The rise of the English South Africans
In the middle of October I saw this thread on the 606 message boards: "Not a wind-up attempt, but as your side is half full of South Africans, if you had to choose an English XI, who would be in it?
Of course this might simply be light-hearted banter, but there remains an undercurrent of xenophobia from some England fans directed at certain England players, and in my view it is very much misplaced.
Surely, the rich history of English cricket has been enriched by the foreign imports. And in the case of South Africans, the trickle began a long time ago, with Basil D'Oliveira in 1966, continued with Tony Greig six years later, moved through the aggressive middle-order pairing of Allan Lamb and Robin Smith, and finally arrived at Kevin Pietersen and Jonathan Trott.
And it's not just been South Africans. Andy Caddick, whose New Zealand twang is still just about detectable, was the hero last time England won a Test in Australia, Graeme Hick was a Zimbabwean, the Hollioake brothers Australian, while Gladstone Small, Phil DeFreitas and Devon Malcolm all came from the Caribbean. England's captain at the start of this decade, Nasser Hussain, was born in Chennai, India.
Go back further in time, and there are many other instances. Surely, to attach too much significance to any perceived recent trend, to get too worked up about the dwindling numbers of English-born players in the England dressing-room, is to attach too much nationalism to the simple pleasure of supporting the English team.
It is, in any case, an exaggeration to say England's probable starting XI for the first Test in Port Elizabeth is "half full of South Africans". The focus is on four players - in other words barely a third - and two of them can be swiftly exonerated.
Skipper Andrew Strauss was born in Johannesburg, but left South Africa at the age of six. He first learnt the game in Australia, as it happens. Matt Prior was 11 when he left South Africa, and proudly claims to have lost his accent "within a week".
Pietersen and the new man in the squad, Trott, clearly have stronger links with proteas, braais and springboks. So let's home in on them.
Pietersen made a brave decision as a young man to emigrate after KwaZulu-Natal had told him they could not guarantee him a place in their side. Trott was born in Cape Town and played for South Africa at both under-15 and under-19 level before using his British ancestry to gain a place in Warwickshire squad.
This graph shows the rising value of the runs provided by South African-born players
Respected cricket writer Neil Manthorp - who has emigrated the opposite way, from England to South Africa - says there will inevitably be plenty of mention of certain players' roots in the coming weeks.
"There will be jokes about how Trott and Pietersen won't need to be in their hotels, that they can stay with their parents. We might get a bit bored of the jokes but it will be a lot more humorous than four years ago. There was genuine anger then."
Indeed. Pietersen, the 2005 model, with upturned skunk hairdo and comments freely distributed about the perceived iniquities of racial quotas, was easy prey for some rough barracking on his first tour four and a half years ago.
But he has matured since then, and Manthorp confirms Pietersen's own suspicions, that South Africans are ready to shed much of their animosity towards him. Besides, the jeering did not work - the boy from Pietermaritzburg took three one-day centuries off the Proteas on his first tour.
When he left Cape Town, Trott was "not the most popular sort of guy, difficult to get on with," says Manthorp - and feels the 28-year-old may be something of a target from the crowd at the third Test, if not in the way the more vocal Pietersen was in 2005.
It is already becoming hard to work out just who Trott's friends are. He was targeted for criticism from Michael Vaughan in the ex-England skipper's new book. Why? Trott was spotted by Vaughan celebrating with the South Africans who had beaten England in the 2008 series. Inevitably, Strauss has already been forced to defend Trott's corner.
But if there is a certain type of English fan who bridles at the presence of Trott and Pietersen in the side, then is there a certain type of South African worried about the talent drain towards the English shires?
It's doubtful. Pietersen, who famously struggled to get into his school's first XI, is regarded as something of a freak, a player whose talent did not blossom until he had abandoned KwaZulu-Natal for Nottinghamshire.
And of the current crop of South African youngsters who have done the maths and realised how much easier it is to break into one of 18 county sides as opposed to the six franchise teams in their own country, only one - the Somerset wicketkeeper Craig Kieswetter - looks like a probable international prospect. The 21-year-old was recently parachuted into England's winter performance programme, and qualifies to play for the national side in February.
Somerset's 21-year-old wicketkeeper Craig Kieswetter qualifies for England next February
Around two years ago South African followers did get a bit concerned, with the Kolpak loophole making it even easier for counties to register an almost limitless supply of their countrymen, but that fear has been eased by the Proteas' ascent to the top of the Test rankings ladder.
And as it happens, Kolpak contracts are becoming a distinct rarity, with most South Africans in future summers probably having to unearth a European grandparent or two to gain a county contract.
Furthermore, South Africa's under-19 side is performing well and the academy is well regarded.
Manthorp is unequivocal: "Proponents of positive discrimination will say there are a hell of a lot more kids coming through. It's a hard world, if you're white and don't like it go play in England.
"The reality is cricket at school and club level in South Africa is still active and strong, whereas every time I come to England I see more and more clubs close, and more schools where the game is no longer played. The game there is certainly in decline."
It is a depressing view which the England and Wales Cricket Board will dispute, as they continue to talk of their commitment to delivering funds to the grass-roots of the game.
But the irony is that because of the apparent lack of high-class homegrown players, there are more places at the counties for immigrant South Africans - or imports from anywhere else, provided they meet the increasingly complicated entry criteria.
These players, in turn, help raise the standard of county cricket - despite the ECB's reservations - and as a result the counties should eventually deliver better-prepared candidates for the international game.
So just remember that when Pietersen, Trott and Kieswetter celebrate winning the World Cup in 2015.
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