It's the IPL auction. On offer is a big-name player who you don't really want. But you want the other bidders to think you do. What are your options? On February 18 in Chennai, the player in question was Steven Smith, and a mock auction drill carried out by the Royal Challengers Bangalore team - a video of which has been put out on social media - shows how the group bid first, but then withdrew completely.
It did work. And it also allowed the Royal Challengers to get into the hunt for Glenn Maxwell, the player they really wanted, and ended up getting.
Smith, the former Australia captain who led the Rajasthan Royals last season, was released by the franchise ahead of the latest auction, and went up for hire at INR 2 crore (approx. US$ 138,216). The first bid went out from the Royal Challengers as planned, according to the video, and the Delhi Capitals followed with a bid of INR 2.2 crore. There were no further bids, and Smith went to the Delhi franchise.
"I'm not so sure anyone's even going to bid for him in the first round. Best thing we can do is make a bid early, Steve Smith, and then get out"Mike Hesson on the bidding strategy
The video is revealing, instructive in terms of how teams plan their bids during the auctions, and also how they, at times, plan bids for other teams.
Mike Hesson, the Royal Challengers' director of cricket, sets the ball rolling by playing the role of the auctioneer: "Next up, captain Steve Smith, Australia, base price 2 crore." The others around the table, filling in for the other bidding teams, take the price higher - 2.2, 2.6, 2.8, 3.6… and Smith goes to the Capitals - in this case too! - for Rs 3.8 crore.
Let's be clear Steve Smith is a wonderful player in all formats he just didn't fit our mix for this season, hopefully this video explains why? https://t.co/WOMfHCoo55— Mike Hesson (@CoachHesson) February 23, 2021
"You didn't go for Smith at all," someone asks Hesson. "Oh, Smith doesn't bowl," is Hesson's matter-of-fact reply. "Whoever bats there [presumably No. 4] has to be able to bowl, because Devdutt [Padikkal], [Virat] Kohli, AB [de Villiers] don't bowl."
Which is where Maxwell came in.
"I'm not so sure anyone's even going to bid for him in the first round. Best thing we can do is make a bid early, Steve Smith, and then get out," Hesson explained, adding that the money spent and the limit on number of overseas slots would mean that the Capitals - "they are the only ones at the moment that can outbid us" - wouldn't be able to make a play for Maxwell, who was eventually bought for INR 14.25 crore (approx. US$ 1,968,817).
The thing with cute plays of this sort, of course, is that they could go quite wrong - what if the Royal Challengers had been left with Smith at INR 2 crore? "It's not the end of the world," Hesson said, but did admit that it would cramp their style further up in the auction: "It means we don't have that bowler in the top six other than Maxwell. What we don't want, what's the worst result, is if that whole first group goes by [and] no one buys anything. So if we can get somebody to buy somebody in that first round, that's a big win for us."
They picked up Kyle Jamieson and Dan Christian, both fast-bowling allrounders, for INR 15 crore (approx. US$ 2,072,439) and INR 4.80 crore (approx. US$ 663180) respectively, while also adding Indians Sachin Baby, Rajat Patidar, Mohammed Azharuddeen and KS Bharat to fill up smaller gaps.
And the safety net: "I think if we bid straightaway, no team is going to let us get him for 2 crore."
As for the Capitals, getting Smith for the price they did didn't hurt their plans either. "A player of his calibre, to get him at very close to his base price was, according to us, an incredible opportunity which we didn't want to let go," Parth Jindal, the Capitals owner, told ESPNcricinfo soon after the auction. "For us, we just noted down the name 'Steve Smith' and were, 'Oh, won't he be such a fantastic player to add to our batting line-up?' And then we saw the auction dynamics, maybe it was because his name came up early, maybe because people were being tentative, maybe everyone had their own reasons.
"But we saw RCB bid 2 crores and then there was a lot of silence in the room, nobody was going for him, the auctioneer was about to sell it at 2 crore, and I looked at Kiran and said, 'Kiran [Kumar Grandhi, co-owner], it's Steve Smith, let's try our luck'. And we bid 2.2 and nobody bid. We were absolutely thrilled to get him at that price."
The Royal Challengers had earlier uploaded a video about their auction strategy for Maxwell too. On multiple occasions, they seemed to have got their man, but in the end they actually paid quite a bit more than they had planned.
The bidding game for Chris Morris was a curious one too. The Royal Challengers had released Morris after picking the allrounder up for INR 10 crore last season, and had hoped to get the South African for a much lower price this time. However, Morris' price went up to INR 16.5 crore (approx. US$ 2,279,367) and was bought by the Royals. The Royal Challengers went up to INR 9.5 crore (approx. US$ 1,312,363) before giving up.