What Brexit means to cricket in the UK

The Great British public has decided that it wants to leave the European Union. This isn’t something that any country has decided to do before, and the details of how a nation state goes about removing themselves from this political and economic supra-national union are only briefly covered in The Treaty of Lisbon that came into force in late 2009. As with anything that has never happened before there are swathes of uncertainty. No one really knows what will happen, and what happens to cricket in the United Kingdom is a long way down that list of what people consider to be important.

However, there are some very far reaching consequences for professional cricket in the United Kingdom.

The European Communities Act, 1972 means that workers from other member states of the European Union can live and work in the UK without any restriction. Players like Somerset’s Roelof van der Merwe and Glamorgan’s Timm van der Gugten, both Netherlands internationals, can ply their trade in county cricket. However, once the UK has left the EU, in theory, they become overseas players.

Right now, each county is allowed just one overseas player, increased to two for Twenty20 cricket, and they are subject to the sportsman’s visa requirements. It is highly doubtful that a county would use up a treasured overseas spot on a Dutch or Irish player, they will instead want a big name. In theory, these players will disappear from the county game at some point over the next 18 months to two years.

There is that massive degree of uncertainty though. What the UK government will do with the EU with regard to access to the common market and if that deal will allow free movement of EU citizens with be debated over the coming months.

The England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) will have a say, too. It is their policy that restricts counties to one overseas player so they could decide that EU passport holders don’t count in that category. Again, the uncertainty is writ large but the fact remains that as and when the European Communities Act is repealed, the legislation that allows EU passport holders to work as cricketers in the UK disappears.

The other group of cricketers who could well find themselves ineligible to work in the UK are those that are here under the Kolpak ruling. In reality, they are under much more of a threat than those that have an EU passport. All this stems from a 2003 European Court case that was brought by Slovakian handball player, Maros Kolpak. He argued that as his country had a European Union Association Agreement – in effect a trade deal with the EU – saying that he couldn’t play as he was a foreigner was a restriction of trade.

The European Court agreed, and as a result, cricketers from Caribbean countries, South Africans and Zimbabweans have been allowed to come to the UK to play as long as they renege their ambitions to play for their national team. Many decided that a steady income from the English county game was far more attractive than earning less for their country, and in purely economic terms it is very hard to argue against that logic.

The Kolpak ruling has been hugely controversial, with many arguing that the influx of southern African cricketers that followed this ruling was restricting the chances of young English talent from getting a go in the county game. Others haven’t seen it this way, suggesting that having these experienced and talented cricketers within the system has made the domestic game more competitive and has benefitted the national team.If the ECB decides that they agree with the assessment of Kolpak players having a detrimental impact on the game in the UK, the effects could be seismic. There have been moves in the past to make it harder to be in the UK as a Kolpak and the ECB have been at the centre of that agenda.In 2009, they successfully lobbied the UK government so that only those who have played a Test within the last two years or who have had a UK work permit for the last four years could be a Kolpak player. They have also increased the funding that counties get for playing young English qualified cricketers, which has seen the number of Kolpak players reduce from its peak in 2008.

There is not a single county that doesn’t have at least one important first team player that is in the country on this basis. Names like Brendan Taylor, Tino Best, Ravi Rampaul, Colin Ingram, Keaton Jennings, Richard Levi and Sean Ervine could be lost to the county game. Whether you consider this to be a good thing or a bad thing, if they do lose their position as professional cricketers, it will change the face of English cricket more than any other event in the 21 st century.

The ECB are far more likely to be magnanimous about those that have an EU passport than those that are here as a result of an obscure European Court ruling brought by an Eastern European handball player; the position of these players is significantly under threat.

The coming weeks, months and even years as the British public and its politicians try to work out just what they vote means will be both fascinating and a bit frightening, and as the tangled ball of string that is the UK’s membership of the EU is unwound, we will know more.

But as and when a “Brexit” is achieved, county cricket will look very different.

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