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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Francis on May 8, 2008, 14:40 GMT

    I write as an ex-County cricketer not good enough to play for England!.Has not the time come for a total reorganisation of the First Class game in England/Wales ? With the advent of Central Contracts the county game is bereft of all its England 'stars' for most of the season.This results in aspiring England players not being tested to the highest standards. We need 8 'area' sides ,as is the case in virtually all other Test playing countries. It would not be too difficult to combine groups of counties-after all, many clubs are having to amalgamate. The Minor Counties are not allowed to select anyone not qualified to play for England and quite rightly so. Can the FCC not be banned from selecting non-England qualified players-with the emphasis on' selecting'?

  • James on May 8, 2008, 6:47 GMT

    I note the point raised by The_Phantom (below) about Kolpaks in Yorkshire. I'd like to point out that Gerard Brophy is not a Kolpak and plays under a British passport as both of his parents are from Belfast.

  • j on May 7, 2008, 23:28 GMT

    Like most people in the UK, the first thing to do when shit hits the fan is to blame the immigrants...or rest of the world! a real sports man and an example to your son, stop being so afraid of the competition!!

  • Rimtu on May 7, 2008, 22:28 GMT

    This sounds like the "foreigners taking jobs away from our local folks" type of complaint. I suppose if foreigners are good enough to take jobs away from the locals, the locals ought to be jobless or look for some other means of making a living. Best of luck to poor english lads... :P

  • Joe on May 7, 2008, 20:07 GMT

    Does England have 180 English born and bred cricketers good enough to play first class cricket to a high enough standard that will prove a good testing ground for aspiring young English cricketers? Surely not.

    CMJ needs to get with the times and realise that the County game is now a much harder testing ground for young players. Leicester are on the right track, the best "young" players will play but they will have good pros to learn from around them. Can you deny Ackerman and Dipenaar have something to offer young players?

    Surrey, one of the most successful clubs in recent years, so many English players in the team yet how many are going to realistically standing a chance to play for England? Newman and Jordan (if he picks England) so I ask, how is that difference from Boyce, Boyce and Malik at Leics? Let's be honest, Ramps, Butch, Usman, etc not going to play for England again.

  • neil on May 7, 2008, 20:02 GMT

    County cricket is in trouble. Its a tired and boring format which nobody wants to watch. As a breeding ground it is useless. Full of average players like Elham and Martin-Jenkins. All average triers who linger on stopping young talent, while themselves being nowhere near the grade required to change English cricket. These guys belong in league cricket and should not be stopping young talent from playing. The picture on the front of the great Malcolm Marshall is a saddening hark back to the hey day of county cricket, when Marshall, Richards and any number of stars from the Windies and beyond graced these shores and made for fierce competition. With the advent of the IPL county cricket is dead in the water. What truly big star would waste time in county cricket when he could play in the IPL? Shane Warne is such and example and young English talent is deprived of learning from the greatest. With lingerers around the talent pool is so poor that third rate Kolpak players are the only hope.

  • Chris on May 7, 2008, 20:01 GMT

    The point is that if Leicestershire (or Sussex for that matter) have failed to produce a quality English test player in the last 20 years, then Kolpak won't make much difference eitherway. The question ought to be how can Durham, the 18th county, produce Collingwood, Harmison and Plunkett yet so many other counties remain barren?

    The main players from England team will continue to come from the counties with quality grass roots initatives, and over the last twenty years the backbone of the England team has come from the Yorkshire/Lancashire/Surrey/Essex axis.

  • Flym on May 7, 2008, 19:15 GMT

    I agree with what CMJ I saying. The argument that the domestic game would be boring withoy Kolpaks is nonsense. The influx needs to be stopped sooner rather than later, otherwise we'll have the same situation as football where so many foreign players play and home grown players don't get the chance. This is why the national football side is so poor.

  • The on May 7, 2008, 18:35 GMT

    Actually I disagree with most of the other comments here. I think it's not county veterans who are being displaced by kolpaks, it's younger players who are losing valuable experience. I'm a Yorkshire supporter and our kolpaks (Rudolph, Brophy and Kruis) are not displacing 'old' pros like Gough and White, they're displacing younger players like who are, or have been on the fringe of the team, like Shahzad and Gale. Well, I suppose displace is not the right word, they're denying younger players the chance to break their way into the team. So what, you may cry. Well, I actually like watching players develop over several seasons rather than kolpaks come and go. I actually like seeing players progress through the Yorkshire academy and go on to represent their county rather than guys who are, at the end of the day, only really doing it for the money and would much rather be back in SA or Aus playing cricket for the same money if they could.

  • Nandu on May 7, 2008, 18:31 GMT

    Support free market approach with a reasonable limit. English Cricket in the early 80s started going down and that started by putting a limit on the number of foreign players. You cannot have a quality competition by restricting quality players. With out quality players you cannot produce quality english players. I would say have 4-5 foreign players per team.

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