January 14, 2011

Decoding the auction

Some of the buys and omissions may have looked puzzling at the time, but there were solid enough reasons

The IPL auction has come and gone. About time too. The socialists complained about income disparities, academicians searched for patterns, some players prayed for more one-day games in Zimbabwe so they could get into the auction next time, and the fans just heaved a sigh of relief that it was done so they could, as the case may be, build or renew associations with players and teams.

And so, four days after it was over, and the sadder madness of chasing uncapped players has begun, it is time to see what stood out and what the franchise owners were thinking. Contrary to the passionate views held by many, the franchise owners had a pattern, were prepared and were emotionless. Within the constraints of the system, they did well.

Some cricketers became multi-millionaires, others scratched their heads wondering if they were that far away from approval. I think it is important to understand that the amounts earned by players did not emerge out of a truly global price-value equation. This was scarcity-induced pricing and the Indian players benefited from being on the right side of the supply-demand situation - like middle-men who sell onions do, I'm told! The I in the IPL was the most important factor.

It means that the genuine quality professionals from overseas, who were closer to the centre of the supply-demand situation than at an extreme, shouldn't compare their fees with those the Indian players earned. They could easily look at them with a "since-when-did-you-become-a-better-player-than-me" kind of bitterness, but they must be aware that they were playing on a different field. It is not a comparison of equals.

Interestingly franchises assigned a significant premium to leadership skills. I have long held the view that in the IPL a leader needs not just to be tactically aware but needs also to possess the ability to bring together players from completely different backgrounds and sensibilities. Players come from different lands, are thrown together for a very short while and then return to discover the joys of their real homes. In this temporary melting pot of diverse cultures the leader must, very quickly, seek to bring cohesion. It is different from being captain of your national side, and that is why I believe a good leader is worth two players. Gautam Gambhir, Mahela Jayawardene and Adam Gilchrist benefited from skills beyond the playing field and earned a handsome premium.

It helped to be an Australian player and there was a feeling - maybe sometimes justified - that Aussie coaches were getting their boys a good deal. Well, for a start, that happens everywhere. CEOs move with their teams and negotiate healthy pay packages, football managers want players they have worked with before.

But it isn't just that. Franchise owners are getting smarter; their money isn't just blowin' in the wind. There is now a fairly strong perception that Australian cricketers exhibit strong commitment, are good team players, are fit and always a plus in the field. (Again, such perceptions exist everywhere. For example, that Indian software professionals will work long hours without complaining.)

I suspect some of the heady pricing might have been contained if the uncapped players had been signed before the auction. But given that the IPL and the BCCI were in court till a day before the auction, that wasn't possible

By contrast the "made in Bangladesh" tag doesn't seem to have the same strength, as we saw with the extraordinary lack of interest in Tamim Iqbal, one of my earliest picks. Again, this is a matter of evolution. We in India have long suffered from the "made in India" tag. Time and performance will change that perception for Bangladeshi players. Already Shakib Al Hasan is emerging as a wonderful ambassador.

Availability became an issue and it isn't difficult to see why. With players coming and going, teams wore an unsettled look. You could see that with the Royal Challengers, and clearly having a full side for the duration became important. I suspect that was reflected in the lack of interest in a few English players (though the rather frosty relationship between the IPL and the ECB might have contributed to the uncertainty too), and it certainly was the issue with Chris Gayle, who would otherwise certainly have commanded a huge price. Gayle, Bravo and Pollard had refused to sign WICB contracts, but West Indies are playing international cricket at the time of the IPL, and the fear that the WICB might insist on its players turning up for it meant one of Twenty20's greatest entertainers will be missing.

I suspect some of the heady pricing might have been contained if the uncapped players had been signed before the auction. But given that the IPL and the BCCI were in court till a day before the auction, that wasn't possible, and that made things much more messy. And led to the mad, unfettered pursuit of players later. Young players are being yanked into one corner, then into another, with offers and incentives (in itself strange since they cannot legally be paid beyond the price points set up by the BCCI), and that cannot be good. The IPL has, necessarily, to resolve the issue of uncapped players, and to be honest, that might well be achieved if law courts cease to play the predominant role in Indian cricket.

For all the drama, I hope this is the last auction. And while that means a solution to the salary cap will need to be found, the larger issue of spectator loyalty needs to be kept upfront. It should still be a very good tournament but it is a little more bruised than it would like to be.

Harsha Bhogle is a commentator, television presenter and writer. His Twitter feed is here

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