The journey from the team hotel in Kolkata to his single-storey apartment in Sadiq Nagar in South East Delhi would feel longer than usual for Pawan Negi on Saturday. As his cabbie wades through the bustling South Delhi traffic from the airport, Negi’s heart would be heaving with the suspense of his fate in the Indian Premier League auction.
The anticipation, he remembers, was muted in the life-changing winter of 2016, when his only fear was whether he would go unsold. But he watched the auction unfold with face-slapping bewilderment, and by the end of it, he was living a day out of his wildest day-dream, the treasure of Rs 8.5 crore Delhi Daredevils shelled out to avail his all-round utility took a few days to sink in.
Little then did he know that by the end of an underwhelming season, he would be endlessly trolled and ridiculed, or be stamped as a metaphor of IPL’s spending madness or a classic exhibit of injudicious strategising. That Negi still keenly-bid in the next auction, and that he still fetched a decent sum, Rs 1 crore, tell a different story, that of a skewed supply-demand ratio of home-spun left-arm spin-bowling all-rounders. For all one knows, he might rake in a decent fortune this time around too.
But the over-riding theme of Negi’s narrative is neither about his inflated utility nor the price-tag, or the whims (or randomness) of auctions and picks, but how the auction has busted the myth of IPL as something of a turbo-capitalistic syndicate, where the rich superstars of the game will become richer.
Then opposition leader Jaswant Singh’s observation captures this initial, pervasive scepticism. “This is not cricket. This is the greatest divide between the rich and the poor. With that kind of money, you could have built another cement factory,” Singh had said about the first auction back in 2008. Whilst the framework, in essence, reeks of the capitalistic ideals of private ownership and profit, the auction had tended to be more socialistic, at least in expanding the horizons and widening the dream-scale of players who otherwise would have drained down the alley unnoticed.
In hindsight, the salary cap introduced by then IPL commissioner Lalit Modi, who surely doesn’t worship Marx, was a masterstroke at maintaining financial equity, ceasing it from being merely a battle of who flexes his financial muscle more, reducing the rich-poor class gulf between the rich and poor of the game. The auction – the very notion of which puzzled the likes of Adam Gilchrist, who said he felt like a prize cow at a market battle -might have been a publicity wheeze of Modi, but it surely is making a lot of sense, now than before.
Instead, it has given the likes of Negi and such-like non-entities the rhyme and reason to dream. So much so that there’s a Cinderella story that headlines every auction, the thud of Richard Madley’s gavel that changes life. Last year, the son of a street-side tea-shop owner and daily wager from a village in Southern Tamil Nadu, the existence of which even the Google map doesn’t acknowledge, won Rs three crores, 30 times his base price. Thangarasu Natarajan’s sleep was disturbed that night. He woke up several times, wondering whether he was just dreaming.
Mohammad Siraj, a medium pacer from Hyderabad, the son of an autorickshaw driver, plunged to his father’s embrace, when the television ticker screamed that he has earned Rs 2.6 crore.
Similar scenes played out across households and team hotels around the world. In Dubai, Chirag Suri’s father rushed back home from work to watch the auction, to capture the moment when Gujarat Lions gobbled up the 22-year-old batsman. At the same time, in Harare, where Afghanistan was locked in a series against Zimbabwe, Mohammad Nabi ventured out of his room only to perform the prayers, as he watched the auction on a wobbly live stream. He lipped a silent prayer when Sunrisers bought him for Rs 30 lakh. A few minutes later, his compatriot Rashid Khan, a leggie of considerable promise, was jumping around in his room.
It wasn’t just a personal triumph and recognition, but the acknowledgement of Afghanistan as a growing cricketing nation. “It’s a big leap for not just the few of us who got picked, but the country,” he later said in an interview.
A little later, England pacer Tymal Mills, who had nearly quit cricket a few years ago, saw him snaffled for Rs 12 crore, from a base price of Rs 50 lakh. There emotions are best mirrored through Madley’s own words: “It just shows how life-changing numbers can be.”
IPL auctions, thus, has proved to be more life-changing than it was perhaps designed to be. And like that of Negi and Nabi, Rashid and Siraj, narratives are waiting to be spun over this weekend in Bangalore. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to call it a fairytale industry, or a reality show, an event in itself, as large and glittering as the IPL itself. As Madley himself reflected in a interview: “No other cricketing event in the world will be followed by cricketers as eagerly as the IPL auction.” The range and reach of IPL auctions, thus, exceeds that of the IPL itself.
For the lack of a more striking reference point, you can state that franchise sentimentality died the day Kolkata Knight Riders chose not to retain Sourav Ganguly, hitherto their icon player, before the third auction. At 38, his hairline receding and skills undoubtedly on the wane, he was deemed surplus to an under-performing side, much to the utter amazement of the cricketing faithful. Back in Kolkata, franchise owner Shah Rukh Khan was booed during their first game of the season. It was the first sign of cut-throatism entering the league, and in the subsequent editions, it had only amplified.
Those were days that still rode on romance and identity, what with the allocation of icon players to franchises from their region and accumulating home-grown cricketers, even if they were past their use-by-date or perceivably incompetent. Also allotted was a catchment area, a specified (usually neighbouring) zone from where each team could draft in four uncapped players. It was the need of the hour too, so that IPL, in its teething-in stage, could forge an emotional connect with the audience.
So naturally, franchises, apart from Rajasthan Royals, the perennially left-bend thinkers of auctions, fought frenetically for established stars and home-grown stars. Some like Royal Challengers Bangalore stacked their side with households names, albeit ones that prospered more in Test cricket.
Their line-up comprising Rahul Dravid, Anil Kumble, Jacques Kallis, Zaheer Khan, Dale Steyn, Mark Boucher and Wasim Jaffer made a commentator wonder whether a Test championship was at stake. They went for frantic overhaul in the subsequent years, accumulating the best hitters and yorker-flinging quicks around, at inflated prices, thus slamming the doors on Test specialists. The likes of Cheteshwar Pujara, Ishant Sharma and Abhinav Mukund bore the brunt.
By the time the biggest shake-up arrived before the latest auction, sentimentality was almost dead. So KKR let go off Gautam Gambhir, their charismatic skipper. Chris Gayle was no longer held indispensable for Bangalore. Neither were Harbhajan and Lasith Malinga to Mumbai or Ravichandran Ashwin to Chennai Super Kings. CSK, who retained MS Dhoni, is an exception, but then had they not been coming off a lay-off, it could have been different.
The auction, thus, is regulated purely by market prices, the supply-demand code than fame and nostalgia determining the value of a player. Like Lalit Modi had said, “let the free market economics decide everything.”
Hence, world-class all-rounders are always valued highly. So are batsmen who tee off from the first ball, mystery twirlers and those with quirky actions.
Unlike RCB who were carried away by Test-match reputation, franchises weave in a lot of details before fine-tuning their purchase list-from age to form, availability to injury history and consistency to condition-specifics. It has become not just pragmatic but scientific and systematic too, though auction faux pas still cease to vanish, like Delhi cramming their side with five wicket-keepers or assembling a pace quartet who could win Test matches last year.
But the underlying thread is that if the market doesn’t want you, you won’t be sold, thus in a perverse sense commodifying the players even more. It still has a prize cow in a cattle market feel, after all, but the cattle market is where every cricketer in the globe wants to be when Madley’s old hammer goes down. Even the once-cynical Englishmen.
The unusual suspects
Andrew Tye (australia)
Base price: Rupees 1 crore
Role: Knuckle ball specialist
Tye takes hat-tricks for fun. He’s got one in each of the last two BBLs and in the IPL too. He boasts of six different types of slower balls, and has the ability to take wickets with all of them.
Jofra Archer (Barbados)
Base price: Rupees 40 lakh
Role: Fast bowling all-rounder
Archer has earned a cult following in the BBL. He’s done it all, from plucking catches like apples off a tree, scoring direct-hits from fine-leg and bowling double-wicket maidens in the death and is just the kind of entertainer that gets the IPL franchises excited.
D’Arcy Short (Australia)
Base price: Rupees 20 lakh
Role: Attacking opener and chinaman bowler
Has broken all batting records in the BBL this season, including the highest-ever score of 122 in 69 balls, and will soon be the first indigenous batsman to play for Australia. Though said to have already stoked RCB’s interest, Short’s Australian way of swatting length balls away could be tested here.
Evin Lewis (Trinidad)
Base price: Rupees 1.5 crore
Role: Batsman, pocket dynamite
Lewis smashed a T20 ton against India in 2016 but was ignored in last year’s auction. So he smashed one again in 2017, much quicker this time, and is likely to go for plenty this time.
Ashton Turner (Australia)
Base price: Rupees 20 lakh
Role: Nerveless finisher and off-spinner
One of Perth Scorchers’ big success stories this season, Turner has lived up to his name and turned matches on their head in the death with effortless hitting, a strike-rate of 165.56 which is testament to that. He’s a handy off-spinner too.
Also look out for: Oshane Thomas (fast bowler, Jamaica), Kesrick Williams (fast bowler with variations, West Indies), Arjun Nair (spinner, Australia), Lockie Ferguson (tearaway wicket-taker, New Zealand)