Speed dating, IPL style
Two days after Karnataka won the Ranji Trophy, KL Rahul, the second highest run-scorer in the tournament, flew to Mumbai. He was scheduled to squeeze in a trip to Kolkata as well, but that didn't happen.
The reason behind Rahul's whistle-stop tour was to audition for two IPL franchises (Rajasthan Royals and Kolkata Knight Riders), who had booked his flight tickets. Unlike in the past, the franchises were not fighting hard to lure Rahul into their fold. This time, Rahul was part of a bunch of players they had called for trials in which they could assess their talent by putting them through various match-like situations.
At 21, Rahul is one of the 300-odd uncapped Indian players who for the first time will be part of the player auction, which will be held in Bangalore on Wednesday and Thursday. Uncapped players form an integral part of an IPL squad. The size of a squad, from this season, has been restricted to 27, and with a maximum of nine overseas players permitted, franchises point out the advantages of having an uncapped player whom they feel can be procured at a reasonable price and give them more value-for-money returns.
It became evident how much franchises value uncapped players when Rajasthan Royals retained Stuart Binny and Sanju Samson and Kings XI Punjab retained Manan Vohra. Uncapped players who prospered during the last IPL season include Rajat Bhatia, Manvinder Bisla, Hanuma Vihari, Ashok Menaria and Pravin Tambe.
"It [having uncapped players in the auction pool] makes it very clean and transparent and gives every franchise an equal opportunity," says Venky Mysore, the Kolkata Knight Riders chief executive. According to Mysore, the big difference between the previous seasons, when franchises would call uncapped players for trials, and now is there is no longer any need to negotiate.
"You had a situation where different type of influences came into the picture and that would determine who the player would sign with eventually," Mysore says. "Our intention was to call some of the boys whom we did not know much about."
According to Mysore, the overall approach and the composition of the squad with regards uncapped players will not change. "On an average, each franchise will have 8-12 uncapped players in the squad," he says. "The difference this time will be you will have equal opportunity to buy the player provided you are willing to pay the price."
Barring Delhi Daredevils and Chennai Super Kings, the rest of the franchises conducted trials, which generally ranged from one to two days. Even if they cannot offer shortlisted players a contract without buying them in the auction, most franchises say they wanted to see which players suited their needs. One franchise coach says he was looking at "players on the fringe of playing Ranji Trophy" for his franchise.
"You are trying to put a face to the name," the coach says. "Although we cannot assess too much in two days, coaches can get a glimpse of the players' mindset. These players are very important keeping the future in the mind. Most of the players, both Indian capped players and overseas, are not getting younger. So if somebody has the potential, and even if he does not play this year, you can always hang on to that guy and build on him for the future."
The trials themselves involved net sessions, simulating match scenarios and, in some cases, practice matches. "We are not looking to teach the player anything," the coach says. "You just want to see whether he fits into your strategy and for the player it is to get an idea about the franchise."
From a player's perspective, he gets a peek into the how a franchise operates. First impressions work in life and they can work even in the IPL. "It is speed dating in the IPL," is how a franchise head sums up the concept.
Most of those who are being invited have bloomed in the domestic circuit over the last couple of seasons. One promising batsman, who had a consistent Ranji Trophy season, was invited for a trial by a former IPL champion team. "I was given three sets of 20 balls each to show my prowess," he says. "First I was told to bat assuming they were Powerplay overs, then they told me to treat the ball and field placements like those in the middle overs and the last set was to bat the way I would in the death overs. It may not sound so innovative but the field placements were constantly revolving and it was challenging to score under such pressure. It was a perfect dress rehearsal to bat in the IPL."
Even the bowlers were told to show their skills by bowling either one over or two at a stretch at different intervals in an innings. "I was given the confidence first that I am being considered only because of my accuracy and variations and was told to use as many variations as I had," a medium-pacer says. "It was a wonderful experience."
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo
Amol Karhadkar is a correspondent at ESPNcricinfo