The joke was on cricket
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 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