Rilee Rossouw made 122

When Rilee Rossouw took a county deal and left, it felt like he had played for South Africa just long enough to qualify for Kolpak

© Getty Images

Hate to Love

The trouble with Kolpaks and KP

We want them here, working with us, not there, working for themselves

Firdose Moonda  |  

You know what sucks about being South African in 2020? Just about everything. Our economy is on the brink of being downgraded to junk status by all three ratings agencies that matter and the impact is already obvious. The rand is weak, unemployment is at a record high, and our tourism numbers are down. Our national power utility, Eskom, inflicts scheduled power cuts on us almost every day, and sections of the country are crippled by drought.

At least last year we had a balm. We won the rugby World Cup with a representative team and we partied like we only we can - think week-long open-top bus celebration - but victory could make invisible our real social issues.

To know what 2020 looks like, cast your gaze towards Cricket South Africa. The organisation is wading through a leadership crisis and remains in financial crisis. The impact is most evident in the relationships they (no longer) have. Board members have resigned and sponsors have sailed away but it is the on-field connections that have suffered most, as players drain away from the system.

Former, current and even future cricketers have and will continue to head abroad. Though it hurts seeing Neil Wagner sit at No. 2 on the Test bowing rankings for New Zealand and Lance Klusener coach Afghanistan, it is nothing like the hate harboured towards the Kolpak signees. A hate fuelled entirely by how much we loved them.

The real reason Kolpak players are vilified is probably that they are envied for their ability to earn pounds rather than rands, and to enjoy a life in the developed world rather than the developing one

We can divide Kolpak players into two categories: the incumbents who decided to build futures elsewhere, and the veterans who saw an opportunity to cash in before the close of play. Both remind us of how much we are failing.

In the first group there are the likes of Kyle Abbott, Rilee Rossouw and Simon Harmer, who are seen to have used the South African system as nothing more than a stepping stone, sometimes even after committing to the country. "This is the place we want to play, this is place we want to perform and this is the place we really want to be tested," Abbott said in 2016, exactly a week before he tearfully told his team-mates he had signed a deal with Hampshire.

At least Abbott had an excuse. He had been messed around since his Test debut in 2013, where he notched up the second-best figures by a South African on debut and then played only two more Tests in the next two years. The big betrayal came at the 2015 World Cup, where Abbott was South Africa's best bowler by average and economy rate but was benched for the semi-final in favour of a half-fit Vernon Philander after CSA interfered with team selection to meet a transformation target.

Although Abbott went on to nail down a regular spot in the Test squad in the 2016-17 season, he was never the same. He feared that with Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel likely to return from injury, and a more aggressive quota policy in place, he was always in danger of missing out. He wanted security - of his place, of his salary, of his worth - and so he left. Incidentally, Steyn did not play any Test cricket in 2017 and Morkel retired in April 2018, so Abbott would probably have had a spot throughout that time, but how was he to know that?

'kay bye: South Africans have felt most aggravated by Kevin Pietersen departing volubly and subsequently cosying up to the country

'kay bye: South Africans have felt most aggravated by Kevin Pietersen departing volubly and subsequently cosying up to the country © Getty Images

For Rossouw, with whom South Africa persisted in the ODI side despite four ducks in his first six innings, there is no similar reasoning. Most other players with a similar start would not have been persisted with long enough to allow them to qualify as a Kolpak player (which requires them to have played a minimum of 15 white-ball internationals). South Africa's then coach Russell Domingo put it as bluntly as this: "If that had been a player of colour, everyone would have said it's a transformation thing." Rossouw was considered the next man in the Test side before he left with an insensitive goodbye. "We got an email from him off his iPhone telling us he's signed Kolpak," Domingo said. He spelt my name wrong for starters... I am bitterly disappointed in him."

So were other South Africans. They saw Rossouw as an ungrateful opportunist who did not fully grasp how lucky he was.

And then there is Harmer. The self-declared "best offspinner in the world" was dropped from the Test side after a tough tour of India in 2015 and overlooked for the South Africa A side the following year in favour of Keshav Maharaj. Harmer signed a one-year deal with Essex and expressed a desire to improve and return. But in 2017 he signed a two-year extension and has all but begged to play for England since. He has a strong case: Harmer was second on the County Championship wicket charts in 2017, fifth in 2018, and topped them in 2019, when he bowled Essex to a second title in three summers. That he is a much-improved player is obvious; that he knows it, more so.

There's something about Harmer's new-found self-assurance that stings. He now feels comfortable enough to lay out a prognosis for professional cricketers in South Africa, where he claims there is "zero security". Ask the 70 players who the South African Cricketers' Association claim will lose their jobs if the proposed domestic restructure goes ahead, and they will agree. Ask players like Andile Phehlukwayo and Lungi Ngidi, who have been able to move their parents out of poverty thanks to their national contracts and you may hear something different. Harmer's bullishness makes some South Africans (this one included) squirm, though we can't deny that he would have his uses in the system today.

Twenty-six years after we sold the world our rainbow-nation success story, we now sell them our players as we continue to search for our pot of gold

Among the second type of Kolpak are the likes of Dane Vilas, Heino Kuhn, Morkel, Hashim Amla, and soon, Philander. They are in the twilight years of their career so what could possibly be the problem with them going Kolpak? If you ask Faf du Plessis, the dearth of experience in the domestic system is hurting the development of future internationals and weakening the domestic game. Imagine the benefit someone like Zubayr Hamza could derive from batting with Amla and what Morkel could teach Ngidi and Anrich Nortje. Look no further than the 2018 Mzansi Super League to see the value of Vilas, who captained the Jozi Stars to the title. While no one can begrudge these stalwarts building their retirement funds, we can wish that it was possible for them to do it at home, where they could mentor the next generation.

The real reason Kolpak players are vilified is probably that they are envied for their ability to earn pounds rather than rands, and to enjoy a life in the developed world rather than the developing one. Sure, there's more sun in South Africa but there is less safety; there's more chance of being able to afford to have someone clean your house, but less accountability for those in positions of power. For South Africans of a certain class, immigration as a topic is never far away. The brain drain has claimed doctors, engineers, finance experts, and inevitably, our top sportspeople.

While we are on the topic about the ones that got away, let's remember that one k-word cannot be mentioned without another - Kevin Pietersen.

Though not a Kolpak player (Pietersen was eligible to play as a local in England because of his mother's British passport), KP is undoubtedly the most annoying of our cricketing expats. He claimed he left the country because the quota system denied him opportunities, but failed to mention he was a mediocre offspinner at the time. Pietersen may be able to blame the South African system for not spotting and honing his talent, but he did it by making sure we could all see his ego. Especially when he played against South Africa.

Simon Harmer left South Africa for Essex saying he would be back a better player, but he has shown no desire to return

Simon Harmer left South Africa for Essex saying he would be back a better player, but he has shown no desire to return © AFP

In 2005, in his second international series, he scored a century in a tied game in Bloemfontein - an England player in the heartland of Afrikaans cricket. In the fifth match, he scored another hundred in East London, an England player in the heartland of black African cricket. In the seventh match (and mercifully the last), he scored a third century, in Centurion, an England player in the other heartland of Afrikaans cricket.

While Pietersen's white-ball performances stuck the knife into South Africa's back, his red-ball efforts twisted it into their hearts. At Lord's in 2008 he scored 152 in a drawn match in the opening Test; three Tests later, with South Africa leading the series 2-0, he was named England captain, scored a match-winning hundred, and thumped his three lions repeatedly, letting us know how English he was.

And we got it - until four years later, when his tune changed. In the 2012 series, Pietersen hurt South Africa with a belligerent 149 in the second Test at Headingley, gave his woe-is-me presser and was then found to be secretly badmouthing his new countrymen to his former. In text messages sent to members of the South African team, Pietersen called his captain Andrew Strauss a rude Afrikaans word and was dropped for the third Test. His relationship with England was never the same.

Neither was his relationship with South Africa. Bizarrely, Pietersen appeared to be trying to cosy up to them after years of working hard to piss them off. In the years that followed, Pietersen became BFFs with Mark Boucher through their shared conservation work, and with the rest of the "boytjies" like Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis. He returned to South Africa, bought prime land in the pride of our country, the Kruger National Park, and started to call it home. It screamed white privilege, given all that had gone before, and reminded us why we resented Pietersen's success so much. And why we secretly resent all those who left, made a noise, and will likely return. We want them here, working with us, not there, working for themselves.

Lots of countries have a migrant economy but ours seems to be one of the few that is so dominated by sport. So if you really want to know what sucks about being South African in 2020, it's that 26 years after we sold the world our rainbow-nation success story, we now sell them our players as we continue to search for our pot of gold.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent

 

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