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The name of the Slovak handball player Maros Kolpak has passed into the language of cricket. Kolpak was dismissed from a German club because of a restriction on the number of foreign players allowed in the league. He contested this in the European Court, won his case and set a precedent that was to allow any professional sportsman who resided in the European Union, or in a country with an associate trading relationship, to work freely in any other EU country.
Kolpak didn't know much about cricket. But his action inadvertently changed the dynamics of the professional game in England. For the worse, it was feared. County cricket's doom-mongers predicted a surge of foreign talent pouring into the shires from Southern Africa and the West Indies (the two most relevant cricket-playing regions with appropriate EU trading relationships). We Robins, Martins and Jenkins shuddered at being replaced by Rudolfs, Maartins and Johannes. Apocalyptic county members and committees envisaged seeing home-grown talent stifled, and the England team stuttering with an ever-smaller pool of players to pick from. But the view from the county dressing-room, as I see it, is different.
The end is far from nigh.
In the four years since the Kolpak ruling, it is true, several South Africans have joined counties as non-overseas players. But few West Indians have done the same, and sacrificed the chance of international cricket. And some have already fallen off the ever-revolving county treadmill, unable to make the grade in an increasingly competitive field. This means that the ones who have remained are mostly high-quality players with at least some international experience.
The likes of Murray Goodwin (Sussex), Martin van Jaarsveld (Kent), Dale Benkenstein (Durham) and Charl Willoughby (Somerset) have raised the standard of the teams in which they play (and it wasn't long ago that "raising the standard" was the ECB's buzz phrase). They have been, in effect, a third "overseas" player and this may be one of the reasons why, regrettably to my mind, the overseas quota will be cut back to one from 2008.
Furthermore, the ECB has introduced financial disincentives for counties who field non-English-qualified players, so that in 2007 a Kolpak player could cost about £25,000 in lost income under the ECB's "Performance-Related Fee Payment Scheme". To a county such as Sussex this is serious money.
But the fact that Sussex were quite prepared to sign a Kolpak player in place of their captain Chris Adams (before his U-turn back down the M1 from Leeds) shows how much value counties attach to quality cricketers. They would have much preferred a young English batsman, but there were none deemed good enough. As an England-qualified player, do I feel aggrieved and threatened by these players potentially taking my spot? I categorically do not. On the contrary, when I make the team, I feel pride in being deemed good enough to play alongside such classy performers, and I feel excited to watch and learn from them. All our young batsmen at Sussex now try to ape Goodwin's outstanding technique. No doubt young bowlers at Taunton have tried to learn how to swing the ball like Willoughby. If they do it, they too will make the team to play alongside him. If they can't, then the chances are they wouldn't have been good enough anyway.
In 2000, the County Championship was split into two divisions in an attempt to add competitiveness amongst all the counties throughout the season. In this new cut-throat environment of promotion and relegation, the cream was supposed to rise to the top. The best players would play against the best, and the standard of cricket in England would improve accordingly to the benefit of the national team. By and large, this has gone to plan. I see the Kolpak players as an extension of this arrangement. In the world of business, competition is everything. And county cricket is a business. The floodgates haven't opened. Instead, my team-mates and I have benefited from a trickle of talent into our game. There is still a rich pool of English talent. Furthermore, the mix of accents chirping in my ear as I take guard lends a frisson of exoticism, and makes the cricket more exciting to play in. It must make it more exciting to watch.
Robin Martin-Jenkins has played for Sussex since 1995.