Instinct, intelligence and inspiration
Between the first IPL auction in 2008 and the one to be held in Bangalore over the next two days there have been many trials, a few errors and much experience. There is much that has morphed around the IPL from its first year and in Bangalore on Wednesday we will have a "mega-auction", where teams will be built from scratch.
In 2008, the first auction blew into the IPL like a tornado. The auction was hit-and-run, trial-and-error, for many teams; it felt like it had come and gone before anyone had time to assimilate what was going on. Nobody understood the dynamics of a market-driven bid process and the accompanying uncertainties of multiple buyers chasing one product. Many thought, "Let's prepare a wish list and we'll learn and decide as we go along."
In one very fundamental way, though, the first IPL auction set the ground rules for subsequent auctions. Not for the modus operandi but for the essential building blocks of the IPL teams. The nomination of "icon" players ensured that Indian players would fetch prime value and those players would become the face or brand of the team with the squad built around them.
It also brought to Indian cricket the word "marquee." Teams understood instinctively that nothing and no one is more valuable in the IPL than the Indian "marquee" player. Everyone now builds their squad around these players and agrees to pay top dollar - now rupee - for them.
The mandated presence of seven Indians in every starting XI, and the resulting gap between demand and supply, ensured that Indian players would go for serious money, and consequently teams with better Indian talent would be stronger. The icon player rule also meant that, in the Indian context, players took precedence over teams. This is completely in contrast to other sporting leagues where the team or brand is supreme. But the IPL was a new tournament and no one knew the brands it was putting out on display. The known entity, and in the Indian context the household names, in this mix, of course, were the Indian players.
Six years later
If in 2008 the auction was driven by the reputations of players and their past records, the air has certainly cleared in that regard over the past six years.
Auctions now are more focussed, teams have far greater clarity about what kind of team they want and the type of players needed to execute their plans. This learning has come from experience and better awareness of the nuances and complexities of 20-over cricket and, more importantly, better assessment of players in T20 situations.
Each player is assessed by a very rigorous system, not just strike- and economy-rates but a much deeper analysis of actual performance in crunch match situations and data analysts are coming up with more and more precise figures about pressure indicators and similar issues when going into an auction. Auctions are more rational, the bidding more precise and focussed. But we are not at Moneyball yet, despite Rajasthan's early success and its general branding as the 'poor man's team.
These days the cricket operations people play a more prominent role. Some owners who were front and centre in 2008 chose not to attend last year's auction. For sure, frantic calls on mobiles ensured they were always involved in key decisions but they left most decisions to their highly-paid experts. Shah Rukh Khan, for example, has not sat at the owner's table since the first auction. Some owners are more hands-on while others choose to keep a low profile, restricting their role to holding up the bid paddle or signing the transaction/purchase document once the hammer comes down to close the bidding.
The Auction war room
What has happened in these six years is that, the odd choice based on whim or instinct apart, the selection of players tends to be more sensible and made by cricket experts. There is now an exhaustive process where inputs from owners or experts are discussed and taken on board or not. Pre-auction brainstorming sessions resemble a war-room situation, where every eventuality is carefully considered, options weighed and each response carefully calibrated.
Ahead of the auction, each team has several plans with spreadsheets detailing options A to B to C for every key position. Laptops are filled with every manner of information and analysis, including the names of 'must haves' and 'preferred choices.'
There must be clarity about the kind of team you want to build. Focus on Indian batting with foreign bowling - or the other way round, because Indian batting is very expensive? Among foreigners there is another shuffling through the options - do you punt on 'value picks' (smart, cheap T20 specialists) or go for the big boys? Or look for bowlers according to the character of 'home' pitches?
From this nucleus arises the choice of your top Indian players. Once these are secured through an auction, the rest of the team is built around them. Top Indian players ensure fan support, give comfort to potential sponsors, provide captaincy options.
At ground zero
Inside the auction room, the table of eight does not usually include, as has been imagined, someone working a calculator to do the numbers of how much cash a team has left to spend. There are updates on a wall for all the teams to understand the number of players being offered, the purse available to each team at each stage, the slots to be filled in with Indian or foreign players. As most teams have retained some players, their strategies can be anticipated. They have, in a way, already revealed their hand.
All teams really need going into the auction is their most-wanted list, its options and the buzz they have picked up from everyone else. For example, at the last auction it was common knowledge that KKR would go hard for Gautam Gambhir.
Auctions may look like an eyeball-to-eyeball contest but they are more rational, there is little room for emotion and decisions are based on cricket and commercial considerations. As the IPL combines cricket and commerce, players are gauged on these terms - their T20 skills and their commercial appeal with sponsors and fans.
Teams know they are restricted by the available purse. The buying has to be prudent because, ultimately, resources have to be spread over 27 players - the maximum permitted squad size - and it will not surprise me if more than one team now restricts its squad size to between 23 and 25.
Teams are now very smart about how far they are willing to go chasing a certain kind of player. Ideally no team will go into any auction based on an emotional or personal choice. There are always options for each position that teams need to fill. If a much sought-after player is "lost," you wait for the next option. It is there that the order of the auction plays an important role. Splurging on a player can hit a team badly and leave little money for others.
Then there are other calculations to be worked on through gut instinct: if your second choice player is on offer first, you can either bid aggressively or pass. The risk in letting the second choice go (only because he is offered first) is you might be outbid, later, for the first choice and therefore lose both options.
In such situations, instinct matters. Not science or strategy. It is why not everything goes to plan. Auctions are dynamic, impossible to control and throw up surprising numbers. Like Mashrafe Mortaza being picked by KKR for US$600,000 in 2010, or Dan Christian by Hyderabad for $900,000 in 2011 and Mumbai spending $1m on Glenn Maxwell in 2013.
The joker in the pack
The unexpected drama at this auction could well spring from the right-to-match (RTM) or joker card. There is no telling how much teams would bid for a player knowing they could lose the player anyway. In such a situation, it comes down to instinct again - how far a bidding team is willing to stretch itself, how far do they think the player's original franchise would be willing to stretch to keep their player. It is very possible some teams could be tempted to push up price of a select favourite of another team with the sole intention of hurting their purse. This, though, is a high-risk game: in case the original franchise refuses to buy the player after the bid process, then you could be stuck with someone you did not want or at best, someone who should not have cost that much.
Regardless of all the cold calculations that have been made, there will always be drama at an IPL auction. Every auction has had its moment - like the complete silence in 2011 when Sourav Ganguly was passed over by all teams. Or the hush, that same day, when Gautam Gambhir became - at $2.4 million - the most expensive IPL auction buy ever. That year the low bids for Rahul Dravid, Ricky Ponting and VVS Laxman - three legends of the game - were put into sharp perspective when KKR spent $5.6m in the first hour bidding for Gambhir, Yusuf Pathan ($2.1 million) and Kallis ($1. 1 million). Not only did this stuff make for great television, but the room began to buzz on its own.
There's a very good chance it is going to happen again tomorrow.
Amrit Mathur worked for the Delhi Daredevils for the first five IPL seasons