Long before we were exposed to words such as ‘Quarantine’ and ‘Pandemic’, there was one alien term flashing across our television screens all day long: Brexit. Nothing but a weird combination of the words ‘Britain’ and ‘Exit’, referring to the United Kingdom exiting the European Union.
In case you’re expecting me to explain what Brexit actually means and delve into its implications, let me make it clear, I’m not going to. And as a cricket fan, there is no real need for you to know what it means, either. Sure, you can go ahead and educate yourself, but if you can survive watching decades of cricket without knowing how the D/L method works, you’ll do just about fine not knowing what Brexit is. However, the implications of Brexit on cricket are interesting and that, I presume, is something that you’ll have to know and care about. Think of Brexit like the D/L method. There, you have a weird formula and BOOM, next thing you know, the team you hate requires just 2 runs off 20 balls.
Here, the UK's exit from the European Union and BOOM, next thing you know, the players' Cricket South Africa (CSA) hate are eligible to play for the country again. Again, I’m not going to get into the specifics, but long story short, the closing of the existing trade agreements - including the Kolpak loophole - will mean that when the transition period comes to an end, that is by January 1, 2021, we could be looking at a scenario where the Kolpak deals would no longer be valid, meaning the ‘Kolpaks’ would become eligible for national selection once again. Given the Professional Cricketers' Association (PCA) have already begun discussing the possibility of extending the number of overseas players per county side from one to two, the aforementioned possibility, as of this moment, looks like a very likely outcome come December.
For the players, this is a pretty hapless situation to be in - there is a high chance of all the ‘visions’ and long-term ambitions coming crashing down in moments. A few even have settled down with their families in England. While there is still the possibility of them continuing as overseas players, it’s a pretty drab, insecure position that they find themselves in. However, on the contrary, this presents a window of opportunity for South Africa to turn their cricketing fortunes around. The first step towards that, though, will be to re-integrate Simon Harmer into the national setup - and they would need to swallow their pride and do everything they can to bring him back.
Going by Harmer’s own admission, in the switch-hit podcast last week, it’s not going to be an easy task. "There's a lot of bad blood towards the Kolpaks, and it would take I think, South Africans and perhaps Cricket South Africa to swallow their pride and seek for those players to return to the South African set-up.” Despite several instances of players - past and present - coming out and stating that them seeking a move to England was attributed more to the rotten management in South Africa rather than financial lures, CSA have marked the Kolpaks as outcasts and have time and again tried to portray them as some kind of traitors. Thus re-accepting and paving the way for Harmer to get back into the side would require them to swallow their pride, but it is a slap on the face that they need to be willing to take.
The Simon Harmer of Essex, the one South Africa could potentially have at their disposal in 8 months time, is no more the self-doubting, self-effacing, insecure cricketer than he was in 2016. The off-spinner, in the past four years, has honed his skills, repackaged himself and transformed into the best bowler in the county circuit. Across the past three seasons, Harmer has claimed an incredible 212 wickets in just 41 matches and in the 2019 season, his 83-wicket campaign helped Essex charge towards their second County Championship title in three years.
But for South Africa, the significance of bringing Harmer back will have nothing to do with his numbers or his ability with the ball - in Keshav Maharaj, they have someone who’s been a pillar and adding Harmer to the mix would merely invoke a healthy competition amongst the two. However, it would inject a much-needed cultural change within the team that the side has been yearning for, and so desperately needs. The truth is, since the days of Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis, South Africa have not had seniors in their side whose influence has extended beyond the performances and has rubbed off on individuals. A hallmark of a great side generally tends to have a lot to do with the influence of senior members apart from the captain, but unfortunately, the Proteas, over the course of the past five years, have found themselves wanting in that aspect.
Bringing Harmer into the side, however, would be a game-changer on that front - not only has he proven himself as a leader by leading Essex to the T20 Blast title last year, but in just three years, he’s changed the outlook of the entire team and inspired them to strive to be the best. For a team where terms like ‘leadership’ and ‘inspiration’ have been dead for over half a decade, the addition of Harmer would be invaluable, and perhaps just the break that Mark Boucher and Graeme Smith need to embark on their journey towards building a new era in South African cricket.
Whether Harmer’s self-claim that he’s the best off-spinner in the world, and whether his numbers are skewed merely due to the ineptness of English domestic batsmen is a question that can only be answered if he’s given a second chance, but for South Africa, even if it doesn’t come off, it’s a risk well worth taking. From the handling of the Kolpak players to the AB de Villiers Saga, mistakes have been made in the past, mistakes have been made in the past, but for Cricket South Africa, Brexit has opened a portal for them to erase everything and start afresh. The ball is in South Africa’s court and the next move they make might very well change the face of cricket in the country.