Kolpak: Cricket’s prisoners’ dilemma?

Prisoners’ Dilemma: A situation in game theory where two rational parties decline to work together despite it being in their mutual interest to do so.

[Full disclosure: the author is a life-long supporter of Hampshire CCC]

When Hampshire used the Kolpak legal loophole to sign the South African duo of Kyle Abbott and Rilee Rossouw outrage flew in many directions: from South Africa that world-class cricketers would turn their back on international cricket for a domestic career; from other parts of the English game that abhorred the parachuting in of foreign talent, making a mockery of the one-overseas player rule. There was also a conflagration of other issues as Hampshire bore the brunt of outrage over the treatment of Durham, at whose expense they remained in Division One – with whispers surrounding the role of Hampshire supremo Rod Bramsgrove in Durham’s relegation thrown in to muddy the picture further.

Cut through that fog, however, and two genuinely Kolpak-related complaints remain: the decision of players such as Abbott to choose a County contract at the cost of unavailability for international selections (such is the price of a Kolpak move) and the effect an influx of foreign-born cricketers will have on the prospects of young English players trying to establish themselves in the County game.

The first of those involves a combination of issues including administrative issues in various national teams, the rise in potential rewards for participants in domestic cricket worldwide and the threat of Britain’s exit from the EU tempting active international cricketers to take the Kolpak leap now. We’ll look at those in a future post. It is the second issue – the impact on young English talent – that we are going to take on here.

Let’s take Hampshire as the case in point. In their opening County Championship fixture against the might of Yorkshire at Headingley, they fielded this XI:

Carberry (born in England)
Adams (England)
Vince (England)
Ervine (Zimbabwe)
Rossouw (South Africa)
Dawson (England)
McManus (England)
Berg (South Africa)
Abbott (South Africa)
Wheal (South Africa)
Edwards (Barbados)

So, five Englishmen, five born in Southern Africa and a West Indian. Does the fact that less than half of Hampshire’s XI were born on these shores matter at all? Let’s try and break this down.

You can easily see how the County has ended up here. Hampshire were relegated last year – then reprieved at Durham’s expense – and deserved to be. They can legitimately claim to have been unfortunate with injury but, ultimately, their results were not good enough. To survive this season meant improving the team and doing so immediately. While it would warm the cockles of a Hampshire supporter’s heart to see that improvement come from the progression of home-grown colts via the seconds, the reality of a two division championship where the gulf between the two tiers is growing and financial perils abound, means the luxury of a fallow period for renewal is not affordable. In Hampshire’s defence, while the Abbott-Rossouw remedy to their ills may be a quick-fix, with four and three year contracts respectively, and no danger of disappearing off on international duty, it is not a passing one. [It is also worth noting in this context that Kolpak is only a part of the issue surrounding the arrival of non-English players – Ervine plays under an Irish passport, Berg an Italian one, Wheal hold British citizenship through his parents and will qualify for England while still in his mid-20s.]

That said, the accusation remains that while such a strategy might make sense for an individual county in terms of their points haul for the season, it presents a longer-term threat to the development of young English talent and the England national team. Here lies the conflict for a county like Hampshire: it is undoubtedly in their interests to have a successful national side as interest in cricket as a whole largely rides on the fortunes and visibility of the England team and a bountiful supply of young English players is essential to that. At the same time, the County needs to be sure of its footing in the top tier and if it takes five southern Africans and a West Indian, then so be it. A cricketing prisoners’ dilemma, perhaps. Which brings us to the case of Tom Alsop.

Alsop is the sort of budding cricketer who can come out on the wrong side of that dilemma. A twenty-one year-old batsman, he made his first class debut in 2014, scored a maiden hundred in the 2016 season and has been earmarked by the ECB as one for the future with call-ups to England under-19s, Lions and England ‘South’ squads. Having made several appearance for Hampshire’s first-XI in the latter half of last season, 2017 must have been hoped as the year in which Alsop would look to secure his first-team future, kick on and start to bring that batting average up to where his early promise suggests it should be.

Where, then, was Alsop in the first Hampshire XI of the County Championship? Ousted to make room for the South African Rossouw, that’s where. The direct nature of the swap highlighted two games later when a blow to the South African’s fingers saw Rossouw sidelined and Alsop finally given a chance; scoring 40 in his only innings. While one may argue that this turn of events shows that cricket is now a squad game with injuries and international call-ups giving those bubbling under their chance, it also makes it clear how perilous young Alsop’s place is in the side. Rossouw will soon recover and return and, with Australian George Bailey heading to these shores to take the Hampshire captaincy, Alsop’s place in the pecking order may only drop further. It is too early to begin panicking about the future of a 21 year old being threatened by a spell in the seconds but equally, without regular first-team cricket, that promise cannot be realised. Every county’s supporters can come up with the names of young prospects at 21 who, by their mid-twenties, had dropped out of the game. In cricketing terms it is a vulnerable age.

In many ways, though, ‘twas ever thus. Kolpak or no Kolpak, making it from the second eleven to the firsts has always been a challenge in anywhere but the most under-performing teams. At 21 years old you needed injury, international call-ups, loss of form or retirement to open up a berth or else a run of scores in the seconds so impressive that the committee had no choice but to find a place for the young up-start. That was and is a fact of the young sportsman’s life, whatever the accents of the current first team regulars. It is true that the arrival of Rossouw and Bailey places additional barriers for Alsop than were present last season but the same was true for any young Hampshire batsman hoping to make their move to the firsts in 1989 when David Gower arrived in the dressing room.

Nationally, though, there is a difference. When Gower departed Leicestershire for the south coast, a place opened up in the first XI at Grace Road. An opportunity for an English hopeful. With the arrival of a Kolpak player, the number of places for English qualified players reduces by one. This, it is argued, is where the larger threat lies.

I’m not sure it does.

The move from a one-division County Championship to the current two was debated on and off from before the Second World War. What finally brought it into being was the paucity of the England national team’s performances, particularly in The Ashes, in the 1990s. Our county-grown players appeared lacking in gumption compared to their Australian counterparts who had been forged in the tough proving grounds of the lean, mean, Sheffield Shield. There was too much county cricket, played by too many mediocre cricketers. Smaller and tougher was the cry – get the best to play against the best – and two divisions was the result. Similar arguments are being used to promote the new city-based T20 competition. The evidence is – along with the advent of central contracts – that it worked.

If cricket was going down the road of English football in the late 1990s where, it seemed, that anyone with a foreign passport, a pair of boots and a highlights reel to send to desperate managers could get signed up – often at a fraction of the cost of an English born player – then there would be reason to be concerned. But this is not the case. To continue the Hampshire focus, Rossouw is a class batsman and Abbott is currently not just a good fast bowler but one of the very best in the world. Their presence on these shores will not just toughen Hampshire as a team but benefit any young player who plays with or against them. The presence of foreign-born players and the development of young English talent is not a contradiction.

Don’t get me wrong, I would love a Hampshire side dominated by players who had risen through the ranks much as Vince, Dawson and, now, young McManus have. And in no way is this an argument that foreign imports are inevitable if success is to be achieved – Yorkshire have impressively demonstrated that is not the case. However, if English cricket wants to produce a County scene showcasing the toughest, most competitive cricket of the highest standard and threatens relegation to those not achieving it, then Counties will work around, as well as within, the foreign-player rules. That much is inevitable and may not be so bad for the game.

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