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Last Updated: Wednesday, 3 March, 2004, 13:44 GMT
Counties fear Kolpak
By Martin Gough

He is an unheralded Slovakian handball player who has never seen a game of cricket but Maros Kolpak is set to have the same effect on the game that Jean-Marc Bosman had on football.

Kolpak went to the European Court in a bid to play in Germany without being classed as a foreigner, claiming restraint of trade.

And the resulting ruling could see county cricket's current regulation of two overseas players per side toppled.

Slovakia is not part of the European Union but it has an associate agreement with the EU, as has South Africa and several Caribbean islands.

As a result, county cricket clubs could sign any number of South Africans or West Indians with a work permit.

Imagine Brian Lara coming in first wicket down for a county side after Graeme Smith and Herschelle Gibbs have put on 200, then Shaun Pollock and Jacques Kallis defending the total.

Under employment laws there is nothing we can do to stop it
Mark Newton
Worcestershire chief executive
And imagine the effect on the England team if counties take this route rather than spending money on coaching and development for young, home-grown players.

In reality, international commitments and the amount of cash on offer are likely to keep the number of elite stars down, but lesser players could make the move.

"We've known about the Kolpak ruling for nine months and everybody is aware of its importance," Worcestershire chief executive Mark Newton told BBC Sport.

"In theory county teams in the future could have no England-qualified players.

"It's up to individual counties if they want to take advantage of the ruling but we're not because we have no need to."

Counties restricted to two overseas players at any one time, although they can be replaced because of international calls
A European Union passport-holder can be classed domestic as long as he is classed overseas in his home country
To qualify for England, a foreign player must complete five years' residency in the UK
But other counties have expressed the belief it will only take one team to sign a Kolpak player and it will be "open season" for the rest.

EU laws have already allowed any player with a European passport to play county cricket without restriction.

Middlesex opener Sven Koenig, a South African, has an Italian passport while former Zimbabwe captain Andy Flower carries a British one after qualifying through residency.

Neither player is able to play for England but neither counts as an overseas player.

Together with last year's relaxing of work permit restrictions, the Kolpak ruling eases restrictions further.

England and Wales Cricket Board rules currently prevent players from taking a domestic classification in more than one country within a 12-month period.

If the ruling goes through then players will be able to go back and forth between countries
Eddie Tolchard
Player agent
But, just like those of Germany's handball authorities, these rules are likely to be overruled as restraint of trade.

Northamptonshire are currently threatening court action to make sure their Australian batsman Phil Jaques can be classed as a domestic player.

Player agent Eddie Tolchard says he is in touch with several players who could take advantage either of Kolpak or an EU passport but who are currently keeping an eye on that case.

"If the ruling goes through then they will be able to go back and forth between countries playing as locals in both competitions," he explains.

County bosses have discussed the issue but are currently stumped.

Suggested solutions have included a "gentleman's agreement" between clubs or attaching conditions to the annual ECB grant of around 1.3m per club but both would be illegal.

Andy Flower
Former Zimbabwe captain Flower is already a domestic player
Newton believes it is in the interest of all counties to keep the England team well supplied.

"We all get a huge [cash] distribution from the centre and it would be a crazy business decision to not develop England-qualified players," he says.

"Our number one aim is to develop as many players as possible for England while remaining competitive."

Tolchard believes the one thing that will prevent the floodgates from opening is the standard of players on offer.

"They're not going to go for a 30-year-old who averages 30 in domestic cricket," he says. "They will only sign foreign players if they're better than what they've currently got."

But Newton is in no doubt as to the threat Kolpak could pose to the counties.

"Like any other business we are subject to European Union employment laws," he says.

"And under those laws there is nothing we can do to stop it."

England consider quota system
08 Jan 04  |  English
Northants confirm Jaques fight
02 Dec 03  |  Northamptonshire

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