Ecstacy for England as South Africa suffer

Stanley Gilyead looks at the problems facing South African cricket after they continued their bad run of form with a demoralising defeat at the hands of England.

Stanley Gilyead
10th February 2020
Image: Wikimedia Commons
England cruised to a 3-1 test series victory over South Africa last month. Having only lost the first test due to an illness that tore through the camp, England looked better than they have in many a year.

Their top order woes seem to have finally been banished and Ollie Pope and Mark Wood were imperious on their returns to the test side. It is impossible, however, to ignore how poor South Africa were. Having been top of the test rankings as recently as 2016 their form has fallen off a cliff. The Proteas have suffered whitewashes to Sri Lanka and India over the course of the last 12 months.

South Africa are undoubtedly a team in transition. The superstars that powered them to the top of the rankings, AB de Villiers, Hashim Amla, Graeme Smith and Dale Steyn, have since retired. The loss of such talent would weaken any test team, and with the recent retirement of Vernon Philander South Africa look over reliant on individual players like Rabada and de Kock.

However the loss of form cannot be completely blamed on a lack of South African cricketing talent. There are plenty of top class South African cricketers playing the game today, but due to a quirk in UK employment law they are unable to play for their national side.

The cause of South Africa’s woes can be traced back to a 2003 European Court of Justice ruling made in favour of Slovakian handball player Maros Kolpak. The ruling meant that sportspeople from countries with Association Agreements with the EU, such as South Africa, were given the same rights to work in the EU as EU citizens and could not be discriminated against. This meant South Africans had the opportunity to play in the English County Championship without filling up each county's single overseas player slot. But there was a catch. If a player chose to do so they could not play for their national side.

With little money in domestic South African cricket, and few opportunities to break into the test side in the golden era of Amla, Steyn et al, lots of South Africans took up this opportunity, signing ‘Kolpak deals’ with English counties and retiring from international cricket. This meant that a cohort of quality players, such as Kyle Abbott, Rillee Rossouw and Duanne Olivier, couldn’t be picked for the test side.

There may be light at the end of the tunnel for South Africa, however. Last week the ECB confirmed that the end of the Brexit transition period will signal the end of Kolpak deals. Whilst there are plans in place to increase each county's overseas player allowance to 2 players, allowing existing Kolpak players to remain with their county side, they will no longer be ineligible for international selection.

Whilst it is unlikely that the return of players such as Abbott, Rossouw and Olivier will power South Africa back to the top of the rankings, the decision gives South Africa hope. If they can develop a new generation of quality players they can now be sure that this will benefit the test team, rather than English county sides, making a return to their former glories a distinct possibility, at least in the long term.

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