It is perhaps ironic that a ruling in the European Court of Justice, over a sport as alien to cricket as handball, should have so much bearing on the noble game.
European Union was never the fertile playing fields of the sport involving willow and leather. Cricket just about manages to carry on in that part of the world through a constant influx of expats from India and Pakistan, and to a lesser extent Australia.
However, so connected is today’s global village that a court ruling in EU does affect the game to a great extent, and that too cricket in South Africa.
But then, this last bit should not be surprising. Granted by its very name South Africa places itself in a different continent than the limits of the European Union. However, the African, Caribbean and the Pacific group of States (ACP) do have an agreement with EU. And thus the South Africans, perhaps prodded by the quota system in their backyard, have bitten the bait in a big way.
Besides, South African cricket has for long been susceptible to the historic, social, economic and political winds that blow across the face of the earth.
By definition of the ruling, South African cricketers can play for the English counties without tampering with the one overseas cricketer per county rule. It essentially means that under the EU-ACP agreement any South African player will be considered equivalent to an English cricketer when he plays for a county side. The counties are therefore overjoyed, and there are high bids for the Protean performers.
What makes it complicated is that ECB has a parallel ruling that no player who plays for the counties under the Kolpak ruling should have represented his own country for at least a year. That queers the pitch, making it a complicated choice for the cricketer, and an even more complicated one for the national fans to swallow in case the player does opt for county cricket.
It boils down to the eternal tussle between money and motherland. To an extent this is the same dilemmas of priority that we find when cricketers turn out in the IPL or other mercenary leagues. Only, when Chris Gayle plays for Royal Challengers Bangalore … or Barisal Burners or Dhaka Gladiators or Matabeleland Tuskers or Melbourne Renegades or Sydney Thunder … there is no clause in the contract or legal requirements that he should not have represented West Indies.
Jacques Rudolph and Faf du Plessis have both represented counties under the Kolpak agreement. But while Rudolph left Yorkshire in 2011 to play for South Africa and later joined Surrey and subsequently Glamorgan as an overseas cricketer, du Plessis returned to South Africa when the ECB rule came into operation. Similarly, Paul Harris opted to leave Warwickshire and play for South Africa when selected.
However, the recent past has seen an influx of big names from South Africa who have chosen the financial benefits of playing for the counties as a more lucrative option. Alviro Petersen and Ashwell Prince were the forerunners, followed by Simon Harmer and Hardus Viljoen. And finally there was Ryle Rossouw, and the greatest blow of all in the form of Kyle Abbott who signed for Hampshire.
And now there are rumours that at least three counties are gunning for Morne Morkel.
As mentioned in the beginning, South African cricket has always been a function of political, social and financial forces.
It was the rush for diamonds which made it a union under the British flag and promoted cricket with the backing of the Randlords.
It was the juicy trade agreements with Britain which allowed the country to be treated with kid-gloves by the ICC in spite of the disgusting apartheid regime.
It was a result of the sins of the apartheid era that they had to go into cricketing isolation for 22 years.
It was the sponsorship of companies like Panasonic, lured by the tax rebates offered by the strategic government, that allowed the Rebel Tours to thrive during the years as an outcast in the cricket world.
And finally, the end of the apartheid days saw them back in the fold, although carrying the baggage of the past with curious quotas, leading to several fuming allegations about reverse apartheid.
A system so susceptible to political and economic movements will naturally seek the optimal outcomes from developments such as Kolpak. In a turbulent environment, if one distinct wave does carry with it semblance of some security, it makes sense to ride its crest.
With Morkel hovering on 33, an age when the careers of fast bowlers look increasingly time-bound, he is likely to value the security offered by a lucrative long-term county deal.
And with the future of the Kolpak deal uncertain with the uncertain implications of the Brexit referendum vote on the arrangement, there may be a case of signing in a hurry. With large sums of money up for grabs, and the window of opportunity likely to be slammed shut, the situation is tailor-made for deal-brokers to hustle the cricketers on until the dotted line is inked through a combination fuzzy understanding of the situation coupled with genuine concerns for future security.
Morkel had been very, very impressive during the recently concluded series in England. Especially so since Dale Steyn was absent, Abbot unavailable, Vernon Philander struggling with injuries and Kagiso Rabada out for a Test with suspension. South Africa needed Morkel, and needed him badly. And he delivered more often than not.
Given the precarious situation of the Protean Test team, with a big question mark hanging over AB de Villiers and his future in the format, the blatant brittleness of the remaining batting order, and the likelihood of age catching up with Steyn in the not-too-distant future, losing Morkel too can be a severely crushing blow to the unit.
However, the 78-Test 272-wickets veteran can very well decide to opt for the security offered by a gilt-edged and long county deal. And while it will perhaps be an excellent manner of securing a future, it does underline the several threats that face Test cricket today.