January 11, 2011

The joke was on cricket

The 2011 IPL auction stood for all that is wrong with the league

As the cricket world gasped at the millions and hundreds of thousands at the IPL auction, an Indian cricketer's text message described it all.

He had seen Mohammed Kaif's name hauled up to the auction table for the third time in a few hours. The owners of three teams (Pune Warriors, Deccan Chargers and Royal Challengers Bangalore) bidding for him were rocking back and forth with laughter but SonyMax (the official IPL channel) executive explained on Twitter that the laughter was not "on Kaif" but "on the teams that bid to convey "guys why didn't ull bid earlier. Took 3 auctions"!! " Kaif was finally signed up by Bangalore but his team-mate had seen through it all. His text read: "Feeling so bad for Kaify that they were knocking him about and were laughing".

It's what the IPL auction did this weekend for all of cricket: threw large sums of money at it, knocked it about and laughed.

Before the IPL turned up, the word "auction" was understood to be "public sale" of "goods" or "property" or "articles" or "merchandise". No dictionary contains the mention of people in an auction because in the history of mankind, the only human beings ever involved in public auctions were slaves. But surely that's being too serious, too square. The IPL auction was just business, private money changing hands from one bunch of people to another. The merchandise on offer was cricketing skill. So why go all puritanical and pedantic. The IPL auction, is after all, just a bit of fun, is it not?

Not if you are a cricketer or his family watching, either online or on television, as his name fell into the category called "unsold". A player said he hated that the auction was live, because his parents worried, not about his cricket, but about he what he was going through. The Sony Max executive's earlier tweet, revealed what those in the auction room went through, "Thoroughly bored. Preity (Zinta, owner of Kings' XI Punjab) and I were throwing sponge balls at each other! Yawn..."

The cause of their ennui was the list of names that no one showed any interest in. Some of those were - Ian Bell, Shivnarine Chanderpaul, Sourav Ganguly, Chris Gayle, Martin Guptill, Tamim Iqbal, Wasim Jaffer, Sanath Jayasuriya, Chris Tremlett, Thilan Samaraweera, Peter Siddle, V R V Singh, Tim Southee, Morne van Wyk. Between them and dozens more there were runs, wickets, skills, abilities. All an auction does of all that is make you yawn, throw sponge balls.

The IPL's governors who were sitting on one side, included the Indian game's official custodians, maybe were distracted by hearing the numbers tick over, so the names didn't matter. Could have been cricketers, could have been horses. No wonder the owners were laughed at the end: the joke was on cricket.

Last year, an Indian cricketer had a simple question: why is it that players are put on public auction while IPL teams are picked through sealed bids, closed doors? Maybe because the auction is, in fact, a celebrity-infested reality show, made for low-brow television. The IPL auction does not really belong to sport, it is closer to tawdry WWE programming.

There is no respectable sport in the world whose athletes go up for auction. Not even in the richest professional leagues in the world. Not in European or North American football, not the NBA, not the NHL. The words, "franchise", "commissioner", "salary cap" belong to American sport which is what inspired Lalit Modi to rework the idea into Indian cricket. So why abandon its steel frame: the league regulations, the minimum wage. Modi somehow thought nothing of borrowing and adapting into cricket the most common form of player hire in American leagues: the rookie drafts. (The BCCI thought the auction was a good idea.)

The auction represents the event: too much money, too much self-aggrandisement, and too little respect for the sport which has brought big business and Bollywood leaping and laughing into it

The NFL draft is a highly watched TV event, featuring teams, fans, league officials and the players themselves. Teams select rookies over seven rounds, with the League's weakest team getting the chance to make the first pick of the best player available. There is a minimum wage and a salary cap. During the draft, the only numbers discussed on television are the players' statistics. No auctioneer, no bidding, no cattle market. The draft is a multi-layered and complicated exercise, but it can be translated into cricket. Apart from the vocabulary, why not borrow rules of fair trade from American sport too?

The IPL is, in any case, different from all professional sports leagues which are based around sports whose highest, most lucrative level is reached only by those with the highest skills. With the IPL and its auction it is exactly upside down. It is the level of the most simplified skill that has become the richest and so sought after. The auction represents the event: too much money, too much self-aggrandisement, and too little respect for the sport which has brought big business and Bollywood leaping and laughing into it.

To use this auction as an advertisement for the expansion of the cricket economy is to ignore the fine print. Dizzy salaries will bring stunted games. There may well be a generation of upcoming Indian cricketers for whom the hard yards will be most uninteresting. Who can predict the impact of the IPL auction on Indians once itching to be on the World Cup squad? Why bother with the grind of seven ODIs within a month, the weight of a nation's wishes bearing down, if the body can be saved for six weeks of Twenty20 in which 35 is a "great/ fabulous/ brilliant" innings and you're sprinkled with stardust every few days.

In late 2009, Rohit Sharma described what it felt like scoring 101 over four hours on a tough Railways wicket in the Ranji Trophy. "It was as if I was another batsman," he said, a young man thrilled to discover that his luminous batting could climb another notch. He now has $2million more in his bank, a BMW in his garage and he is 23 years old. India can only hope that he beats those odds.

The domino effect of such these auctions is already happening around the world. Last year, three West Indians - Kieron Pollard, Dwayne Bravo and Chris Gayle - refused to sign their board's central contracts. Andrew Symonds, an allrounder with gifts teams dream of, is now a Twenty20 freelancer. As much as the IPL may put cricketers from different countries into one dressing room, this auction turned its back on those from smaller, less influential nations. To pretend Pakistanis do not exist in cricket is not merely disappointing, it is a collective display of cowardice from both the BCCI and franchises. What began as Lalit Modi Inc is now a BCCI friends & family enterprise. The self-serving elite of an already small sport is now closing ranks into a smaller, tighter circle.

If there was anything that the IPL should have taught the governors of the game, is that the league must be handled with caution and circumspection, its functioning kept at a good distance from its revenues. The constant flaunting of the auction cash and the muscle flexed when dealing with outsiders is not the BCCI reflecting Indian cricket's new-found confidence. It is a merely a bully showing off his crassness. The auction was the first act of the post-Modi IPL but he may as well have been in the room. It is not enough for the new regime to talk about being holier than thou, cricket-centric, but to also actually be and be seen to be completely fair. Doing away with the ads during overs and after-parties is good, changing rules about uncapped players within a month of announcing them is like having a "secret-tie-break" in the auction. It's nothing but same-old, same old.

The auction should have shaken up the rest of us, yet again. It should have been a reminder to those who consider themselves the game's caretakers to be more vigilant, questioning and critical of the IPL, to look beyond its purse. To distance themselves from its gravy train and its vast caravan of fully clothed cheerleaders. The IPL leaves cricket's stakeholders with a simple choice: foresight or blinkers? What do you want?

Sharda Ugra is senior editor at Cricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on January 13, 2011, 11:34 GMT

    An extremely well-reasoned article, with which I agree almost in whole. One subject was missed, though, which has been most disheartening to me. I have, from an admitted distance, followed RCB for three years, watched the team develop, with some additions and drops, into a core that knew how to work together, created a style and personality. Now all that is gone. Only one player from those gripping, never-say-die sides remains. Players loyalty and hard-work has not been rewarded by the same from the club and fans will now have to decide whether to continue to fly their team's colours or follow the players they have learned to love to pastures new. If the IPL want to focus on cricket, they should strive to keep intact sides that are doing well. It took a couple of years to forge RCB into an entertaining and winning side. It's going to take another couple of years to turn this bunch into a team. At which point, we may have to start all over yet again, both as fans and players.

  • Kannan on January 13, 2011, 7:32 GMT

    The entire process of bidding is planned. So, if a person comes up early for bidding, he may get more based on the desirability of the perceived value that he brings to the team as a whole. Franchises PREPARE a wish list as well as alternate lists as the scenarios change. They specifically look for those who can come in as captains, openers, middle orders, all rounders, wicket takers, wicket keepers as well as bench strength! They also factor in the number of foreign players they would need - some would play all the critical matches while others come in at other times, given the duration of the tournament - tiredness/injuries/prior commitments, etc. The value of a player isn't determined just by his talent but the criticality/ expanse of the role he has to perform given the others in the team. If an unknown with some potential is brought in, it's also because he could deliver a lot more value in the future. But bidding heat can also result in overpricing, but that's ok!

  • Kannan on January 13, 2011, 6:14 GMT

    There's nothing wrong with the concept of bidding. There are limited resources, a budget, made available to the bidders and it is for the bidders to best utilise the budget on people who will bond and perform well as a well-knit unit. There are various factors, including calls of judgement that need to be taken by the bidders, but then who is to question them on the use of their money? The player himself has the right to modify his reserve price if he thinks he deserves more. If he makes himself available for selection, then he should be open minded to play for any bidder, as this is a pure concept based on perceived value where every bidder has an EQUAL right of choice to pick up a player. Where a player has already been associated with a franchise earlier who also desires to retain him, then he obviously is not available for bidding on the table. Don't see a problem at all. You win some, you lose some on what's available! It's a fair system. contd..

  • papillon on January 13, 2011, 5:52 GMT

    What's wrong in players being auctioned when it's wilful? Players know what they are getting into. Whats your problem with that. Indians have a tendency to criticise as bad money and unethical whenever big money is involved in any form. Get a grip. And sourav - Who the hell will pick a guy who has a pathetic strike rate in T20? I guess all his so called supporters saw his performance in the last IPL. It's amazing people looks for 'emotions', 'respect' in business where 'hard facts' and 'performance' matters.

  • Kartikay on January 13, 2011, 3:47 GMT

    I feel that people are missing an important point here. We are all forgetting what impact this kind of money can have on developing test-cricket talent in India. Recently, the emergence of players like Saurabh Tiwary, Yusuf Pathan, Raina etc has proved that young India is not very keen on playing test cricket. All they want is IPL action, and earn some good money. Well, nothing wrong in someone wanting to earn money, but the BCCI needs to ensure the money earned for playing test cricket is better than IPL or at least the same. Its disheartening to see such few talents come up the ranks in test cricket recently. All our 'fast' bowlers have been reduced to medium pacers (Ishant, Munaf, even Irfan), because that is the demand of the shortest format. I dont see anything wrong in the auction as such, since that's the only way to fix the price of any 'commodity' wanted by more than 1 person. But with this kind of quick money, fame and glamour involved, who would want to play test cricket?

  • Dummy4 on January 12, 2011, 17:51 GMT

    @ comment by audacious: "Did epl affect soccer at all?" eeh? Look no further than England's abject performance in SAF 2010, the dearth of genuine talent coming through their national team now

  • Sam on January 12, 2011, 17:47 GMT

    This is one of the best and most apt articles I have read about IPL. It is naive that some people think this is good because a handful of poor players are getting rich but where do people think this money is coming from? The franchise owners are not running a charity. They are redistributing the money that is earned from products which are marketed due to their association with the franchises or advertised via IPL grounds/telecasts, etc. I wonder how Indian middle class (and those who are worse off) are feeling about this hidden redistribution of their hard earned rupees. I am glad they are all happy to shell out a few extra cents or rupees whenever they buy certain products to support the lifestyle of the Pathan brothers as they earn $4 million every year for the next three years.

  • SundaraMahalingam on January 12, 2011, 17:18 GMT

    Auction need to be made confidentially. It certainly affects the image of true cricketers.

    Its heartening to see no Indian players view this auction the way Sharda has seen. Certainly the likes of Sachins, Dhonis have the influence to change the way how it happened. Such a high profile cricketers are made to sell their dignity for these idiotic behaviors of business ppl.

  • Sam on January 12, 2011, 17:07 GMT

    I have read several comments here saying that players are not cattle to be auctioned like this. But my question is, do players share this opinion? I am sure if there is another auction next week, most of the players who were 'humiliated' will again try their luck. Most people will want to make a quick buck when they can and these playes are no exception. Personally, I would salute a player who takes the stand, I choose who I play for and represent and it would not be based on money alone. To me, IPL has lost its charm to a great extent. I don't see a reason to like or support a team just because it has a city name attached to it when you know very well that there are only one or two players from that city in that team.

  • J on January 12, 2011, 16:40 GMT

    Ignoring of some accomplished players seems to be a political decsion, made together by the franchisees at behest of BCCI! It is clear that not all 8 or10 foreign players in a team can play, as only 4 are allowed to play. Remaining 4 or 6 are reserves. It is hard to believe that the selectors did not find Ganguly, Jaffar and VRV good enough to be in the reserve pool, too!

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