Priming for England duty

A new breed of cricketers, a long way from home but not that far away from Test standard, are waiting to don the England colours. They are here in numbers, together and armed with the law. By Kevin Mitchell

Nic Pothas, once of Johannesburg and, according to his own testimony, `Greek by nationality', sat for a UK citizenship test recently. The Hampshire wicket-keeper-batsman is one of many. Too many, say the patriots. At last count, there are more than a dozen top-flight `guest' cricketers who are or will soon be eligible to play cricket for England — or at least not be classified as overseas players — but whose enthusiasm for the task might be driven by financial considerations rather than heritage.

None could embellish their CV with the sort of entry Paul Nixon makes in the latest Cricketers Who's Who: `Mum made the teas for Edenhall CC, Penrith.'

And some of the selection options opening up for David Graveney and his committee in the wake of another dispiriting World Cup are clearly fanciful, given the ages and realism of the players: Lance Klusener, Murray Goodwin, Craig Spearman, Saqlain Mushtaq, Stuart Law, Ian Harvey, Mushtaq Ahmed, Callum Thorp. These are old lags, in the nicest sense of the word. Their re-qualification suits their counties, as it frees up places for more overseas players. Mushie, who would walk into the England team, charmingly turns away suggestions he is considering resuming his international career here with the query, `Where did you get that from?' — but adds he could make himself available if he so chose.

Not all the names popping up like tulips are part of an innocent parlour game. Many of them are young, ambitious, a long way from home and not that far away from Test standard. There are, for instance, 15 very accomplished `Kolpak' players on the circuit, five from Zimbabwe, 10 from South Africa — or nine, if you count Riki Wessels as Australian, where he spent the first couple of months of his life when his father, Kepler, was deciding whether or not he was South African.

The Kolpak ruling — named after a Slovak handball player — allows anyone whose country of origin has a trade agreement with the European Union to play here and not be classed as one of the two `overseas' cricketers allowed per county. This is not unique to cricket: a raft of South African rugby players are thought to be heading for Europe once the World Cup is over in October.

Several of these globally sophisticated athletes look to the example of Kevin Pietersen, who fled South Africa into the welcoming bosom of Nottinghamshire, then Hampshire and England, after his genius went unrecognised at home because of the quota system that requires a certain number of non-white players per team. KP's English blood now pumps hard under his new tattoos.

These are a different breed to Tony Greig, Allan Lamb, the Smith brothers and Graeme Hick, who were refugees from their isolated or unrecognised homelands. They are here in numbers, together and armed with the law.

What the next wave recognise is that the journey from Kolpak to residentially qualified is four years long. If the players move early enough, they can be primed for England duty in their early twenties.

Among them, players such as Craig Kieswetter (born Johannesburg, 1987) stands out. He came here recently and graduated from that famous cricket academy, Millfield School. While he says the highlight of his young career was "being selected for South Africa for the under-19 World Cup in Sri Lanka 2006", he will be eligible to play for England in two-and-a-half years. They say he is an outstanding talent.

Slightly older at 24 is Tim Ambrose, who keeps very well for Warwickshire. He grew up in Newcastle — the New South Wales one — but made his county debut six years ago and holds a UK passport.

But the landscape is not clearly defined. Jim Allenby, 24, came to Leicestershire from Perth — the Western Australian one — two years ago. He is proud to assert his great-grandfather played for Yorkshire — and is not considered an overseas player. His path would seem straightforward.

Durham's Zimbabwean Dale Benkenstein, 33 next month, holds a UK passport but is not yet qualified to play for England. Time is not on his side. It would seem his is a passport that suits Durham's needs rather than those of the Home Office or the England and Wales Cricket Board.

And then there is Gerard Brophy at Yorkshire. He was born in South Africa 31 years ago and has played here for five years. He could play for England — but is unlikely to do so. These are decent pros, obviously — but are their contributions to their employers such that `locals' should be denied a chance to develop into potential Test players?

As the Jacques Rudolph fiasco at Yorkshire showed, the ECB, wary of getting embroiled in another European Court battle, are reluctant to challenge the counties when they interpret the loose regulations in their favour.

Rudolph is, he says, committed to Yorkshire as a Kolpak player for three years and will not consider returning to South Africa in that time, if at all, even though he is only 26 and nearing the peak of his career. Given his seeming lack of thirst for regaining his Test place, who is to say that, after four years, he will not choose to become English by residential qualification — and earn a good deal more here than he could where he was born?

The narrow, knee-jerk view is that these obviously good cricketers are using the system solely to earn a better living in this country than they can in their own. The more considered opinion might be that they are entitled to do so. The British spent centuries colonising the rest of the world; the rest of the world, liberated by prosperity and opportunity, sees little wrong in repaying the favour. Is this not the way capitalism was meant to work, supply following demand?

As the world shrinks, sport is suddenly consumed by geopolitical issues it would rather ignore. And cricket — as well as football and rugby, the traditional threads of Britain's sporting fabric — is rather letting the debate drift.

In rugby, the migration quickens — even from the Southern Hemisphere's flagship club competition Super 14, where crowds are down as very good players fly north to the Guinness Premiership. They say the trickle could soon be a flood. Football, of course, is a wholly different story. The Premiership is blessed with talent from all over the world and is all the better for it.

Whether the England team benefits from the influx is a tough call — there are still plenty of fine England-qualified players available; it is just that they turn into muppets in the national colours. You can't blame that on Cristiano Ronaldo and Dimitar Berbatov.

The upside of the football experience has been the diluting of prejudice. Who would have thought that Stamford Bridge would regularly rise so vigorously in praise of foreign players, for instance? Or West Ham and Millwall, Leeds and other havens of isolationism?

Matthew Prior (also a Joburger but a product of the England system from his early teens) made his Test debut behind the stumps for England against West Indies at Lord's. The South African — sorry, Englishman — was, by general consensus, the best batsman of the wicket-keepers available to the England selectors. He was 10th in the averages last summer at 64.86 (11 not-outs, mind). The season before, Pothas — who is banging on a bit at 33 but is still nearly four years younger than Nixon — averaged 35.40. So, like Nixon, who averaged 59.66 last season and performed occasional heroics at the World Cup, he's ageing well.

But what does Chris Read (born Paignton) make of all this? Or Geraint Jones (born Kundiawa, Papua New Guinea)?

Probably they will take the professional athlete's oath of omerta.

If, as Tony Blair told the nation before he started packing his bags, `this is the greatest nation on earth', there are hundreds of very rich and talented athletes who would agree with him.

Sport has gone irrevocably global, though. It is exciting and vibrant. And it is on our doorstep, all year round. It is not perfect, nor totally fair. But sport never was. Sport was always about the bounce of the ball and how an individual made the most of that. The great ones always managed. So, if you really want to be an Englishman, Nic Pothas, good luck to you. If this is where you want to live, fine. But please don't go running home when you've filled your boots.

� Guardian Newspapers Limited 2007