Ackerman stands firmly in middle of Kolpak conflict

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The Independent Online

Leicestershire's new captain is a stocky cricketer of medium height; his short hair is going grey, he has a ready smile, and he speaks with a South African accent. His name is Hylton Ackerman.

Leicestershire's new captain is a stocky cricketer of medium height; his short hair is going grey, he has a ready smile, and he speaks with a South African accent. His name is Hylton Ackerman.

Although he played in four Tests for South Africa seven years ago, he never won a regular Test place. He appreciated that he was not sufficiently high-class to expect a county contract as an overseas professional, so now he has become a Kolpak player, allowed to play here because of a legalistic interpretation of an eccentric piece of EU legislation.

He is not at all apologetic. Kolpak gives him the opportunity to play county cricket, something his father - also Hylton, but of Northamptonshire - did, and which he had always wanted to do. But Ackerman is not blind or deaf; he reads the criticisms about foreign players exploiting legal loopholes. When he went to the Professional Cricketers' Association's annual meeting he heard a speaker say that, while all paid-up members would be properly represented - him included - the association are intent on reducing the numbers from abroad.

Ackerman was intrigued: "At the same time, the presentation was showing a picture of Kevin Pietersen with his hands in the air and the English helmet on. I thought, I'm no different to him. If you look back far enough in my family trees, we're all of English descent."

But Ackerman isn't looking for a fight. He has signed on with Leicestershire for three years and he is anxious to fit in. He was on the books of David Ligertwood, an ambitious sports agent specialising in representing EU and Kolpak cricketers who is never slow to threaten the England and Wales Cricket Board with legal action should they question their right to play in England. Ackerman told him he wanted to find a county. Ligertwood thought that Leicestershire might be interested. He was right; he didn't need to approach anyone else.

Leicestershire are not apologetic either. They already had one Kolpak player (Claude Henderson), plus a West Indian EU player. This season there will be three South Africans (Charl Willoughby, a fast- medium bowler, is the third), one Indian, Dinesh Mongia, and the West Indian Ottis Gibson. James Whitaker, the director of cricket, argues that Leicestershire are so short on resources that they need experienced foreign players to be mother hens to English youngsters.

Another explanation is that beggars can't be choosers. Last year Brad Hodge, the Australian overseas player, carried Leicestershire, taking over the captaincy from Phillip DeFreitas and scoring 1,548 runs. But Lancashire persuaded Hodge that their field was greener. His successor arrives with no illusions: "I still don't really know what we've got. It's a big job, but the only way is up." Unless, of course, it's further down Division Two.

But Leicestershire are becoming hard to typecast among the losers in county cricket. This year they have subcontracted the whole of their commercial operation to Investors In Cricket, an imaginative company designed to inject financial and marketing expertise into the county game. Leicestershire are their first clients, and, for a start, they have increased Leicestershire's membership fee from £65 to £103 (which includes a special payment for Twenty20 cricket), and they will soon promote affinity products, which give the club a commission on financial services agreements such as credit cards and mortgages, and increase sponsorship.

The commercial side is run by an enthusiastic young marketing man called Andy Hosie, formerly Everton FC's commercial manager, and his initial objective is straightforward. If he can turn a small loss into a profit of, say, £200,000 this summer, James Whitaker will have funds to attract four or five good players.

Leicestershire's liberal use of Kolpak players is controversial, but it might prove hard to cast Ackerman as the villain. Before he agreed to be captain, he consulted Darren Maddy, the only Leicester-born player in the squad, to make sure he was treading on no one's toes. "I'm a baby coming here. I sit in a team meeting and when they ask how to get someone out, I don't know. I've never seen him play... but I'll get there."

After spending next winter in Johannesburg, he and his wife will move to the Leicestershire countryside. "It's not as though I'm hoarding money here and making it in South Africa. My money will be spent here," he says. Ackerman may be an opportunist but he is not a mercenary.

He is a right-hand bat, with a highest Test score of 57 in eight innings, but he has a solid record in South African first- class cricket: 7,484 runs at 42.76. Mongia is Leicestershire's principal imported batsman, but Ackerman says he intends to score most runs. The approach is South African-tough - immodest, hard-working and unforgiving. Of the ageing players in the team, he says: "If they don't pull finger, the spectators will say, 'The club could do worse. Bring on the young'."

Hylton Ackerman has spent seven summers in England, playing club cricket, mainly in the north. He has grown to like the country. It is entirely possible that a rejuvenated Leicestershire, players and fans, will grow to like him too.