The IPL franchises are expected to splurge over US$3 million on Kevin Pietersen and Andrew Flintoff, two of the biggest stars in world cricket, at the player auction in Goa on Friday. But after the pullout of Michael Clarke, the other star player who could have got well over a million dollars, most franchises agree that this year's smartest pick will be JP Duminy, the South African batsman.
Duminy, who is also a brilliant fielder, played a key role in South Africa's success in Australia and is now being tagged by the franchises as "a favourite and one of the top three picks" for the season.
The franchises concede the big money will be spent on Pietersen (base price: $1.35 million) and Flintoff ($950,000), especially after Clarke's withdrawal. "Now if you are thinking long-term, current form and availability, then Duminy is your man," a franchise official said.
Duminy's base price is $300,000 but what has made him a particularly attractive purchase, according to franchise officials, is that he will be available for most of this tournament, which starts on April 10 - the South African players are free after the home ODI series against Australia ends on April 17. In contrast, England players will be available only for the first three weeks of the IPL while the Australians will be free towards the end after they play Pakistan in an ODI series after the South Africa tour.
"Duminy is also a natural strokeplayer, a great fielder, and at 24, your player for the future," the official said. "You can expect vigorous bidding in his case."
The auction, which is scheduled to start at 10 am, is expected to be short and intense affair and IPL officials have confirmed that 17 slots would be available for purchase from a revised list of 50 players after the withdrawal of Pakistani cricketers.
Last year, the inaugural IPL auction had featured over 75 top cricketers, including the entire Indian team, and the auction spilled over well into the evening. "This time, all the action will be foucused on a handful of cricketers," a franchise official said. "After Pietersen, Flintoff, Duminy and possibly Shaun Tait, there are not many left to bid big for."
But of course, the big buzz is all about Pietersen and Flintoff. The Bangalore franchise, owned by industrialist Vijay Mallya, is expected to go the distance for Pietersen, while Punjab and Mumbai will bid hard for Andrew Flintoff. Chennai had originally targetted Clarke, but are now likely to join the race for Duminy while Rajasthan, the IPL champion, hasn't ruled out the possibility of going after one of the top players. Incidentally, Graeme Smith, Duminy's national captain, is a key member of the Rajasthan team.
In fact, questions have already been asked whether Pietersen's price would touch the $2m mark, which is the maximum a team can spend at this auction. And IPL officials are happy to let the price tag float around - it is great publicity, an official said.
However, $2m for Pietersen is highly unlikely, going by IPL rules. "Each franchise will have the sum of US$ 2mn to spend on 2009 player fees for players who are acquired either: in the auction, through signing uncapped "new" players, through re-signing any 2008 temporary replacements," the IPL rules state. Chennai is the only franchise that has the full amount at its disposal as the team has not yet signed on an uncapped player or resigned a temporary player from last year.
Then, there are teams with specific needs. Delhi wants a specialist batsman; Kolkata, which has been hit by the absence of Shoaib Akhtar and Umar Gul, needs a fast bowler, possibly Shaun Tait; Mumbai would like to purchase an allrounder. "It has been generally accepted that multi-skilled players will be in demand, but most of the teams will enter the auction room with a clear, short list," a franchise official said.
The missing Pakistani players have also left the teams with a delicate balancing act to perform at the auction. According to IPL rules, teams can pick one-year replacements for the Pakistani players at the auction but will have to stay within the US$ 2 million cap. However, if the teams go for a replacement after the auction, they can spend the equivalent of the amount they would have paid the Pakistani player this year - this replacement will have to be from the original IPL list of 111 players released last week