Pace ace Kyle Abbott: I was never worried Brexit could end my Hampshire career
Since 2017, the South African-born fast bowler, 33, has played for the county on a Kolpak contract.
Basically, that meant he was free to play in the County Championship without being classified as an overseas player.
The same situation applied to batsman Rilee Rossouw and seam bowler Fidel Edwards.
But following the UK’s departure from the EU, the Kolpak era is over. In their place, counties are now free to sign two overseas players for each competition in 2021.
Abbott was their first choice pick and he will see out the remaining two years of his current contract as an overseas player.
Speaking to The News via a Zoom call from South Africa, he said: ‘I was fortunate enough to switch over from a Kolpak straight into an overseas contract.
‘The uncertainty of Kolpak didn’t bother me too much. I’ve got an incredibly good relationship with Hampshire, a very transparent relationship.
‘The communication has been brilliant and I always knew I was going to have a job with them.
‘I have been lucky enough to put in some pretty good performances over the last three years, and always knew I would be their pick for an overseas.’
Abbott has indeed put in some ‘pretty good’ displays for Hampshire. Since the start of the 2017 County Championship, he has taken 183 wickets in the competition.
Harmer’s Chelmsford colleague, Jamie Porter, has taken 181 and Durham’s Chris Rushworth 176, though the latter has bagged all his wickets in Division 2 of the first-class game.
In his last season, 2019, Abbott took 71 wickets – only Harmer (83) took more – including a sensational match haul of 17-86 against Somerset. That was the best match haul in the county’s history and the best in the Championship since 1925.
Having first played for Hampshire as an overseas player in 2014, Abbott was due back for his fifth year at The Ageas Bowl in 2020.
The pandemic, though, put paid to that. By the time Abbott was able to apply for a new visa to visit England, the truncated county season was coming to an end.
‘Last year was a shock to most of us,’ said Abbott.
‘Going back to Hampshire last year was purely down to travel restrictions. By the time I was able to apply for a visa it was a mutual decision between myself and Hampshire not to go.
‘It started to get down to about seven weeks left in the season, with quarantining once I had got there it just didn’t work out to be feasible for them or myself.’
Abbott returned to competitive one-day action at the weekend, playing for Titans in their opening Momentum Cup tie against holders Dolphins.
Due to the pandemic, it was his first 50-over match since appearing for Hampshire in the Royal London Cup final against Somerset at Lord’s in May 2019.
It was a losing return, Titans crashing to a 76-run loss at Potchefstroom, the venue for all 15 games in the six-franchise tournament.
Abbott, given the new ball, returned figures of 1-55 in nine overs as Dolphins posted 272-7. In reply, Titans could only manage 196-8.
They were 140-8 before Abbott (22 no) and fellow tailender Thando Ntini (32 no) put on an unbroken 56 for the ninth wicket in 11.4 overs - the highest stand of the Titans innings.
After the Momentum Cup is over, Abbott plans to fly to England in March. Under current regulations, he will have to self-isolate for 10 days before starting any training.
Abbott can’t wait to return to England. ‘One thing’s for sure, I have grown a hell of a lot there as a bowler and a person,’ he remarked.
‘I’ve been thrust responsibility and almost the ‘go to’ man in most games, and that’s been incredible.
‘I really think I have grown there, and the overseas there and the other Kolpaks you play against … in most teams the brand of cricket is incredibly strong.
‘It’s been a great few years I must admit, and I look forward to the next couple of seasons.’
Since his last appearance for Hampshire in September 2019, Abbott had been restricted to just eight T20 matches in 13 months prior to the weekend.
I asked him, how mentally tough has it been - a professional sportsman hardly playing for a year, and at a time when he is far nearer to the end of his career than the beginning?
‘For the first couple of months I was actually quite happy to be honest,’ Abbott replied.
‘My career has spanned about 12 years, and this was the first forced long break.
‘I was actually enjoying the time off and I wasn’ feeling guilty that I wasn’t playing or training.
‘That was pretty nice, but as soon as they got close to kicking off in the UK, that was when I started to itch a little bit and sort of miss it quite a bit.
‘I’d say more so from a changing room perspective. I missed just spending time with my mates at Hampshire after games. These are the guys you live day in and day out with, so yes, it was mentally tough.
‘I did find myself at stages incredibly unmotivated where I would sit for two or three days and think ‘why should I gym, why should I run?’.
‘I couldn’t see an end, but I think a lot of us went through that, a lot of professional sportsmen went through that at the time.’
With no games on his horizon, Abbott got heavily involved in the ‘Feeding the Wildlife Community’ initiative set up by Hampshire head coach Adi Birrell’s conservationist cousin Grant Fowlds.
As a result, he helped distribute more than 200,000 meals to rural areas hit hardest by the coronavirus in South Africa during the lockdown.
The scheme saw volunteers such as Abbott drive to communities on the edge of National Parks and game reserves in KwaZulu-Natal who could otherwise have turned to illegal poaching to feed themselves during the pandemic.’
Speaking last June, he confessed: ‘Over the last couple of weeks, I have realised that I didn’t actually know much about the area and the culture which I have now learned so much about.
‘Going to these places has been bred into me but this is the first time I’ve actually given back through conservation.
‘There’s a difference between being a bush lover and being a conservationist – it is very different from spending a week in the Kruger National Park and then going home.
‘It is starting to be a transformation and a new avenue which is quite exciting at the moment.’
Abbott has now stepped away from the initiative, which looking back was ‘incredibly satisfying.’
‘It was incredible,’ he said. ‘The wildlife part has always been very close to me.
‘I’ve spent a lot of time in the bush but to actually put back into that system was incredibly satisfying and definitely something that kept me going.’