Giving up the Protea

When slicing biltong with a very sharp knife, you feel no pain when it slips and cuts your finger to the bone. It’s almost as though it has happened to someone else, the blood quickly dripping onto the kitchen floor. It’s a shock, of course, and the shock often makes you shout, but it doesn’t actually hurt. At first.

I felt a similar emotion when I noticed that English county Leicestershire had four professional South African cricketers representing them in the current round of championship matches. And all four are either full international players or SA ‘A’ players. And all four have signed Kolpak contracts making them unavailable to play for their country.

HD Ackerman and Claude Henderson signed a couple of years ago and, although both are comfortably still good enough to represent South Africa, their loss has been accepted. And they are both, of course, in South African terms, ‘old men’ despite being the average age of the Australian team.
But it’s hard to decide which is the greater shock between the other two players who recently joined Ackerman and Henderson in Leicester. Arno Jacobs or Garnett Kruger. Both on the verge of international honours, both patriotic and ambitious.

But I don’t I don’t blame them for a second. They have both recently hit the dreaded ’30’ which, in Australia, means you are just about ready for the international stage but in South Africa means you are ancient history, over the hill and past it. Even if Jacobs and Kruger are paid poorly by their new employers they will make half a million rand this winter. They will, no doubt, both have performance clauses in their contracts with delicious incentive payments.

So they will earn at least three times what they are paid by their Franchises. They are 30-years-old and they have yet to be capped by their country, although both have been close. But now they are gone.

There has been much gnashing of teeth and pulling of hair amongst CSA’s senior administrators who are worried that Jacobs and Kruger are just the tip of the iceberg. They are not. They are, in fact, numbers 40 and 41 which suggests they are right in the middle of the iceberg rather than at the tip of it.

Believe it or not, there are 41 South Africans playing county cricket at the moment and only three, Andrew Hall, Andre Nel and Dale Steyn, are doing so as qualified South Africans. I may have missed a couple in both sections and there are a couple whose families emigrated before they were 15 so the figure isn’t a perfect measure, but it’s close.

Some players, like Martin van Jaarsveld and Henderson, have married English ladies and have made an irreversible career and lifestyle decision, which is entirely fair enough. Most of us would do the same.

But others, like Vaughn van Jaarsveld, are a complete shock to the system. Having benefitted in every way the South African system and from High Performance training, the 23-year-old Gauteng batsman was selected to tour Australia in July with the High Performance Academy squad. But now he is on the verge of signing a Kolpak contract with Warwickshire and, like Jacques Rudolph, is likely to be lost to South African cricket for at least three years.

So what can be done to stop this from happening?

I am aware of talk amongst CSA chiefs of setting up a Trust Fund (polite way of saying ‘a pile of cash’) in order to pay the most talented of our youngsters to stay in SA and not be poached.

Nice idea, but utterly impractical and unworkable. Who decides which players get paid?

No. The answer is to stop being nervous and resentful of county cricket and Kolpak contracts and emphatically embrace both. Encourage as many of our young players as possible to sign county contracts and then watch their form and make selections according to how they perform there. And then select them to play international cricket if appropriate.

But what about their contracts which stipulate they cannot play international cricket? Sure, one or two might decide to honour them and turn down the chance to play for their country but the rest can, and will, be bought out as easily as Paul Harris was from his Kolpak contract with Warwickshire last season. Leicestershire have proved what they think of South Africans by filling their team with them, now it’s time for South Africa to make county cricket work for us.

The proviso, of course, is that the player is given a 6-month contract by CSA, time enough to prove himself as an international player and be adequately compensated for the loss of his county income. If there is any spare money around, then that is how to spend it.

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