The England & Wales Cricket Board is planning to crack down on the number of Kolpak players flooding into county cricket when it draws up its next contract with the counties.
The ECB will later this summer draft a new memorandum of understanding with the counties and the influx of Kolpak players this year will be part of those discussions. South Africa’s Marchant de Lange became the 11th Kolpak to sign for a county this winter when he joined Glamorgan on Monday as overseas cricketers look to exploit the loophole before Brexit is expected to close it off.
The Kolpak issue has been discussed by the ECB’s cricket committee and at board level and is understood to have had discussions with the Government about the situation in the past. Tom Harrison, the chief executive, will seek further talks post-Brexit. However, there is little that can be done legally while Britain is still a member of the European Union. Instead the ECB can incentivise counties financially as part of the next MoU for fielding England qualified players, making it in turn less attractive to sign Kolpaks, or even increase the financial deductions levied for picking Kolpak players.
Kolpaks flooded into county cricket in the mid-2000s after Slovakian handball player Maros Kolpak successfully appealed to the European Court of Justice arguing that as a resident of a country with a trade agreement with the EU he should have the same employment rights as an EU citizen.
Several cricketing countries including South Africa, Zimbabwe and most Caribbean islands are signatories to the Cotonou Agreement, are free trade deal that allows access to the EU.
The ECB thought it had stemmed the flow of Kolpaks three years ago when counties were docked £1,100 per match for every non England qualified player they picked.
But the economic situation in countries like South Africa has resulted in better players opting for the Kolpak route and counties viewing them as a financial risk worth taking.
Hampshire this winter signed Kyle Abbott and Rilee Rossouw, two South Africa internationals at the peak of their careers. Both could have earned more playing for South Africa but weighed up the gamble of getting injured or falling out of favour with the selectors against the security of a long contract with Hampshire.
This week credit rating agencies downgraded the South African economy to junk status and the falling rand makes an English contract paid in sterling even more attractive.
“It is hugely disappointing that some counties have felt the need to sign players as Kolpaks or on EU passports instead of developing and producing home-grown players themselves for the future benefit of English cricket,” said David Letherdale, the chief executive of the Professional Cricketers’ Association. “We are concerned that the number appears to have risen again in recent months. It is a situation that gives us cause for concern and one that we will continue to monitor.”
For the counties the advantages are obvious. Whereas in the mid-2000s the quality of most Kolpaks was questionable the likes of Abbott, Roussow and De Lange are talented players. Grant Elliott was a big part of the New Zealand side that reached the 2015 World Cup final and has signed for Warwickshire as a Twenty20 expert under the Kolpak ruling because he has a South African passport.
County coaches are under more pressure than ever before, particularly in division one where two from eight teams will be relegated this season, so it is understandable why a club like Lancashire, where Glen Chapple, is in his first season as head coach, sign a veteran like Shivnarine Chanderpaul on a Kolpak.
Seasoned internationals who take the Kolpak route can be mentors for young English county cricketers and Hampshire have signed two ready made first team cricketers in Abbott and Roussow who can help them challenge for the title.
“It is difficult. I remember when I first got in the Durham side there was the likes Callum Thorp, Mitch Claydon, Michael di Venuto and Gareth Breese (all Kolpaks) and they were huge influence on me so I see the benefit of them on young players,” said Mark Wood, Durham’s England fast bowler. “They raised the standard and helped my development and you don’t want to judge them because they are doing what is best for their families. But also I would like to see English lads get a chance because selfishly I want to see our England team do well.”
In South Africa the problem leads to a talent drain from the national team but the Kolpaks are still able to play domestic cricket so are also blocking up franchise teams for young players eligible for the national side. Cricket South Africa is now only allowing two Kolpaks per team and has threatened to rule they must be funded outside of the annual grant the board gives each domestic team.
“At the moment we have 11 Kolpak players and that is the highest number we have had for a few years,” said Tony Irish, the chief executive of the South African Players’ Association. “The concern here is when it happens to current Protea players like Abbott and Rossouw. It has never been a concern when guys are on the downside of their career but those guys were on the upside. As a players’ association we believe players need the opportunity to play wherever they are able to do so but we have to balance that with the interests of international cricket.”