Is there a more controversial word in the English cricketing dictionary than ‘Kolpak’? No other word, other than ‘(the) Hundred’, leads to more collective cursing and eyebrow raising. However, not all Kolpak deals are the same. And today I’m going to argue that Surrey’s Hashim Amla Kolpak signing, which was announced this week, happens to be a great thing for both Surrey and the English game in general.

The arguments against Kolpak signings are numerous and understandable. The presence of overseas players (who don’t actually count as overseas players) can block a young English player’s route into their county first team. What’s more, it’s terrible for world cricket when top quality cricketers abandon their countries to take up lucrative county deals. It weakens the standard of international cricket, creates a ‘talent drain’, and highlights inequities in resources. Basically it’s just not fair.

However, although I freely admit that the Kolpak deals signed by the likes of Kyle Abbott and Duanne Olivier are very worrying, I think the Hashim Amla Kolpak signing is entirely different. Whereas Abbott and especially Olivier still had an international future ahead of them, and might still be playing international cricket had Hampshire and Yorkshire respectively not offered them a greater degree of financial security, Amla’s international race has already been run.

Kyle Abbott was 29 when he agreed a four year deal with Hampshire (he was 30 when he started playing for them), and Duanne Olivier was 26 when he committed to county cricket. Amla will be 37 by the time he turns out for Surrey. He retired from international cricket in August this year and was past his peak – he averaged just 27 in his last 14 test matches.

Although Olivier had a promising international career for South Africa, and has talked up his prospects of playing for England one day, South Africa lose nothing with this Hashim Amla kolpak deal. The bottom line is that Amla’s absence from their ongoing test match against India won’t affect the odds – punters can use the latest STS bet promotional code – one iota. He’s simply not good enough to win test matches anymore.

Consequently there are only beneficiaries in this situation: Surrey get the benefit of Amla’s runs and huge experience – he played 124 test matches and 181 ODIs – and Surrey’s youngsters will benefit from the mentoring role he will inevitably play. What’s more (whisper it quietly) Amla gets a nice pay day as his years as a pro wind down.

Although some might argue that Amla’s presence in the Surrey side might prevent the next Ollie Pope from getting earlier exposure to first team county cricket, I believe two factors offset this concern:

Firstly – and I cannot stress this enough – there are a whopping 18 professional cricket clubs in England. There are more opportunities for talented young players in this country than any other country in the world. Consequently, it’s simply not right to argue that a player of Amla’s undoubted class ultimately prevents the cream of English talent from rising to the top.

Secondly – and I bet all Surrey’s prodigious youngsters would agree – the presence of cricketing legends at county clubs benefits young players far more than it damages them. One only has to look at the impact of a certain Kumar Sangakkara at Surrey.

These (former) world class cricketers don’t just pass on invaluable advice and support, they also set a brilliant example for young players. They show them how to be a top pro, how to work hard, how to make the necessary sacrifices, and explain the mental side of being an international cricketer.

I’m positive that Alec Stewart – who has long argued that finding, developing, and preparing young players for England is every county’s raison d’etre – would argue vociferously that playing alongside Sangakkara and bowling to him in the nets has helped the Curran brothers immensely.

I also imagine that Ollie Pope has benefitted hugely from practicing with Surrey’s other Kolpak signing Morne Morkel. If Pope plays for England in South Africa this winter (and one imagines he will) it’s reassuring to know that he’s already spent hours facing Morkel in middle practices. Suddenly the prospect of blunting a fired up Kasigo Rabada isn’t such a step up.

Although Kolpak signings aren’t always good for the English game, and nobody wants to see too many mediocre foreign born cricketers clogging up the domestic scene, overall their influence on English cricket has been positive. Why? Because high quality imports raise the standard and reduce the gulf between the county championship and test cricket.

The awkward truth in English cricket is that eighteen county clubs is probably too many. I would never argue for the abolition of any counties, particularly as the ECB traditionally makes healthy profits despite the large handouts to all eighteen clubs, but there’s always the danger that talent is spread to thinly. Kolpak players, as long as they’re better than the English players they’re keeping out of the side, mitigate this problem to a significant extent.

What’s more, in the case of Surrey, signing Amla will help to counterbalance the loss of their considerable England contingent during the season. It can’t be easy dealing with the loss of Burns, Pope, Sam Curran, Roy, Tom Curran, and possibly even Ben Foakes at various points during the campaign.

With Amla in the ranks next summer, plus the possibility of Dean Elgar (or a player of similar quality) returning as the overseas player, Surrey will remain quality opposition throughout the year. And it will be a similar story across the country with many other counties. Although the wealthier clubs do have something of an advantage when it comes to offering more lucrative deals, the smaller counties have also exploited the current regulations well. Worcestershire, for example, have benefitted from Wayne Parnell’s availability, and Kent supporters have clearly enjoyed watching Heino Kuhn.

It’s worth remembering that when England’s test team was at its strongest circa 2003-2010, the county championship had more foreign players than ever before. They raised the standard, helped the very best young players to stand out, and created one of the toughest domestic first class leagues in the world. Even travelling Australians were surprised how competitive the cricket was.

Yes there’s a danger that too many Kolpak signings may eventually upset the balance between foreign and home-grown talent in England. However, I do not believe this point has been reached. What’s more, with Brexit (if it ever actually happens) likely to restrict the flow of imported cricketers in the future, I have no issue whatsoever with Surrey’s Hashim Amla Kolpak deal.

I understand if you’re not convinced by the above. County cricket is a complex and far from perfect ecosystem. However, before you damn all Kolpak cricketers to oblivion, please pause to consider the benefits these guns for hire have brought to their specific counties and county cricket in general over the years: Ottis Gibson, Murray Goodwin, Andre Adams, Shaun Pollock, Alfonso Thomas, Simon Harmer, and Ashwell Prince.

There are many other examples I could have used – not to mention the scores of overseas players who have made massive contributions to their counties too. The bottom line is that county cricket needs imports to survive and thrive. Without their presence the championship would lose its spice, and the standard simply wouldn’t cut the mustard.

James Morgan

Written in collaboration with STS

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