Essay, 2021

The End of Kolpaks - The English View

Alan Gardner

Heard the one about the Slovak handball player who overturned two complex cricketing ecosystems half a world apart? If you're a follower of the game in England or South Africa, you might have thought you would never hear the end of it. But two decades on, the UK's departure from the European Union has drawn a line under the legacy left to cricket by Marosˇ Kolpak's decision to pursue his employment rights, via his country's associate agreement with the EU. Brexit succeeded where numerous attempts by the ECB had failed: it closed the loophole that allowed players from a collection of nations - chiefly South Africa, Zimbabwe and many Caribbean islands - to appear in county cricket while effectively considered locals.

Not a slogan worth putting on the side of a bus, perhaps. But with Kolpak registrations now impossible, it allowed English cricket to take back control over what constitutes a domestic player. Both bane and cure could be filed under the law of unintended consequences. When Kolpak, a goalkeeper plying his trade in Germany with O¨ stringen, won his case at the European Court in 2003, he had no thought for the impact on other sports. He laughed when told by Wisden a year later that cricketers who took advantage of the ruling were known as Kolpaks (they could just as easily have been Cotonous, after the treaty in question). Presumably, he would find the idea of a retrospective piece on the era equally baffling.

The path first trodden by Claude Henderson, the South African left-arm spinner, on his way to Leicestershire for the 2004 season became well worn, as did arguments about the merits or otherwise of Kolpak signings. Many were viewed as mercenaries, obstacles to young British talent. In fact, the term became a de facto insult, briefly imbued with other connotations after Yorkshire captain Andrew Gale referred to Lancashire's Ashwell Prince as a "Kolpak fucker" during an on-field contretemps in 2014. The ECB subsequently dropped a charge of racist abuse, though Gale was barred from lifting the Championship trophy, handed a four-match ban and required to undergo anger-management training.

Tempers on the subject ran high. Fears about Afrikaans becoming the lingua franca in certain dressing-rooms peaked in 2008, following a fixture at Grace Road between Leicestershire and Northamptonshire that became symbolic of the "Kolpakshire" malaise. Thirteen of the 22 players were born outside the UK, with five South Africans on either side; only one official overseas cricketer was involved. For a while, Northamptonshire's T20 nickname came with a twist: the Steelbacks were the Steelboks.

"Both we and Northants were guilty of over-egging the pudding," says Paul Nixon, the former England wicketkeeper who captained Leicestershire in that game. But Nixon, now their head coach, does not believe the period threatened the foundations of English cricket. Far from it: he describes Kolpak signings as a "brilliant option", while emphasising the importance of bringing in players who would contribute to the club, rather than simply collect their pay cheque. "The right Kolpak players strengthened our game, and gave to our system."

But plenty were concerned about counties exploiting the ruling for short-term gain. David Ripley, who in 2008 was involved with Northamptonshire's youth set-up, and later oversaw Kolpak signings as head coach, viewed the Grace Road encounter as proof the balance had tipped too far. "There was a time when it became a bit too easy to sign a Kolpak," he says. "They weren't the kind of bums-on-seats players who would vastly improve your squad - but they were better than an 18- or 19-year-old lad in the Academy."

If those two counties were seen as leading the initial South African market sweep, the rest were not far behind - despite one or two conscientious objectors. Surrey and Glamorgan initially refused to countenance Kolpak signings (both changed their minds), while Worcestershire prioritised homegrown players during Steve Rhodes's decade in charge. "It had to be a moral decision not to play Kolpaks," says Rhodes. By and large, he argues, "they were no better than good county players who were missing out".

A tightening of the regulations meant only those with a valid work permit or recent international experience remained eligible, while the ECB introduced payments to encourage the use of young, England-qualified players. But the trickle threatened to become a flood once again after the 2016 referendum set the clock ticking on Britain's EU membership. Yet what of the charge that relying on imports to pad out the domestic game would hurt the national team? By a crude measurement, during the 16-year period in question, England won five Ashes series out of nine, rose to the ICC's No. 1 ranking in all three formats, and lifted both the 20- and 50-over World Cups.

Leicestershire could point to the emergence of Stuart Broad, James Taylor and Harry Gurney, and Northamptonshire to Monty Panesar, Ben Duckett and David Willey, as evidence that those who were good enough would still make it. They could also claim that the poaching of those players by wealthier counties was partly why they had turned to Kolpaks in the first place. And few would deny that the presence of players such as Simon Harmer - instrumental in helping Essex to three first-class titles in four seasons - and Kyle Abbott at Hampshire raised domestic standards.

Many made a lasting impression at their counties, and are fondly remembered. Henderson played in each of Leicestershire's three T20 triumphs, and mentored Jigar Naik; Prince spent six prolific seasons at Lancashire, three as a Kolpak; Martin van Jaarsveld managed more than 13,000 runs for Kent, Alfonso Thomas more than 500 wickets for Somerset (his 33 T20 Cup wickets in 2010 remains a record). Some might say those players could have made similar contributions in an overseas slot - and that is probably what will happen now, with the allowance going back up to two.

After the hue and cry, there is every chance the English system, which has always found room for itinerant talent, won't look so different. Things change, things stay the same, though at least Marosˇ Kolpak won't have to answer any more questions about county cricket.

Alan Gardner is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo.

© John Wisden & Co