Nobody could have imagined the impact made on cricket when Slovakian handball player Maros Kolpak won a decision in the European Courts of Justice back in May 2003. After being released from his German club, due to their quota on non-European Union players, Kolpak made a legal challenge to oppose the law and duly succeeded.
For those unaware of what effect this has on cricket, in England especially, it enables cricketers from countries that have an Association Agreement with the European Union (EU) to play domestic cricket in England without being classified as an overseas player. Therefore, players from South Africa, Zimbabwe and certain islands in the West Indies are free to travel to England to ply their trade, but are not eligible to represent England unless they wish to do so via the residential period route.
Each Kolpak case is dealt with individually by the England and Wales Cricket Board. Despite regulations stating that the player must not have played first class cricket or higher in the 12 months prior to the season and that he must give up playing as a domestic player in his home country, both of these can be overlooked. When Jacques Rudolph signed on for Yorkshire early in 2007 as a Kolpak, he had played for South Africa in August 2006, however, the ECB were powerless to enforce rules.
In every case, a player is asked to sign a Statutory Declaration, which details his commitment to playing only in the UK as a domestic cricketer. Players that return home to feature in their domestic season must then do so as overseas players.
They are the regulations, so what are the ramifications ? The major gripe against this relatively new legislation is that these Kolpak signings are stifling English talent. They are taking the places of the younger academy players when they could be being given the necessary first class exposure to enhance their game and gain vital experience at a higher level. The argument that negates that comment to a degree, is that many people believe that the cream generally rises to the top and if the youngster in question is good enough, he will make it with or without the presence of the Kolpak players.
The Kolpaks are invariably a cheaper option and are seen as a short term fix when the money could be better used improving the development of the younger players with the long term view in mind, rather than the immediate season. Counties understandably want to remain, or become, competitive and they see the best and cheapest way of doing this is by bringing in Kolpak players with a fair amount of first class, maybe international experience for a reasonable sum of money, rather than relying on youth and funding their development.
It is too much of a generalisation to say none of the Kolpaks signed since 2004 (the first season where the ruling was in place) have improved the quality on the first-class circuit. For example, there must be young batsmen at Sussex queuing up to hear any snippets of advice from a talent such as Murray Goodwin. Not only listening to him but watching how he goes about his cricket will surely aid young Englishmen no end, similarly at Yorkshire with Jacques Rudolph. Charl Willoughby has shown that bowlers can succeed on the batters paradise at Taunton, and if anyone there wants to learn the art of swing, he will be amongst the first they call on.
Has the Kolpak ruling strengthened English county cricket ? Of the 24 Kolpaks that have arrived and played first class cricket since 2004, around 50% have proved over their careers that they will benefit most leagues they join. I make this observation based on their overall first class records. Statistics can admittedly be misleading, however, only four of the 24 players average in excess of 40 with the bat, while seven have a bowling average under 30, with South African Lance Klusener fitting into both categories (for players that have played over 15 first-class games).
The stats suggest that the competition is not particularly stronger as a result of Kolpak signings, sure players like Goodwin, Rudolph, Klusener, van Jaarsveld etc, help raise the standard, but for every one of those there is a player that would probably struggle to make his own provincial side back home.
Naturally, the ECB cannot regulate the quality of player to come in, we can only rely on counties to do their utmost in signing players to strengthen English cricket as a whole, without flooding the market. One thing that is in their powers is to penalise each county to the sum of ?1,100 each time they field a Kolpak in the Championship, this fee comes out of their annual central handout.
With the ECB providing the major source of income for counties, they have an obligation to respect the amount of non-qualified English players within the make up of their squads. Of course those that are largely made up of English qualified players receive more income from the ECB.
Needless to say that there are more Kolpaks to come. In 2008 counties are restricted to only one official overseas player per side and may look to some big name Kolpaks to help improve gate receipts. Big hitter Justin Kemp is on his way to Kent having shelved his international ambitions for now, while Northants have opted to sign four South Africans with international experience in Nicky Boje, Lance Klusener, Johan van der Wath and Andrew Hall (with no official overseas player). Very few West Indians have come over on the ruling, but in 2008, Wavell Hinds and Pedro Collins will be bucking that particular trend.
So surely the change to only one overseas player is a little counter productive when counties then go out and bring in a number of Kolpaks (or entice players to obtain an EU passport) who are ineligible anyway for England selection. The quality of the official overseas player has been of the highest standard for a number of years, consequently the English players are much more likely to have their development enhanced by a world star, as averse to a South African struggling to get a break in his home country.
The newly formed Indian Premier League (IPL) may prevent numerous world class players from appearing in England in the opening months of the season with them signing up to play in the Twenty20 competition for obscene amounts of money. Will the enthusiasm to then travel to England for more cricket diminish after having earned a fortune for around six weeks work ? One would hope this is not the case.
Of course South Africa are also affected by the Kolpak ruling, with older players relinquishing their international prospects before their time to build a domestic career in England. Younger cricketers are also looking to gain England selection through the four-year residential period after their initial Kolpak contract. So the problem does not affect only England.
It is a situation that needs to be constantly assessed. The important thing for English cricket is that the academy players are given as much assistance to aid their development, whether that is through opportunities in the first team, a secure structure in place, or with coaching and facilities. The vision needs to be long term to enable English cricket to reap the rewards further down the line.
It was Leicestershire who made the first Kolpak signing when they added Claude Henderson to their squad. Their chief executive that oversaw the deal at the time was England's new selector James Whittaker. How ironic ? Let us hope, from an English cricket perspective, that that particular decision to start the Kolpak ball rolling will not reduce the field he has to pick from too dramatically.
What is important, is that English cricket monitors the quantity and quality of the overseas Kolpak player. This can only be done through the integrity of the county officials.