(Photo: Getty Images)
By Neil Manthorp
Hashim Amla and Morne Morkel are the latest South Africans to be talked up as potential Kolpak players for next season and it is true that both have been offered county deals on that basis. Neither, however, has accepted and are highly unlikely to do so until the end of March next year.
Like AB de Villiers, Amla remains determined to have another crack at the World Cup in 2019 so, unless there is a huge change in circumstances, he will have to see out his playing career in county cricket as an overseas player. Morkel, however, has said the 2019 tournament may be “a tournament too far” and would almost certainly have accepted one of the three offers he received during SA’s tour had his form not been so impressive.
“Things change so quickly in South African cricket,” said a team-mate. “Morne stayed fit and ended up leading the attack and taking 19 wickets. He wasn’t really sure where he stood before the tour but he ended it as happy playing international cricket as any of us have seen him. So for now he just wants to keep playing for the Proteas.”
Although he would risk a popularity backlash should he do so, there would be nothing to stop Morkel from emulating former team-mate Kyle Abbott and agreeing to a Kolpak deal for next season before the imminent South African international season is over.
One man who won’t be signing a Kolpak deal is de Villiers whose confused international career finally became clear on Wednesday when he stood down from the ODI captaincy but did make himself available once again for all three formats of international cricket.
The seed which grew into de Villiers’ decision was sown during a conversation the batsman had with former captain Graeme Smith during the T20 series against England which followed South Africa’s dismal performance during the Champions Trophy.
Smith typically cut straight to the point by telling de Villiers that he probably didn’t have thick enough skin to handle the criticism that inevitably comes with the captaincy and that it was the leadership role that was weighing him down, not the actual playing.
“I reminded him that sometimes you aren’t aware of how much the captaincy can wear you down, not just the critics but the amount of time and off-field commitments it requires. You get used to it after a few years and don’t realise how much it takes out of you,” Smith said.
De Villiers’ decision to make himself available for Test cricket once again may not last beyond this summer’s marquee series against India and Australia, both of which appeal to him for different reasons. Tellingly, his availability for Test cricket kicks in only after the Proteas have opened their ten-Test summer with a two-match series against Bangladesh in Potchefstroom and Bloemfontein. He may be keen to play again, but not that keen.
His bat sponsorship contract with Indian manufacturer MRF is worth around $3 million, approximately 13 times his annual contract with Cricket South Africa. In it there is a stipulation that he should play all three formats and, naturally, bonuses would apply for long hours on screen during prime time viewing in India.
If that sounds like cynical motivation, quite the opposite is true of his desire to play against Australia. Since isolation ended, Test series victories have been achieved at home and away against every other nation – with the exception of Australia at home. Three consecutive wins Down Under but nothing to show from seven series at home except for two draws.
It’s not just the results. The last one, four years ago, was nasty and personal. Among many individual confrontations was the one between a still naive David Warner and the then wicket-keeping de Villiers whom Warner accused of ball tampering with an abrasive section of his gloves. De Villiers may be sensitive about his captaincy but that’s nothing compared to the bristle generated by calling him a cheat.
Winning the 2019 World Cup remains de Villiers’ greatest ambition and it remains his priority, but winning the series against Australia isn’t far behind. Once that series is over, South Africa have a sparse year of Test cricket ahead and he will almost certainly retire from the format then to concentrate on another couple of ICC trophy campaigns, one in the T20 format and one in the 50-over game.
Kolpak ‘agents’ remain on the prowl in the Republic, however, and there is no shortage of volunteers among the rank and file of provincial cricketers willing to take their chances in England – and for substantially less money than most others. But it is not just those at the beginning of their careers who are seeking the opportunities and stability provided by county cricket. It is those two or three years before their careers have even started.
It is difficult to track precise numbers because families do not advertise their intentions or reasons, but it is a fact that dozens – perhaps as many as 50 – of white boys have moved to the UK to finish their school careers in the last two years to shorten the time required to qualify. They see less and less opportunity for themselves to pursue a professional career with racial quotas likely to increase rather than be abolished in the years ahead.
It is a sign of the extreme sensitivities which can be created by the subject in this country that, while ten Kolpak players have made themselves available for the player draft in the inaugural Global T20 League here in November, two have decided to play in the Bangladesh Premier League instead.
Cameron Delport, Richard Levi, Colin Ingram, Stiaan van Zyl, Dane Vilas, Colin Ackermann, Simon Harmer, David Wiese, Marchant de Lange and Hardus Viljoen have all been named in the draft but the high profile Hampshire duo of Kyle Abbott and Rilee Rossouw have opted for Dhaka rather than Durban.