Cape Town – Exactly a year ago, on January 5, off-pitch events unusually seized the headlines upon completion of the traditional New Year Test match at Newlands.
Straight off aiding South Africa’s push to a four-day triumph over Sri Lanka by 282 runs, popular seamer Kyle Abbott confirmed in an emotional press conference that he was joining compatriot Rilee Rossouw – an established part of the Proteas’ limited-overs furniture – in quitting the international arena in favour of Kolpak deals with English county side Hampshire.
Both with plenty of years of top-tier cricketing activity potentially still ahead of them, Abbott had signed four-year terms and Rossouw a three-year contract, immediately cutting short their Proteas careers.
Whilst Abbott’s departure was accepted with slightly better sympathy by Cricket South Africa bosses, the younger Rossouw (27 at the time) earned a rocket from then national coach Russell Domingo, who said they had “invested massively” in the left-handed batsman and that he was “bitterly disappointed” by the revelation, and the manner of his defection.
Several other Proteas-capped performers, many of whom well worthy of representing a host of decent international teams to this day, are locked into Kolpak contracts – their ranks include Stiaan van Zyl, Simon Harmer, Rory Kleinveldt, Hardus Viljoen and Colin Ingram.
Most of those continue to ply their trades in the domestic franchise environment, although their ineligibility for national purposes has weakened the pool of options for both the Proteas and the SA ‘A’ sides; the latter have had some pretty rocky results of late.
The 2017/18 version of the New Year Test begins at Newlands on Friday, albeit in a slightly later slot than usual, between SA and India – so what price further Kolpak-related ripples this time?
Tony Irish, chief executive of the South African Cricketers’ Association (SACA), reminded Sport24 this week that (European Union-relevant) Kolpak deals were “still a possibility” for South African players.
The loophole will close when Britain leaves the EU, but that is only scheduled to occur in late March 2019, and the terms of departure remain under complex discussion in the meantime.
“As far as I am aware, (Kolpak contracts for cricketers) haven’t been affected by Brexit at this stage,” said Irish.
“(That option) is therefore still part of the alternative market for SA players, and it will be something for discussion in the new MoU (Memorandum of Understanding) between CSA and SACA.”
There has inevitably been talk in the UK media of a “final flurry” of Kolpak deals in English cricket before Brexit kicks in, and a lot of South African enthusiasts will be nervous on that score right now – a time of the year when counties start getting their playing-staff ducks more firmly in a row for the new English season.
Although the rand has shown good resilience against major currencies of late, it remains not far off 17 to the pound, so UK contracts continue to offer very tempting security to fringe-status or slightly ageing Proteas players, especially.
During 2017, rumours remained rife in England of further SA Test stars taking the “Abbott” route in 2018, including 33-year-old, notably in-form paceman Morne Morkel, whose name has been linked with several counties including Kent and Warwickshire, and the considerably more youthful off-spinner Dane Piedt.
The 27-year-old boasts seven Test caps, but last played for the Proteas in August 2016 and has fallen a fair bit behind, in the spin pecking order, to incumbent front-liner Keshav Maharaj.
He has previously denied Kolpak suggestions in his case.
One favourable factor in the quest not to haemorrhage further SA players too quickly to county loyalties is that many established Proteas stars are contemplating a further stab at the so-elusive World Cup.
When Abbott and Rossouw quit the Proteas fold at this time last season, CWC 2019 (in England) was still some two and a half years away; now it is a year nearer and increasingly more attractive a target.
But the end, or significant slowing, of the Kolpak exodus?
It seems there are no guarantees …
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