Mahendra Singh Dhoni has reasons to smile after being snapped up for an eye-popping US$1.5 million © Getty Images
Just before they sat down for breakfast in Mumbai early on Wednesday morning, a few hours ahead of the IPL auction, Team Chennai decided there was no looking back. They would go for Mahendra Singh Dhoni, they agreed, at any cost.
It was a decision that finally ended up shaking the game.
By evening, long after the figures had rolled to a stop, and around 80 of the world's best cricketers had fetched nearly US$42 million, the headlines continued to scream: "Chennai buys Dhoni for US$1.5 million."
It was an amount that defied all predictions; it was a bid that stunned some of India's leading corporate names huddled around adjoining tables, and it was a fascinating contest between two teams in a dizzy race to grab India's World Twenty20-winning captain.
Cricinfo has learnt the bid for Dhoni went down to the wire, with almost all teams raising paddles in turns to indicate their bids, starting from the base price of US$400,000. By the time the bids crossed the US$900,000 mark, only two teams were in the fray: Mumbai, which had entered the race just then, and Chennai. Soon, Chennai raised its paddle with a figure that sparked a buzz in the auction room: US$1 million.
Mumbai went one step further, and then Chennai did a strange thing. "We bid around the US$1.1 million to US$1.2 million mark, and as planned, tried to suggest with our body language that we would not go further," a source in Chennai's auction team said. "Reliance [Mumbai's owners] immediately went up for around US$1.3 million, and we put up US$1.5 million. We knew they couldn't match that as they had Sachin Tendulkar as their icon player, who would have to be paid 15% more, and their spending for just two names would have crossed US$3 million."
Late on Wednesday night, long after it had all ended, the tongues were still wagging. "It was simply mind-boggling. Nobody expected this kind of a price, even Rahul Dravid was saying so at the end of it all," TA Sekhar, former India cricketer and one of Delhi's representatives at the auction, said. "Imagine the backlash in Chennai if he fails," Charu Sharma, the CEO of the Bangalore franchise, pointed out. "This is just the beginning," was what IS Bindra, a member of the IPL governing council, had to say.
"But for us, a player like that is priceless. He can create ripples with his game, and we can get our team to play around him," VB Chandrasekhar, former India cricketer and national selector, and who raised that last paddle for Chennai, said. "I have seen him transform from just someone from Jharkhand to what he is today." Chandrasekhar was part of India's national selection panel which picked Dhoni for the first time in 2004.
"They [Chennai franchise] would have known that if they want their grounds to be filled, they should get somebody to match the stature of Sachin Tendulkar for Mumbai or Sourav Ganguly for Kolkata" - IS Bindra
But why Dhoni for as high as this? "Obviously, Chennai didn't have an icon player," Bindra said. "They would have known that if they want their grounds to be filled, they should get somebody to match the stature of Sachin Tendulkar for Mumbai or Sourav Ganguly for Kolkata. They wanted somebody with a pan-Indian appeal like those two icons."
"All of us would have wanted Dhoni to play for our teams, why not?" asks Delhi's Sekhar. "Every football team would love to have somebody like David Beckham in their side. Similarly, everybody would be proud to have Dhoni with them."
Then, there's the tremendous brand pull of one of India's most popular youth icons. "They can get all sorts of sponsors with Dhoni being the leading face of the team. Later, player transfers for higher fees can also happen. Remember, this is the fee for just one season, and players can be sold next year," a source from a leading Indian sports management firm said.
But, of course, not everybody is convinced that Dhoni is the man. "We knew early, the way the bid was going that it was not on for us," Bangalore's Sharma said. "This is not a one-man show, it's a team game. Suppose he gets out for a duck in a couple of matches, suppose he fails. Fans in Chennai are going to turn around as ask 'Was he really worth so much'?"
The Chennai team, however, is clear that the big buy is a winning move, and has everything to do with cricket. "We are out to build a team, we are out for cricket," said Chandrasekhar. "India Cements (which owns the Chennai franchise) has been backing this game for the last 40 years. Let me remind you that we were among the first to spot the potential of a player like Rahul Dravid. This time too we never backed out."

Ajay Shankar is deputy editor of Cricinfo in Bangalore