Experience worth its weight in gold
Eyebrows were raised when Rahul Dravid increased his reserve price for the IPL auction from an initial $200,000 to $400,000, and they were raised again when Sourav Ganguly did the same thing. The scepticism over whether they would attract any buyers only increased when the IPL released its list of international players with 41-year-old Brian Lara joining the duo with the maximum base price of $400,000 despite not having played any competitive cricket since his retirement more than three years ago, barring a few matches in Zimbabwe.
So much for the theory that Twenty20 is a young man's game. Events at the auction may prove otherwise but the base prices tell a clear story: Dravid, Ganguly and Lara, along with fellow veterans VVS Laxman and Adam Gilchrist, command a higher price than Yusuf Pathan, Gautam Gambhir, Robin Uthappa, Dale Steyn, David Warner, Eoin Morgan and Jesse Ryder.
Base prices obviously don't tell the full story - as has been evident in the past three auctions - but neither does age affect prices. If anything, experience is a crucial pillar around which teams and coaches look to build a team.
"Gilchrist, Laxman, [Shane] Warne have been among the best players of their generation," Sean Morris, chief executive of Rajasthan Royals, said. "Old players have a different value because younger players look up to them. As long as they have the right sort of leadership, personality, they contribute more to the franchise with their experience.''
Steve Rixon, Stephen Fleming's assistant coach at Chennai Super Kings last year, agrees. "The older players will always offer something to the bigger picture. Look at how the teams panned out last year - some of the best guys were the older ones. Their depth of experience helps a lot in decision-making and they are very important to the junior players, especially in tight situations."
What makes a player like Dravid so valuable is his exemplary attitude as a player, and as a human being, that makes him a role model for the next generation, according to Joy Bhattacharya, Kolkata Knight Riders' cricket operations director. "Dravid leads by example, in terms of discipline and dedication, he can mentor young kids, can talk to them about accountability. So he should go for more."
Another, more prosaic reason he offers for the veterans' popularity is the simple economics of demand and supply. With fewer than 50 Indian players in the auction, and ten teams bidding for them, demand will be high, especially for the batsmen. "So Dravid will be picked because there are too few quality batsmen. They are now worth their weight in gold."
Who are the other veterans likely to fetch high prices? Muttiah Muralitharan (38 years old), who, Bhattacharya says, knows the sub-continental track like the back of his hand. "He is a still a quick fielder, can bowl and a lot of Indian tracks will be slow turners. He is a fabulous guy to have around the dressing room. Also spin bowling is much less demanding physically."
Michael Hussey (35) was bought by Chennai in 2008 for $350,000 (his younger brother David went to Kolkata for $625,000). He's in peak condition and even if his team had a forgettable Ashes, he was the second-highest run-getter in the series, with two centuries. Jacques Kallis (36), has chosen the best time to hit form - with every prospective buyer in India watching his performance in the recent Test series.
The advantage Hussey and Kallis hold over Gilchrist and Andrew Symonds is that they are active at the topmost level. That's one parameter franchises always have on their checklist. "There is a bit of relevance in that," Rixon says. "You need players who have a bit of touch when they come into the bigger picture. Where does that come from: it comes from playing first-class cricket or playing other brands of cricket."
That's why franchises are uncertain about the likes of Symonds and Sanath Jayasuriya, who both were bought for close to a million dollars in the first auction. Jayasuriya, who was paid $950,000, was dropped by Mumbai last year when the team think-tank realised his reflexes were slowing down. "The kind of role he plays at the top of the batting order, you need to be sharp," one of the team coaches said. "He might struggle, especially since batting in the shorter formats is a game of reflex and speed. It is more of a younger man's game."
The biggest enigma is the oldest player. Four years ago, tears were shed when he waved goodbye with the words "Did I entertain you?" He had stardust, more than Sachin Tendulkar; but is he worth the $400,000 base price in Saturday's auction?
"I frankly think he will remain unsold," one franchise official said. "He is overpriced." The official thinks Lara's big flaw is that he doesn't fit into a team culture. "He's done nothing since retiring - he didn't even support the ICL; he played in the first year but never appeared interested. Who will pick him at $400,000? It would be plausible at $100,000 - he'd come in, put his head down, teach the youngsters something, play a few innings, surprise a few people."
However, another franchise official says Lara may be bought for his commercial value. That's what happened with Warne, when Rajasthan signed him up. He wasn't a consistent match-winner for Rajasthan, but the franchise used his global appeal to promote their brand around the cricketing world.
That's where Ganguly fits in. "Sourav's brand is that of a fighter," Bhattacharya said. "He will come back and do things when it matters. He will always remain controversial, but he has something to offer still. He has brand value and the appeal to attract crowds."
Amrit Mathur, Delhi Daredevils CEO, believes franchises will be cautious when buying an older player. "This is a very demanding format. Senior players have to compete with youngsters in this kind of format and experience, age, availability, and fitness levels are considerations while deciding on players," he says. Mathur says that there may be a "price correction" in the contract of seniors players who have been involved in the first three years of the IPL.
The question remains whether Dravid and Ganguly are still worth bidding for given their age and decreasing involvement in top-level cricket; the weakest in terms of fitness, a necessary ingredient to succeed in the IPL. One thing's for sure - they have the mental strength to push themselves to the necessary levels demanded by the IPL. And their experience - as the franchises know, that's something money can buy.
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at Cricinfo