Dane Vilas watches the clouds while Kyle Abbott and Simon Harmer look on

Excelling in exile: Kyle Abbott, Dane Vilas and Simon Harmer have added more fuel to the debate of what Kolpaks are doing to England's domestic system

© Getty Images


Life as a Kolpak

Race, privilege, political circumstances and opportunities are all intertwined in the decision of players to leave South Africa to play and earn money in the UK

Daniel Gallan  |  

Tucked away in Wimbledon station in south-west London is a hole-in-the-wall grocery store called Snoggy's. It doesn't look like much, but peep inside and you'll find a cornucopia of culinary delights for homesick South Africans.

There is succulent biltong and thick spirals of boerewors with just the right amount of coriander and chilli. There are the unmistakable bottles of Mrs Ball's chutney and Steers monkey-gland sauce. Tea-dunkable buttermilk rusks, hangover-curing Cream Soda, crunchy salt-and-vinegar Simba crisps, wines from the Cape. You may have left sunny South Africa for the cold and damp United Kingdom, but that doesn't mean your taste buds can't stay behind.

If you're lucky, you might also find another product of South Africa at the shop.

"I'm often there, picking up bits and pieces that make me feel like I'm back home," Dane Vilas, Lancashire's captain and wicketkeeper-batsman, who has six Test caps to his name, said while sitting at his favourite pub, a short walk from Snoggy's. "I get my braai [barbecue] meat there and even get some of the beers I used to drink."

Vilas and his wife, Pippa, are currently building a house just down the road in Raynes Park, which will serve as a base whenever Vilas is not on tour or stationed in Manchester during season. This part of London is filled with South African expats, attracted to the larger plots of land and wider streets that remind them of the world they left behind.

"I'm not sure what it says about us but we like to feel like there is still some connection to South Africa even though we're far away," Vilas said. "You never really want to sever those ties."

But some ties have been severed, on the cricket field at least. In 2017, when he was 31, Vilas signed a Kolpak contract with Lancashire, effectively ending his career with South Africa. A Kolpak deal allows counties to circumvent the rule limiting them to one overseas player, but it also means the player in question cannot represent their country while that contract is valid.

"Africa will always be in my heart but for now, I am confident we've made the right decision as a family. That really is our only priority" Dane Vilas

Vilas, of course, is not alone. There are currently 14 South Africans playing in the UK on a Kolpak, and Hashim Amla is set to join Surrey next year. A further 19 from the republic are regulars on the county circuit, having nationalised after initially coming over on a Kolpak or having made use of a European or UK passport. As many as 11, including AB de Villiers, Imran Tahir and Faf du Plessis, played in the UK on an ad-hoc basis this season, as overseas professionals. Of the 18 first-class teams in England and Wales, only Warwickshire and Nottinghamshire did not have a South African in their ranks this year.

The story of the Kolpak has been covered extensively. In 2003 the Slovakian handball player Maros Kolpak won his case against TSV Östringen after the German club denied him a contract on the grounds that it had already filled its ration of foreign players. Kolpak successfully argued that under European Union (EU) free-trade laws, he had the right to work in Germany.

South African spinner Claude Henderson became the first cricketer to drive through this loophole in 2004. The Contonou Agreement, signed in 2000 between the EU and various African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) nations meant that professionals, including cricketers, from these regions met the legal requirements of a Kolpak deal as long as they revoked their status as an international cricketer.

For over 15 years, journalists, commentators and fans have pontificated over the myriad ways in which the game has changed both in the UK and in South Africa. Most arguments are strongly against the Kolpak. In England, critics have pointed out that an influx of foreigners has stifled the development of young local players. In South Africa, a player drain has weakened national and domestic teams and bred resentment against those who have left.

This ill feeling is keenly expressed by supporters as well as administrators and coaches within CSA who have invested resources in the development of these players. "It is frustrating to say the least," one CSA insider said. "Especially since we can't do anything about it. Now we are conscious that every player we help become a world-class performer may leave through the back door before he has given a proper return on that investment."

Girish TS / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd

There are, however, also positives. It is not just T20 franchise cricket the world over that has engendered a more open-minded breed of cricketer. County teams as well as South African provinces benefit, however tangentially, from the cross-pollination of ideas and cultures.

"I make a point of sharing what I've learned overseas with local youngsters," said Vilas, who has played as an overseas player back in South Africa for various teams, most recently with the Durban Heat in the Mzansi Super League. "I feel a sense of duty to give back where I can."

Either way, the discourse tends to ask questions that tackle the issue from a macro point of view rather than examine it through the eyes of the individuals involved. How will the Kolpak ruling impact the upcoming Test series between South Africa and England? Does a proliferation of South African bowlers at the top of the County Championship wicket-takers' list point to a decline in English talent? What does this all mean for cricket in South Africa as those in power seek to racially transform the sport?

These are not questions that concern those in the middle of the maelstrom. "We just don't talk about those things," Simon Harmer said when we met at a trendy pub in East London, a 30-minute train ride from his home in Chelmsford, where he has starred for Essex since 2016. "We try to get together as often as we can, whenever we play against each other. We have braais, we have drinks, and we chat about everything.

"But we don't go deep into the significance of what we represent," he said. "That's too much, and frankly, we don't need that extra burden."

Perhaps the lack of information about how the players themselves feel has created a void that fans and pundits have filled with their own interpretation of events. In the court of public perception, the men who have turned their backs on the Protea in favour of riches abroad have been labelled as sell-outs, traitors and worse.

"Some of the comments online and in the media have had an effect on my family, especially my mom," Vilas said. "It's never nice to know that you are indirectly causing grief for a loved one, and it's a real shame that people jump to conclusions. But I understand that is how it goes with passionate sports fans."

"I talk differently, I was brought up in a different country and that's why I've caught a bit of flak. Because I'm English now, guys in South Africa probably question my motives" Keaton Jennings

Both Vilas and Harmer bristled at the notion that they have committed treason or are unpatriotic in any way. Both said they were ambassadors of South Africa and expressed a passion for encouraging team-mates and friends to visit the country. "If you're English, your value for money in South Africa is amazing," Vilas said. "That's why so many fans will be down over summer."

It is partly the hefty exchange rate - almost 20 rand to the pound - that has fuelled the Kolpak exodus. It has also exacerbated animosities that fans in the motherland feel towards those who leave. Vilas was picked up in the Hundred draft by the Manchester Originals for a life changing £125,000 (about R2.3 million). Only players with a central contract with CSA will earn anywhere near that; domestic players outside of that elite bubble can realistically expect half this figure for an entire season, provided they are "a gun player", as one CSA insider said.

"Using the money we earn as a stick to beat us with is pretty easy, and I think it shows a lack of awareness," Vilas said. "Living in the UK is expensive. These two pints cost £11. That's over R200. In South Africa you can have a great meal with that money. I'm not struggling financially as a result, but I don't think people can just say that we're chasing the cash."

South Africa is the most unequal country in the world, according to the World Bank. The divide between rich and poor is deepening and the divisions are still largely cut along racial lines 25 years after the fall of apartheid. It is hard to counter Vilas' point regarding the exorbitant cost of living in London. But given he has just sealed a deal that a recent Statistics South Africa report says is worth more than the average monthly salary of 337 black South Africans put together, it is difficult to reconcile with this wealthy white man complaining about the price of craft beer.

Talking about race in the context of South African sport is the equivalent of talking about runs in a run chase. The two are inseparable. Every aspect of life in South Africa is coloured by the legacy of apartheid and the long shadows it still casts. And yet, unlike talk of runs in run chases, the mixing of sport and politics is frowned upon in polite conversation, so much so that a former employee of CSA once gave me a stern reprimand for raising the subject with a player, even threatening to limit access in the future if such questions did not desist.

Snoggy's, the South African speciality store in Wimbledon station, caters to the large expat population in the area

Snoggy's, the South African speciality store in Wimbledon station, caters to the large expat population in the area Osman Samiuddin / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd

Being a white South African, no matter where one lives, is an exercise in existing in perpetual angst or ignorance. There is no middle ground. You can either choose to shrug your shoulders and view the images of history in the rear-view mirror, or you can grapple with your role, however explicit or implicit, in shaping those scenes.

The Kolpak archetype is white. Like Harmer (Pretoria Boys High School), Vilas (King Edward VII School), Kyle Abbott (Kearnsey College) and Rilee Rossouw (Grey College, Bloemfontein), he is the product of an elite school renowned for churning out high-performing athletes.

In the eyes of critics, the Kolpak is not just the beneficiary of a twist of fate that allowed a hard-working professional the chance to reinvent himself across the world. By earning pounds, by being white, by speaking with the unmistakable twang bequeathed to him by the hyper-macho environment of an elite all-boys school, this player represents a particular sect of privilege in South Africa. In such an unequal world, this perceived flaunting of status resonates as an affront.

"There's no rule against black players joining as a Kolpak," Vilas points out. "That the majority of Kolpaks are white speaks more about what's going on in South Africa than it does about any of us."

South Africa's domestic franchise players are squeezed into six teams that must adhere to CSA's selection targets of fielding six "players of colour" in the starting XI, with three black Africans included. As a result, there are 30 places available for white cricketers on game day at the level just below the national side.

Wayne Parnell is not white, nor is he the first "non-white" player to join as a Kolpak, having done so with Worcestershire in 2018. The allrounder, who represented his country 111 times across three formats, is uncomfortable with the insertion of race in the Kolpak dialogue.

"My lifestyle is more relaxed [in England] and there is no bullshit, no politics. Everyone is here to win cricket matches. Playing in South Africa, I fell out of love with cricket. Playing here made me fall back in love with it" Simon Harmer

"I think it's the major thing that journalists and fans get wrong," Parnell said. "Guys like Harmer and [Duanne] Olivier are vilified because they are white. I'm let off the hook somewhat because people can't say I ran away because of my skin. It has nothing to do with skin colour."

Few Kolpak players have signed away their position with South Africa from a secure base. Harmer had just been dropped from the Test team in 2016 and had fallen behind Keshav Maharaj in the spin stakes. Vilas was fighting a losing battle for the gloves against Quinton de Kock. Parnell was already considered a busted flush by selectors. Abbott had only played six Tests across three years and had struggled to secure a regular place in the side behind Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander and Morne Morkel when he agreed a deal with Hampshire.

Arguably, only Olivier, who had just decimated Pakistan in a Player-of-the-Series performance worth 24 wickets at 14.7, exited the stage while in the spotlight. "My decision was not solely a cricket one," he told me earlier this year at Yorkshire's pre-season media day. "My wife and I feel we can build a better life here."

If they are lucky, the very best cricketers have at most 20 years to ply their trade in the middle before time slows their hands and feet. Professional sport is one of the few realms where most practitioners earn the vast majority of their money before they turn 35.

"No one tweets about the accountant or the doctor or the journalist who explored opportunities in a different country," Parnell said. "Those people don't wake up in the morning and read about how they let down their country and how millions of strangers hope they fail in their job. National pride gets in the way of seeing us as freelancers who found a way to maximise our earning potential. Why should we limit ourselves when others are not asked to do the same?"

In March, Olivier told the Daily Mail that he would be open to the possibility of returning to international cricket with England's Three Lions on his chest. In September, Harmer was more bullish when he told the same publication, "I'd love to play for England. I've shown I have the potential, ability and work ethic to play international cricket again."

Keaton Jennings:

Keaton Jennings: "Some mornings I'd question if I'd chosen the right cup of coffee. I've had to delete social media on my phone a few times in the past and literally isolate myself from it" © Getty Images

Harmer doesn't yet meet the ECB's qualification threshold* but hopes the board will help his case. The way the board shoehorned Jofra Archer into the side in time for a home World Cup and Ashes series shows that chief selector Ed Smith is willing to put jingoistic sentiments aside in favour of picking the best players available. Statistically, there has been no better spinner than Harmer on the domestic scene in England since he arrived.

Which fan of any sport around the world would be comfortable with a former representative of their national team expressing an interest in playing for another country? How would an All Blacks supporter feel if a player who had worn the Silver Fern openly flirted with the idea of wearing a Springbok jersey? George Orwell might have veered into hyperbole when he told us that sport is war minus the shooting but there are some streams of truth in his hypothesis.

It is no coincidence that Nelson Mandela used sport in his attempt to build his New South Africa. Insecurity has always been woven into the fabric of the former colony and triumph on the sports field helps assuage feelings of inadequacy. To lose Olivier, Harmer and any other player who has worn the Protea is one thing. To lose them to the better resourced English is something else entirely.

Jacques Kallis captured the essence of this debate shortly after Keaton Jennings scored a century on debut for England, against India in 2016. Jennings, whose father, Ray, played for and coached South Africa, was born in Johannesburg and had captained the South Africa U-19 team but used his British passport to move to England after graduating from high school.

He had a few unremarkable years, followed by a breakthrough 2016 season with Durham in which he topped the County Championship run-scorers' chart with seven hundreds in 16 matches at an average of 64.5. On Test debut, in Mumbai, a deft reverse sweep brought him three figures.

"Yet another one slips through our system," Kallis tweeted. The great allrounder was criticised and lauded in equal measure. He was either viewed as the embodiment of white ignorance in a nuanced debate or an expert observer rightly chastising CSA for its shortcomings. Once again, the man in the middle didn't know where to place himself.

"No one tweets about the accountant or the doctor or the journalist who explored opportunities in a different country" Wayne Parnell

"I don't think I slipped through the cracks," Jennings said from his home in Didsbury just outside Manchester, his Weber braai perched on the balcony while his England rugby jersey hung on his bedroom door.

"But then when you get a guy like that talking about the system and how things could be better, that is massive. Maybe the gap Jacques is talking about is that gap after school. Maybe CSA should take better care of those 18-year-olds."

Jennings, who is not and has never been a Kolpak, remembers the exact moment his identity shifted. He was 21 and on a pre-season trip with Durham to Dubai in 2014 when Graham Onions noticed an old pair of South Africa U-19 training pants in his kit bag. Onions argued that if Jennings had truly committed to his new life in England then he'd get rid of them. The veteran seamer even offered his own England training pants instead.

"To this day those pants he gave me are in my kit bag," Jennings said. "It didn't feel like a big moment at the time but it's a good story that I look back on. I guess that's when things became clear."

Jennings now proudly considers himself English but acknowledges that his South African roots still shape his world view. Two of his favourite hobbies include making his own biltong and cooking on his barbecue, though his speciality is a very British filet of salmon.

"I've always stood out as different," Jennings said in the thick, porridgy accent of Johannesburg. "I talk differently, I was brought up in a different country and that's why I've caught a bit of flak. Because I'm English now, guys in South Africa probably question my motives. You get all sorts of opinions on social media."

Like Vilas, the barbs have stung Jennings. He confessed to sleepless nights and shedding tears caused by the self-doubt and anxiety. "Some mornings I'd question if I'd chosen the right cup of coffee," he said. "I've had to delete social media on my phone a few times in the past and literally isolate myself from it."

Wanting players to fail is nothing new in sport fandom but the intensity is ramped up with Kolpak players. Their achievements are readily derided and their failures gleefully celebrated.

"I think fans back home aren't happy when we do well," Harmer said. "People look at all the wickets I've taken and trophies I've won and dismiss it by saying the batters aren't great or the standard is poor. But when we have a bad game, all of a sudden we're the ones who aren't good. It's a lose-lose situation."

All that you can't leave behind: South African expats are recreating braai culture - an indispensable part of sport, and life - in England as a reminder of home

All that you can't leave behind: South African expats are recreating braai culture - an indispensable part of sport, and life - in England as a reminder of home © Getty Images

All the Kolpak players interviewed for this piece said their decision to give up the chance to represent South Africa was one of the hardest they had made in their career.

"I grew up dreaming of wearing the Protea, so to hand it away like that was painful," Vilas said. Harmer added, "You can't know what it's like to choose to never play for your country ever again."

But despite the doubts, the negative press, the animosity from fans, the homesickness, the nagging thoughts about what could have been, not one of them spoke of regret.

"I love my life here," Harmer said, visibly relaxing. "From a cricketing point of view, I feel like I'm treated like a professional. Unlike in South Africa [with the Warriors] I leave my bag at the ground and don't have to take it with me. I can walk to training and my gym. My lifestyle is more relaxed and there is no bullshit, no politics. Everyone is here to win cricket matches. Playing in South Africa, I fell out of love with cricket. Playing here made me fall back in love with it."

Off the field, the comforts of London's middle-class have given Vilas and his family peace of mind. "I no longer worry about the safety of my wife when I'm away," he said, referencing the staggering crime statistics in South Africa, where 114 cases of rape are reported every day and a woman is murdered every four hours. "Africa will always be in my heart, but for now, I am confident we've made the right decision as a family. That really is our only priority."

After the crushing defeat in this year's Test series in India, Proteas captain Faf du Plessis bemoaned the unavailability of some Kolpak players. "It's sad for South African cricket not to have the option," he said after an innings defeat in Ranchi.

"Simon Harmer has had an unbelievable season. It would have been great for South Africa to be in a position where they could go, 'He's done well overseas. Let's bring him on tour with us.'"

Du Plessis is proof that a player can return to South Africa as a former Kolpak, as he did in 2010 after three years with Lancashire. But he was 25 then and had yet to reach his peak. His homecoming did not polarise opinion in the way Harmer's would go on to do.

Brexit may change the Kolpak ruling as we know it. No one can say with any certainty just how the UK's departure from the EU will shape the role foreigners play in British sport.

This current crop may be the last cricketers of their kind: oddities in the sport's history, forever branded with a scarlet K. That's likely how they will be remembered. But it's not how they see themselves.

*Dec 18: Piece earlier stated that Harmer would qualify for England next year

Daniel Gallan is a freelance journalist living in London. @danielgallan