Teams spend big to overhaul their rosters
Shaking off months of controversy, litigation and uncertainty, cricket's biggest, richest and most brassy domestic event, the Indian Premier League, sprang into life again, breaking records and banks on the first day of auction weekend in Bangalore.
From the 88 players auctioned today, 15 new millionaires were created by the ten IPL franchises who will compete in season four, but there was another sorry bunch of 16 players who were left 'unsold' when the auction finally ended at 6 pm.
Minutes after his name was the first to be randomly pulled out from a list of 'marquee players' at 11 am on Saturday morning, Gautam Gambhir earned the highest playing contract in cricket, $2.4 million for two years with the Kolkata Knight Riders. With the top seven of the 15 new 'millionaires' being Indian, the day was marked by big spends for the small 48-strong pool of home-grown talent available to the ten teams, who must now compete to create new squads from scratch. Just over a month ago, the number of teams in the auction had been unclear, with Kochi trying to establish an undisputed ownership pattern and Rajasthan Royals and Kings XI Punjab fighting the BCCI against their sudden expulsion from the lucrative league.
In Bangalore on Saturday though, with differences quelled for the moment, the auction diverted the IPL spotlight away from legal disputes towards the Bollywood and big business-driven spectacle it was meant to be. There were 72 players (30 Indians, 42 foreign players) sold on the first day of the auction for $52.8m. If Gambhir was the highest-earning Indian ever in the league (going for more than Sachin Tendulkar, MS Dhoni and Virender Sehwag's 'retention' salaries), Sri Lankan Mahela Jayawardene became the highest-earning overseas player, signed on for $1.5m by Kochi, the only team left to declare its formal, merchandise-friendly IPL name. They have until April 8 to decide, the IPL beginning just a week after the end of the World Cup.
If there was a single trend through the giant auction player pool, it was this: younger, high-impact men, whether with bat or ball, and genuine multi-tasking allrounders went for the highest price, even if it was the sole big spend a team could make. The player's marketability was an additional bonus. It is what explains the $1.9m for Irfan Pathan, who has spent a good portion of the domestic season injured and now finds himself out of India's World Cup probables as well.
The short supply of Indians in categories of all kind meant that a younger bunch of Indians suddenly found themselves receiving wages far higher than their more experienced colleagues. The Pune Warriors' $2.1m spend on Robin Uthappa (only the third $2m man), for example, was well ahead of their $1.8m on Yuvraj Singh, who may well eventually be named Pune captain.
South Africa's Twenty20 captain Johan Botha went for almost double the price of his Test and ODI captain Graeme Smith to Rajasthan Royals, the team Smith had played for in the first three years. Along with the franchise owners and coaches present in the auction room, the team's captain-coach Shane Warne spent the day in consultations over the telephone with the franchise.
There were several approaches at work today: Kolkata made their intentions clear early on, first winning allrounder Yusuf Pathan at the second-highest bid for the day, $2.1m. By lunchtime, they had spent another $1.1m on South African allrounder Jacques Kallis. As the only team to have three millionaires on their payroll, Kolkata were willing to gamble early on spending more than half of the $9m salary cap on three players.
Most of the other teams also tried to overhaul their personnel in an attempt to avoid the mistakes of the previous three seasons. Going against that grain, though, Chennai Super Kings, the current IPL Champions as well as the Champions League Twenty20 winners, retained as many as eight players from their successful campaigns. Four of those were retained before the auction which cut their salary cap by half and today, despite being the most infrequent bidder, Chennai managed to both sign on key members of their old squad and stick to their restricted budget.
A Chennai official said the team's approach was not surprising given that it had been asking the BCCI to allow it to retain players for the last year. "We had the strategy to retain as many players as possible. They players definitely wanted to stay back with us and it helps maintain the winning the form. Our aim has been that our team should gel well and hence we have always felt we shouldn't change it. You can't get a player only for two months and then discard them."
He said the men behind keeping the unit intact were the-captain-and-coach pair of MS Dhoni and Stephen Fleming: "The coach and the captain believe in this same ethos and they are the ones who have established this trend."
The IPL, which has broad-based and transformed cricket's entire economy, once again produced unexpected, unorthodox and some illogical changes as well.
The returns from the IPL auction for the England players continue to remain uneven: three players from their World Twenty20-winning team, Graeme Swann, James Anderson and Luke Wright were unsold (along with wicketkeeper Matt Prior, while Kevin Pietersen, Stuart Broad, Eoin Morgan and Paul Collingwood were bought for a total of $1.65m). The Ashes may well be a sign of doom for the Australian cricket establishment but at the IPL, they remain the most sought after overseas hirings, with 18 Australians being signed on today.
The three West Indian cricketers who have turned down central contracts with their board have been dealt with differently: Kieron Pollard had been retained by Mumbai Indians, Dwayne Bravo was bought cheap at $200,000 by Chennai, but the most experienced of the three, left-hand opener Chris Gayle found himself without a contract of any kind.
On a day when franchises signed up as many as 42 overseas players, Sri Lanka's Ajantha Mendis found himself unsought after as did Bangladesh's attacking opener, Tamim Iqbal, and New Zealand's Jesse Ryder, who by all logic, is New Zealand's leading impact man after Brendon McCullum.
In the symbolic statement of representing both the shorter, sharper, faster and more demanding format of Twenty20 and therefore the 'Gen Next' cricketer, older men like the retired Brian Lara and the semi-retired Sourav Ganguly have been left on the shelf. Similarly, Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman, mainstays of the Indian Test middle order, also struggled to get a bid any distance over their 'base price'. Dravid finds himself in the cash-strapped Rajasthan Royals franchise on a $500,000 salary while Laxman went at his price of $400,000 to the first and only bidder Kochi. Three years ago, this would have been a handsome wage, but in the time of the $2.4m contract and in the IPL's unreal pay scales, these are lean pickings.
The presence of Harbhajan Singh and Andrew Symonds in the same Mumbai Indians dressing room will serve as a handy marketing pitch for the tightly-controlled high rollers of the IPL. For all the advertising about the rationale and practicality of franchise purchase, several auction equations remained unbalanced: the $1.6m spend on Saurabh Tiwary did not exactly go hand in hand with the absence in the auction of some highly rated IPL names - Manish Pandey, Sidharth Trivedi, Ambati Rayudu. Piyush Chawla's $900,000 compared to IPL 3's top wicket-taker Pragyan Ojha's $500,000 could not be explained but then again neither could the general silence around Murali Kartik, whose economy-rate for the struggling Kolkata last season was better than both younger men.
One the men who has benefitted the most in the auction would be allrounder Ravindra Jadeja who was left out of the Rajashthan team last season for entering into discussions about a transfer to the Mumbai team. Jadeja came to within $50,000 of being IPL 4's Mr Millionaire No. 16.
At the auction tomorrow, there will be 71 more players up for sale, with the number of Indians now down to 18.