In 2003, a Slovakian handball player by the name of Maros Kolpak went to the European Court of Justice, claiming restraint of trade in Germany which had strict quotas on the numbers of non-EU players. He won. Ever since, his name has been synonymous with English cricket, which has jumped aboard the Kolpak bandwagon, with hordes of "passport professionals" obstructing the paths of young English-qualified players. Until now.
From 2006, counties who fail to select sufficient numbers of England-qualified players will have thousand of pounds cut from their revenue, and the strict penalties will increase further still the following season. First announced in April, the blueprint aims to "reward" counties who produce players eligible for England.
Counties must use at least nine of their XI as England-qualified players. Essentially, they will be "fined" £85 for each non-qualified player that they use, above the permitted two, per one-day game, and £340 per championship match. As harsh as these figures appear now, they will rise exponentially in 2007: £275 per player for one-day games, and a bank-breaking £1100 for championship matches.
Hampshire used as many as six per match this season, which would have amounted to a loss of £15,200 for the four-day game, and £6120 in the one-dayers. In 2007, the same scenario would cost them £49,500 in the championship and £19,800 in the shorter game. Such losses wouldn't grossly affect a club of the size of Hampshire.
A smaller club like Derbyshire, on the other hand, would struggle. They used five non-England players in 2005, and would become crippled by the reward/penalty scheme if they didn't act promptly. Their chief executive, Tom Sears, conceded that the threat imposed by the board is very real: "We will be looking to play nine English-qualified players next season," he told The Daily Telegraph, "because we simply could not afford the drop in income that not doing so would mean."
Yet, without the Kolpak ruling, some counties claim they would struggle to perform to a consistently high standard. Indeed, Yorkshire's controversial signing of Deon Kruis, which attracted widespread criticism at the start of the season, was utterly critical to their success in the championship this season. Mind you, it says as much about Yorkshire's inability to hang on to a selection of fine bowlers than it does about the quality Kruis offers. He had an undeniably fine season, but he offers nothing in terms of potential - and, crucially, nothing for the England team. An 18-year-old bowler might take five years to develop into a regular performer; but a 31-year-old from South Africa is going to perform immediately, and it is this "quick fix" counties have opted for.
Darren Gough, Ryan Sidebottom and Steve Kirby have all left Yorkshire in the past five years; both Gough and Sidebottom have represented England, and Kirby has often been mentioned for higher honours, yet Yorkshire's fast-bowling hopes were pinned upon Kruis. Kirby and Sidebottom took 88 wickets between them this season.
With English cricket's prominence on the rise, the strict response by the ECB to curb the influx of foreign players can only benefit the game in England, as well as the national team. How quickly the counties respond next season might well determine their long-term success for 2006 and beyond.