At the end of the largest two-day sports 'auction' in the world, the Indian Premier League took the first clear, decisive step towards its fourth season. Ending months of controversy around the League's own financial deals and its teams' ownership holdings, the ten franchises finally shook hands with the 139 cricketers who will form the core of the high-profile domestic Twenty20 event that begins in India on April 8.
Auction weekend in Bangalore oscillated wildly between extremes of spending, lavish as well as careful, and general sloppiness around its conclusion. What began with the first of four $2m signings on Saturday morning ended with Mohammed Kaif's name finally pencilled into the IPL roster, after being met with silence across the floor not once, but twice on Sunday. Almost like a sudden afterthought, Kaif was hauled onto the IPL4 gravy train, the last cricketer aboard, concluding the 353-man auction used to reshuffle the League's overall player pool.
After a prolonged two-day display of corporate wealth, cricket tactics and Bollywood showbiz (in that order), which ran live on national television across India, teams were left dealing with either a shrunken wallet or depleted ranks. If Gautam Gambhir broke the $2m salary mark on Saturday, the relatively-unknown Australia allrounder Daniel Christian, who has played three Twenty20 internationals, was the highest-paid player signed up on Sunday, at $900,000 by the Deccan Chargers. Deccan now have 14 cricketers in their roster, and still have $2.13m left unspent from their $9m salary 'cap'. Current IPL champions Chennai Super Kings filled 18 slots, of the maximum squad strength of 30, during the auction itself. At the other end are the Rajasthan Royals, who signed just eight cricketers (Rahul Dravid and Pankaj Singh the only Indians among them) at the auction and are now left with a mere $800,000. They have less than Christian's wage to hire at least another 18 cricketers to field a competitive team in the IPL.
Rajasthan and all the other teams must now find the remainder of their squad from among India's domestic player pool, officially called the 'uncapped' players, who unofficially form the source of much confusion between the franchises. The uncapped players can only be paid a fixed sum depending on their experience in domestic cricket and there is doubt among franchises as to whether the guidelines imposed by the IPL governing council in this regard would, or indeed could, be legitimately followed.
The first XI's of many sides were signed on as much as possible on the first day of the auction itself, and the second was spent trying to fill in the overseas quota and the remaining gaps in team plans. If the first auction in 2008 was marked by the stampede to nab names that create spectator interest and a 'fan base', 2011 had the franchises, not the concept of 'icons' players, calling the shots. No takers then for some of the high-earning cricketers of the first phase of the IPL like Sourav Ganguly and Sanath Jayasuriya, nor the need to seek random, occasional short-game performers from overseas like Herschelle Gibbs, Mark Boucher, Jacob Oram or even the born-again Shivnarine Chanderpaul. Every soundbite that emerged on doting television channels talked about 'youth', the Twenty20 format, and the team's 'plans' for the future.
The heavy sums during auction weekend were spent on impact players, who are now expected to win matches single-handedly, as well as those men meant to serve as genuine multi-taskers. If the player on auction was Indian, a fat pay cheque was a given, regardless of the cricketer's core skill. Gambhir was the highest-paid specialist batsman at $2.4m, closely followed by the allrounders Yusuf and Irfan Pathan, who between them picked up $4m.
On the flat wickets, quick outfields and short boundaries of India, all long handles were welcomed. Of the top 25 earners from the auction (excluding the retained players), there are only six specialist bowlers: Dale Steyn at $1.2m, Muttiah Muralitharan ($1.1m), Johan Botha ($950,000), and Zaheer Khan, Sreesanth and Piyush Chawla (all $900,000).
Yet, the 35 slots between $900,000 and $400,000 are full of bowlers, as many as 17, with Sunday's frantic buying including happy contracts for more than half a dozen Indian seamers. It opened with Umesh Yadav's astonishing $750,000 bid, Munaf Patel got $700,000 and Laxmipathy Balaji $500,000. Vinay Kumar was bought for $475,000, Ashok Dinda for $375,000 and Manpreet Gony went for $290,000. The younger Indian seamers - Abhimanyu Mithun, Jaidev Unadkat and Sudeep Tyagi - were separated by $10,000 between the $260,000 to $240,000 bracket. Ajit Agarkar signed on with Delhi for $210,000.
The heavy presence of as many as six Australians - Darren Lehmann, Michael Bevan, Geoff Lawson, Geoff Marsh, Dav Whatmore, Shane Warne (player-coach) and David Shipperd - heading support staffs among the ten teams explains the signing of 38 Australians amongst the 87 overseas players who will compete in IPL4. The South Africans are next with 20 of their players getting contracts. The southern hemisphere's cricket calendar works perfectly for both these nations' players to accommodate the IPL into their schedule, even as their third rugby-playing partner New Zealand is unable to hustle its most competitive cricketers into the tournament.
England's best will always find themselves having to grapple between their domestic season, early international fixtures and the IPL. The West Indian dispute over the unsigned board contracts may be settled by the silence from the entire League towards cricketers from the Caribbean as a whole.
While smaller nations may take some heart from Dutchman Ryan Ten Doeschate's $150,000 contract with Kolkata, Bangladesh or Zimbabwe players' entry into the IPL will still depend not on the team owners' knowledge of the game, but on the open-mindedness of those in charge of a franchise's cricket operations. Pakistan's players' entry, though, will have to rely on a thaw in both the political freeze between India and its neighbour, as well as the immovable timidity of the League.
The final round of the IPL auction ended in farce as 28 players were put back into auction, ostensibly because they had been asked for by the franchises. Yet 13 of the 28, including eight international cricketers, were not bid for by a single franchise, with no explanations given as to why they had been put onto the list in the first place. The three biggest names left out of the auction - Ganguly, Jayasuriya and Chris Gayle - were not on the second list and will not be a part of IPL4. Ganguly and Jayasuriya may have missed out because of their age but Gayle's omission is as inexplicable as the man's own persona. Among those bid for as second thoughts were Jesse Ryder of New Zealand, Rusty Theron of South Africa, Adam Voges and Moises Henriques from Australia, and Dmitri Mascarenhas and Michael Lumb of England. A few first-class cricketers, known mostly to the overseas coaches who make up most of the franchises' support staff, pulled in some surprise contracts right at the end.
Only two more Indians made that final cut: left-arm spinner Murali Kartik and Kaif, whose name was suddenly called for the third time. He was one of the earliest on the leftover list to be called up again, but met with silence for the second time in a few hours. Third time around, Kaif drew bids from Pune, Deccan and Bangalore, and eventually went to the Royal Challengers Bangalore for $130,000. The auction finally drew to a close with the three groups of men and women who had been tossing around numbers for Kaif rocking back and forth with laughter. The heaviest wallets in Indian cricket had much to celebrate: for six weeks this summer, they will own and control the biggest and some of the most gifted names in the sport.