Player migration is giving cricket a worrying identity crisis
We are all prisoners of our own generation and my dad was no exception. When he went into hospital to be greeted by a Nigerian nurse, he was – not having met many Nigerians – a bit nervous. “She’s lovely,” he reported next day and never worried about the subject again. But I did.
Because if Britain’s hospitals are staffed by African and Asian doctors and nurses, who then is looking after patients in their own countries? The answer in some cases is no one. “Too many immigrants,” think part of the UK population (52%?). “No, there isn’t,” say others (48?). Does anyone consider the other side of the equation?
Romania has lost a fifth of its population in the past 30 years, nearly all to western Europe. Sure, many send money home – but the best and brightest have gone, and the countryside is deserted. What kind of future is that for a country?
The connection between that and cricket may not be obvious, but listen. In February signed a 26-year-old South African fast bowler called Duanne Olivier, the 43rd player to join an English county under the “Kolpak” ruling, a 2003 European Court of Justice decision that insisted free movement applied to sports teams not just within the EU but to countries that had relevant agreements with the EU – like South Africa.
Most of the 43 have been players whose prospects of representing their country were slender. They were the peripheral, the past-it and the pissed-off. But Olivier is different. This winter he became South African cricket’s brightest new star – 31 wickets in five Tests – and was all set to be unleashed in the World Cup and in the series against England later this year.
Not now: his contract with Yorkshire bars him from representing his country for the next three years. Furthermore he has announced he wants to spend the time qualifying for England – the ECB having just, in a characteristically wretched decision, reduced the period from seven years to three. This allows them to play Jofra Archer – who was born in Barbados but holds a British passport – in the imminent World Cup. How convenient.
This subject has infinite complications. Years of mass population movements mean that many, many sports people have different nationalities in their background and thus a legitimate choice, though Olivier is not one of them.
There are also multiple ironies. One is that something very similar happened in reverse in the 1980s when English cricketers were being recruited to play in rebel tours designed to bolster the apartheid state.
Furthermore, Olivier is going to Yorkshire – Yorkshire! – who in the 80s still barred players born in such distant territories as Lancashire and Durham. These days, like other rich counties, they grub round the poorer ones picking off their home-grown stars like oligarchs buying London penthouses. The compensation for the losers, says one official, is “paltry”. (There is discussion about small changes but, as the official put it, “The feeling is that we should avoid the football model.” Why? Football’s much fairer.)
And now Yorkshire are screwing not just other counties but one of cricket’s core nations, one where the health of the game is fundamental to the fraying fabric of cricket as we have known it. This is a new form of imperialism, akin to digging up the world’s treasures and displaying them in the British Museum.
The cricket historian and administrator (and former anti-apartheid campaigner) André Odendaal identifies four reasons for South Africa’s vulnerability. One is the currency: with the rand at 19 to the £, South Africa is helpless: the cricket authorities emptied their piggy bank to offer Olivier an international contract but Yorkshire are thought to have tripled that (about £150,000 base salary). The second is opportunity: players find England a much better showcase to sell themselves as Twenty20 men and make the really big bucks.
There is also a lingering sense among South African white players that they are disadvantaged by the racial quotas introduced after the abolition of apartheid, though the impact is much softer now and non-existent for someone like Olivier. And finally there are always the agents, whispering in players’ ears (“Are you happy?” “Yeah!” “No you’re not, look at the numbers.”)
“It’s obviously a sign of Twenty20 and player power,” says Odendaal. “It’s more and more difficult for national bodies to control their players. This trend is a definite threat to the stability of South African cricket and to the system built up through B teams and under-19s. It’s quite unsettling.”
I would put it much more strongly than that. Because so few countries play the game seriously, international cricket is extremely fragile. Already Ireland are not at the World Cup partly because the best Irish player, Eoin Morgan, is captaining England. Archer will doubtless join him. Olivier may be there in 2023. Taken to its logical conclusion, the England team ends up being as meaningful as the Bangalore Bankrollers and the Mumbai Mercenaries.
Yes, the team may be stronger. But so what? If England win every game because they have stolen the top South African and West Indian players, who will want to watch? The TV rights will become worthless. (That’s the language the game’s rulers understand.)
I don’t blame Olivier; I blame his new employers. His enticement away from South Africa’s team is a disgrace. And if he ever plays for England instead, it will be a scandal.
• This article was amended on 2 April 2019 because an earlier version misnamed the cricket historian and administrator André Odendaal as Andrew. This has been corrected.