May 7, 2008

The overseas invasion

The idea of foreign players in county cricket is not intrinsically bad, but surely there have to be limits to the influx

Out of Africa: Garnett Kruger is one of more than a handful of South Africans who play for Leicestershire © Getty Images

Matthew Engel asked pertinently in his 2006 Wisden notes what the prime purpose of a first-class county cricket club should be. To win trophies, to provide entertainment for members, to enhance cricket within the county, to provide players for the England team, to make money, or all of these? The latter is the answer, but I am getting increasingly worried by the obsession with the first of them. In particular the pathetic dependence of coaches on Kolpak players.

Overseas players by another name, they have come to England and Wales in such numbers that they are now certainly having a negative effect on what is arguably the most important of county cricket's raison d'etres, namely unearthing, developing and nurturing talented young home-bred players, some of whom will one day enhance the England side.

In last year's Almanack my own son, who has had a decent all-round start to this season in his benefit year with Sussex (ironically helped by the fact that he has been given the new ball because one so-called "British" Australian fast bowler decided that he was not British after all) wrote a well-argued defence of the influx of the Kolpaks. They are so called, lest anyone has forgotten, because a Slovak handball player of that name established a legal precedent (or so it has been interpreted) that professional sportsmen whose country of origin has a trade agreement with a country in the European Union cannot be refused employment because of a restriction on the number of foreign players imposed by the rules of a sporting body like the ECB.

But no one has satisfactorily explained to me why Kolpak players have to be employed. If counties did not offer them contracts they could not be accused of discrimination. In fact, they are coming here in ever increasing numbers, mainly from a cricket circuit in South Africa that is being gradually stripped by the voluntary migration of most of the best of its white players. County coaches employ them because they think that thereby they will have a better chance of winning trophies.

They are not all Kolpaks. At Warwickshire, Ashley Giles, who has mixed priorities as a new coach and new England selector, has chosen Monde Zondeki as an official overseas player. He already has Jonathan Trott, who has qualified for England despite being viewed in Cape Town, where he grew up, as a future South Africa international.

Because there is promotion and relegation involved in the highly competitive County Championship and because there are still three one-day tournaments, giving the season its feeling of relentlessness, the coaches are forever having to bolster the resources that have emerged from their own academies. They are reluctant to give responsibility to their own young players because the grass always seems to look greener to them beyond their own fence.

Significantly, too, the imported players are relatively cheap to employ. Despite the IPL, there seems to be no end to the supply. When Lancashire lost Brad Hodge to the Indian league for five weeks, they wasted no time in replacing him with Mohammad Yousuf. Sussex have now signed Corey Collymore, who managed 11 wickets at 43 runs each in England for West Indies last year and was left out of the one-day team. He is hardly the sharp spearhead they were trying to find for their attack, in response to the loss of Ryan Harris. The younger, faster, if less experienced Harris was registered on a British passport thanks to having a Leicester-born father, only to renege on a sworn affidavit that he would not play in Australia except as an overseas player.

Robin M-J said in his Wisden article that the Kolpaks had been, in effect, a third "overseas" player. But what chance has local youth when that becomes a fourth, fifth and sixth overseas player too? Last week Leicestershire fielded six South Africans in their XI. One of their young, locally educated batsmen, Matthew Boyce, who used to open the batting for Oakham School with Stuart Broad under the coaching of Frank Hayes and David Steele, has actually found a way into the side this season and done very well so far, as has the young wicketkeeper Tom New in his new role as an opening batsman. But how many other homegrown talents might prosper, given an extended chance to do so?

The Kolpaks had been, in effect, a third "overseas" player. But what chance has local youth when that becomes a fourth, fifth and sixth overseas player too?

The ECB has given evidence, along with the Rugby Union, to the European Court in an attempt to argue that they have a right to preserve the interests of their sport by being able to insist on a given number of England qualified players, but a spokesman last week said that they "were not holding their breath" that anything would come of it. The "Performance Related Fee Payments" by which the ECB sought to encourage counties to field home qualified cricketers, are clearly not nearly sufficient incentive to force their hands.

County cricket is, like the IPL, a melting pot of different races, and in some ways it is all the better for it. Young talent does still emerge, too. On Sunday spectators at Old Trafford could see seven current and former England internationals playing in the Friends Provident Trophy match between Lancashire Lightning and the defending champions, Durham Dynamos - Andrew Flintoff, James Anderson, Mal Loye, Paul Collingwood, Steve Harmison, Graham Onions and Phil Mustard, not to mention the South African Neil McKenzie, the West Indian Gareth Breese, and the two prolific Australians Stuart Law and Michael Di Venuto. Happily, it was a 23-year-old Lancastrian, Steven Croft, who hit the six that won the rain-ravaged match.

I accept the point that experienced professionals from overseas - whether they come to England under the guise of "overseas" players (only one now allowed), Kolpak imports, or as overseas-bred cricketers who have British or European passports - can help young players develop. Also that the best English professionals will still be chosen, and in some cases improved, by the increased competition.

Leicestershire's chairman, Neil Davidson, and their coach, Tim Boon, claim that the course they have taken is the only one open to them if they are to compete against clubs with far more money than they have, such as Surrey, who only resorted to a Kolpak player for the first time this season. Pedro Collins is doing well, in company with their other main fast bowlers, the South Africa-born Jade Dernbach, Matt Nicholson from Australia, and Chris Jordan from Barbados. But Surrey were themselves bowled out on Monday by a Kent attack whose wicket-takers consisted of two Pakistan Test players and two South Africans. There must, surely, be a critical mass.

Christopher Martin-Jenkins has been a leading cricket broadcaster, journalist and author for almost four decades, during which time he has served as a cricket correspondent for the BBC, the Daily Telegraph and the Times