,” says cricket analyst Tinus van Staden.

Hampshire v Somerset - Specsavers County Championship Division One

Kyle Abbott of Hampshire

Source Alex Davidson/Getty

The ruling is the result of a 2003 case before the European Court of Justice, in which Slovak handballer Maros Kolpak successfully argued that quotas imposed on non-EU players by the German Handball Federation broke the bloc’s free trade rules. Effectively, the ruling meant that clubs and teams in EU countries could sign players from nations that have free trade agreements with the bloc, without treating them as overseas athletes.

Since most sports leagues have restrictions on the number of foreign players allowed, the Kolpak ruling gave wealthier clubs a chance to recruit international stars without treating them as such. It created a pathway for players from poorer parts of the cricketing world — such as South Africa, Zimbabwe and the Caribbean — to ply their trade in the U.K. instead.

It isn’t easy for cricketers to give up dreams of playing for their national teams. But for many South African players who’ve been part of the Kolpak flood, the reason isn’t cricket. The country’s weak currency — further weakened by the coronavirus pandemic — faltering infrastructure and high crime rate make staying home less attractive. English domestic cricket teams pay better than their South African counterparts.

The South African government’s policy of affirmative action is also felt acutely in competitive sports. Of the 11 players on a team, seven must be non-white at the provincial level and six at the national stage. It’s little surprise, then, that most South African Kolpak players are white.

Abbott was left out of the 2015 World Cup semifinal for reasons to do with the team quota, despite being the Proteas’ best bowler in the tournament. Abbott says he left South Africa because his career coincided with those of Hall of Fame speedsters Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel, Kagiso Rabada and Vernon Philander, which reduced his shot at a sustained spot on the national team.

In the U.K., there’s recognition that world-class players undoubtedly elevate everyone else’s game. But Kolpak also limits opportunities for English players. A match between Leicestershire and Northamptonshire in 2008 had 13 foreign-born players — 11 of whom were South Africans — out of 22 total.

Already, English cricket is preparing for a post-Kolpak era. “The PCA has advocated for there being two overseas players [currently the limit is one] allowed in county cricket,” says Tony Irish, former CEO of the Professional Cricketers Association (PCA).

If this change goes through, players like Abbott and Harmer might soon get to have their cake and eat it too, potentially playing for English clubs and the Proteas. South Africa — whose cricket administrators had resigned themselves to the inevitability of Kolpak — is also changing. Jacques Faul, acting CEO of Cricket South Africa, has said that he would “welcome anything that increases our ability to win on the international scene.”

The Proteas need all the help they can get. After enduring months of administrative controversy back home, the team crashed out of the 2019 World Cup in the group stages for only the second time in their history. The tournament was hosted and won by, you guessed it, England.

Things have improved since then, says van Staden, with Faul, “the best cricket administrator in the country,” taking charge of South Africa’s cricket. The appointments of retired star players Graeme Smith and Mark Boucher as director of cricket and Proteas coach, respectively, were “met with some suspicion, especially from the Black cricketing community, that an ‘old boys’ club’ was taking over,” says van Staden — a valid concern in a country still grappling with its racist legacy. But a recent clean sweep in a series against Australia has silenced most doubters.

Brexit won’t end overseas temptation. International cricket leagues are cropping up from Canada to Nepal, and it’s not uncommon for players to represent seven different teams in a single year. But with Kolpak out the window, there’ll at least be nothing stopping South African cricketers from also representing one more team: the Proteas.

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