Have South Africa been Kolpaked?

Retirement of players like AB de Villiers has left a big hole in South Africa. Reuters

It’s debatable if the Englishmen are in a hurry or not to exit from the European Union, but the South African cricket establishment can’t wait for the process of Brexit to be completed. What has Brexit to do with South African cricket? A lot, if you ask.

Let’s first, however, look at South African team’s sorry state of affairs. The crushing 3-0 whitewash -- two of them being innings losses -- at the hands of India has brought the focus back on South African team’s diminishing fortunes, coming closely on the back of their disastrous World Cup campaign. What was till recently known as the best travelling side for its proud record away from home, South Africa had a string of defeats since their 3-0 drubbing by India in 2015. Following that loss, the Proteas have been humbled in all their three away series including the latest setback. They even lost to the current Sri Lankan side both at home and away in the last season, marking a new low.           

A clutch of retirements of key players obviously has had a negative impact on the South African senior side. They were first dealt a severe blow when Mark Boucher, Jacques Kallis - perhaps their greatest cricketer – and then skipper Graeme Smith retired in quick succession. However, the emergence of AB de Villiers, Hashim Amla, Faf du Plessis and Dale Steyn kept their proud legacy going since the country’s return to the international fold.

In less than a year, three of those stalwarts have all retired (Steyn is available for limited-overs cricket), leaving skipper du Plessis with an onerous task of leading an inexperienced team and restoring the Proteas’ glory days. Retirements and rebuilding are natural processes wherein a team goes through a short period of dip before finding its feet again. But what do you do when you lose talented players – young and experienced alike – who move away either due to the lure of pound or for the lack of opportunities? In South Africa’s case the two are interlinked though.

Over the past few years South Africa have seen a number of players migrate to England under Kolpak deal (see box) that allows them to play in county cricket overriding the England’s restriction on the number of foreign players. Between hard-hitting batsman Richard Levi in 2015 and upcoming pacer Duanne Olivier this year, South Africa’s cricketing talent has eroded at an alarming rate.

Pacer Hardus Viljoen, off-break all-rounder Simon Harmer, all-rounders Stiaan van Zyl, Wayne Parnell, pacers Kyle Abbott, Marchant de Lange, Morne Morkel, batsman Rilee Rossouw and wicketkeeper-batsman Heino Kuhn are among the players who have quit South African cricket.

“Brexit (which will free England of European Union rules) will be one thing that will stop obviously the Kolpak players,” said du Plessis post the Ranchi Test. “So yes, that would benefit surfing cricket tremendous amounts. I don't know if maybe they'll find a loophole around it by saying we'll have another overseas player that will be allowed to play in county cricket, which still means that players will go and play there will just be under a different name tag. Because opportunities are there for players in the domestic circuit in England, there's a lot of South African players playing there at the moment,” he noted.  

It’s not to suggest that all the migrated players deserved to be picked in the national squad over some of the current bunch but at least a handful of them did and had they been around, South Africa would have been at least competitive and not rolled over like an amateur team.  

Why then migration of such a large scale? The answer lies in the South African government’s affirmative action a la the reservation system in India.

The quota system in all national teams for coloured players -- introduced following the end of the Apartheid -- has shrunk the space for white players. Six players of colour is mandatory in a starting XI while two of them have to be black Africans. This applies at the domestic level too, thus discouraging a sizable chunk of population -- which had kept cricket healthy despite no exposure to international cricket – from practicing the game in the country or pursuing the game itself. It’s becoming increasingly difficult for a player, who is left out of the national squad, to reclaim his spot as the opportunities in domestic teams are fewer than before.

Given the sensitivity around the quota system, du Plessis wouldn’t directly dwell on the issue, but he did touch upon the problem of paucity of chances.

“Obviously, from a financial point of view, the pound is stronger than the Rand,” he pointed out. “So that will always be a concern for us. But the lesser of those things that there are for players to go overseas, obviously, that will be much beneficial for cricket in South Africa because, at the moment, we're losing our experience in international cricket. We are also losing our experience in domestic cricket. Your top players domestically are going overseas. Your guys that get left out of the South African team, they go overseas. So, you are missing out on all your best players and your talent pool is all of a sudden a lot smaller. So that's something that we've tried to identify to stop. But it's been very difficult to stop.”

While there’s no denying that the terrible Apartheid policy denied coloured people their rights in every sphere of life for decades, the effort to right the past wrongs is leading to another complex problem. Perhaps this was inevitable or perhaps there is still a way out. Maybe Brexit can solve fix this vexed issue to an extent.

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