<
>

De Villiers players down Kolpak threat to SA

AB de Villiers played down the Kolpak threat ahead of South Africa's ODI series with England Getty Images

The first thing South Africa were confronted with at the start of a three-month tour of England was the past. Stiaan van Zyl and Rory Kleinveldt were members of the opposition South Africa faced in their warm-up matches against Sussex and Northamptonshire respectively in the lead-up to the three-match ODI series which starts on Wednesday.

Neither did much damage, and some in the South Africa camp were quite pleased to see their former team-mates - JP Duminy, who captained in those matches, shared a photo of himself and Kleinveldt and called it "a career highlight" to meet as opposing skippers - but the context was significant.

Over the last few months, seven recently capped internationals including van Zyl signed Kolpak deals to play county cricket, citing the threat of Brexit closing the door on such earning opportunities in the UK and the lack of the same at home as reasons for turning their backs on the country of their birth. South African cricket was thought to be teetering towards a crisis but the predicted drought did not come. Talented youngsters stepped up, often in key roles, and South Africa have reason to be optimistic about their future.

"We are not harping on too much on what we lost, rather focusing on what we have gained over the last few months," AB de Villiers, South Africa's ODI captain, said. "Yes, here are quite a few talented guys we have lost, which is not good for our depth at home. There's nothing we can do about that. It's part and parcel of what we are confronted with in recent times. We can't stop guys from going where they want to go and playing cricket where they want to play cricket. I feel it's something of the past."

De Villiers could be right on that front. Not only might it become more difficult, or perhaps even impossible, for South African cricketers to get work permits in the UK but they may not actually want them. This year CSA will launch a new T20 competition, which de Villiers is convinced will create incentives for players to stay in the country. "The T20 tournament will make a big difference in keeping guys over there. I truly believe the systems have been put in place to make sure it's important for the guys stay at home," he said.

Initial details of the tournament will be announced by the end of the month and the team owners are expected to be revealed at a high-profile ceremony in London shortly after the Champions Trophy final on June 18.

South Africa will hope they are part of proceedings that day as, for now, the ICC event and not their own local league is at the forefront of their minds. "It's really important for us to focus on what we are dealing with now: a big series coming up," de Villiers said. "We have no reason not to be confident with our recent performances, beating Australia, Sri Lanka and New Zealand. We are pretty confident."

As the No. 1-ranked ODI side, fresh off a record-equalling string of 12 victories and with some of the best players in the world at their disposal, South Africa can feel upbeat. Moreover, they have ideal preparation time over the next week. "It doesn't get any better than playing in England before a big tournament against the hosts," de Villiers said.

He remains wary of England's strengths, despite South Africa beating them the last time they met in early 2016, but sees them as a good measure for his own side. "They are one of the favourites," he said. "They have an all-round balance with quite a few options for the captain in the bowling department and they bat deep. And then most of them are athletes, they move around well in the field. Like us, the balance is their strength."

Conditions should also suit South Africa, with de Villiers describing cricket in England as "beautiful to watch". But de Villiers will do more than just watch, declaring himself available for all South Africa's matches after he sat out of the warm-ups with a respiratory tract infection. "I am probably 95% getting over that flu," he said. That's one thing South Africa hope is truly in the past.