It’s generally too risky to read much into an auction of a league. It’s unscientific and often ego-driven; there is no method to madness. Yet, it was difficult to not draw conclusions from Premier Badminton League (PBL) auctions. For, it provided the first hint of a change in status quo of Indian badminton.When Saina Nehwal’s name was drawn from the lot by auctioneer Bob Hayton, many expected the six teams to indulge in a bidding war, like they had last year. Back then, Saina went for Rs 65 lakh, which made her the highest-paid player in the league.
On Wednesday, minutes before Saina’s name popped up, the teams had battled hard for reigning Olympic and world champion Carolina Marin. Hyderabad Hunters and Delhi Acers tried to out-bid each other. Eventually, the Spaniard was picked by the Hyderabad team for Rs 61. 5 lakh. Surprisingly enough, though, not even one team owner lifted the paddle when the auctioneer called for bids for Saina. They waited, and waited a little more. But the owners sat poker-faced. At a base price Rs 33 lakh, she went unsold. The awkwardness in the hall was palpable as Saina, India’s top-ranked player, went to the reserve pool (she was later retained by Awadhe Warriors at her base price).
But the mood would soon change. PV Sindhu is Indian badminton’s latest darling, and as the owners would later admit, they were trying to keep some money in reserve for her. The Rio Olympics silver medallist was the biggest draw. But as luck would have it, Sindhu’s name would feature only toward the end and by then, most teams had run out of money.
Ultimately, Sindhu was retained by Chennai Smashers for Rs 39 lakh – six more than Saina but a lot less than what Marin fetched. “We were ready to pay the highest permissible amount that an icon player can fetch, that is Rs 65 lakhs for her (Sindhu) as we really wanted to retain her in our team and so we didn’t bid for other players and I think in the end we were lucky to get her for Rs 39 lakhs,” Chennai owner Vijay Prabhakaran said.
Upinder Zutshi, the owner of the Delhi team, said one of the reasons teams did not bid for Saina could be that she didn’t fit in their plans. “It would have been great to have one big Indian star but we also have to see how to balance the team in the budget we have,” Zutshi said.
It wasn’t just about money. The most enduring rivalry of the tournament – which the broadcasters and
organisers – have milked so far was between Saina and Sindhu. But the script has changed following Sindhu’s podium finish and Saina’s first-round exit in Rio. On Wednesday, it was all about Sindhu and Marin and the repeat of the Olympic final. The organisers, team owners and broadcasters were all convinced the league’s biggest draw would be the re-match between players who – as per some ratings agencies – drew nearly 17 million viewers.
Saina, on whom the success of any league or tournament in India hinged so far, was not even an afterthought.
The injury she has been recuperating from since August may have been a contributing factor. An owner said they weren’t still sure of her participation in the league that begins from January 1, even though she hopes to return at the China Open next week.
Recovering from a surgery she underwent on her right knee, the World No. 6 has said earlier this week that she is fit to return after two months of rehab. Awadhe team chief Abhishek Sarkar tried to downplay the issue. “Saina was our player last year as well. If any team would have bid for her, we would have matched their offer as per the rules and retained her. Luckily for us, no one did so it’s good for us,” Sarkar said.
Sindhu, too, did not dwell into it much. “There is always some different rivalry and I enjoy that,” she said. “Everybody is talking about me vs Carolina this time. It will be a good match and I am looking forward to it,” Sindhu said.
154 players went under the hammer but only 50 were acquired by the six teams — shelling out Rs 1.93 crore each.
The base price for the highest bracketed players, the icons, was Rs 33 lakh while the next best were earmarked at Rs 17 lakh.
Reigning Olympic and world champ, Carolina Marin fetched the highest price, being picked up by Hyderabad Hunters for Rs 61.5 lakh.
Among Indians, K Srikanth was the top earner. He was bagged by Awadhe Warriors for Rs 51 lakh.