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Analysis

The building blocks of a good IPL auction strategy

The right captain, a blend of data and intangibles, and steering clear of bias - the recency or emotional kind

It is IPL auction week and the umbrella term 'auction dynamics' will be thrown around a lot. But the most significant part of those dynamics is auction strategy. A good auction strategy translates into success - Delhi Capitals is a good recent example. After struggling during the first decade of the IPL, Capitals invested heavily in a strong and young Indian core during the 2018 mega auction, which helped them make the playoffs the last three seasons in a row. Similarly, Sunrisers Hyderabad believed in compiling a strong bowling attack, mostly Indian again, and that helped them be a contender for the playoffs. Multiple-time champions Chennai Super Kings have forever invested in experience and succeeded. What you do at the auction determines whether you will finish as a top-team consistently.
We look at the key building blocks necessary to compile a strong squad at the auction.
Leadership
Pick the captain. Then empower the captain. MS Dhoni believes that experience is a key ingredient to winning crunch situations, and he got a team that delivered that. There have been instances where franchises have chosen a team and then picked a leader.
Force-fitting captaincy could be challenging. R Ashwin at Punjab Kings in 2018 and 2019, and Ajinkya Rahane and Steve Smith at Rajasthan Royals are some of the examples in recent years where players were bought at the auction and then given captaincy. Unlike Test cricket, T20 is not won purely on skill but on how certain decisions are taken dynamically. It is important to not be predictable and always be one step ahead of the opposition. Sometimes, making fewer obvious errors is good enough to prevail over an opposition, which a leader like Dhoni does repeatedly.
Leadership in the IPL is not just about the results but it also involves dealing with many decision makers outside the cricketing ecosystem. This could mean picking a player in the squad for marketing purposes, convincing owners once the season begins on why a particular eleven has been selected, or backing a player who is not in form. In the case of some franchises, the captain has to answer to multiple decision-makers. In case the equations don't match, the relationship is bound to break as it has happened on many previous occasions with multiple franchises.
Avoiding bias
Bias is a huge factor in an auction. It could be recency or it could be emotional. It is human nature to favour one player over another, but it could pose a challenge at the auctions. One of the biggest challenges is to manage bias consciously, especially while dealing with high profile decision makers. We have seen enough evidence of recency bias being a huge failure. Almost every BBL recruit in the last few seasons has faltered at the IPL. Some recent examples include the Australian bunch of Ashton Turner, D'Arcy Short, Riley Meredith and Jhye Richardson. Similarly, a quickfire century before the auction could increase the price point by a few crores, but is it a smart buy? None of these buys have been very beneficial in the end.
A neutral perspective to every pick based on a few metrics such as: how well the batter plays the googly? How is his first ten-ball strike rate? Can he play the sweep shot well? How does a bowler handle a wet ball? How many variations does a bowler have? These factors could go a long way. There needs to be a balancing act between using data and cricketing instincts/experience.
The game has still not reached a stage where contextual sample sizes are enough for machine learning and artificial intelligence to provide an advantage. Trusting techniques and ability to counter certain situations are more vital than blindly going by strike rates, averages, economy rates or whether the player is on the list of highest run-getters/wicket-takers. Bowling with a wet ball in Wankhede in April is very different from bowling in Australia or the Caribbean. Once again, it is the scouts that need to relay the right info to the coaches, who in turn have to convince the person raising the paddle.
Price Points
In a mini auction, one can understand that the options are very limited and hence prices are elevated due to a demand and supply mis-match. However, this mistake should not occur in a big auction, when one is building a squad. Spending 15-20 crores on one player is approximately 20% of the budget on one player. One player cannot win the league. Rashid Khan still does not have a T20 trophy to his name. Royal Challengers have faced the same challenges in previous season with lopsided budget spends, role wise.
No algorithm/model will ever be able to predict the right cost at which a player is likely to go accurately. If they were to be followed, no team would complete even 50% of their budget since algorithms would not predict 15 crores for a Glenn Maxwell (Royal Challengers) or an 11 crore for Manish Pandey (Sunrisers). Hence, it is important to understand the maximum price points of a skillset/role from experience, and work around that. Shreyas Iyer for example could be a beneficiary of this price-point conundrum in the coming auction as franchises might frantically bid for him hoping that suddenly Iyer would have the captaincy skills of Dhoni, the batting skills of Virat Kohli and the power of a Kieron Pollard.
Picking the right players
Skillset remains the primary filter while building a squad. Whilst there will always be a wishlist for every role, it is equally important to look at other factors apart from the playing strengths that might make a franchise a good fit for a player. Understanding where the player stands in terms of his goals and his role, is primary. For example Krunal Pandya is a capable allrounder, but does he perform at his best when his brother Hardik is in the team or would he be better if he is on his own? Understanding a player's background is equally significant, and this is where a good scouting network comes handy.
While owners and CEOs can take the money calls at the auction table, they need to be fed with the right information from the coaching staff, in which scouts should play an integral role - especially while picking uncapped Indian players. Take Kolkata Knight Riders, whose scouts identified Varun Chakravarthy and Venkatesh Iyer early. Now both players are part of the franchise's core having been retained.
Ditto with Mumbai Indians, who have one of the best scouting networks, comprising former international coaches, players and selectors. They picked the likes of Jasprit Bumrah and the Pandya brothers as uncapped talents, and then retained them (or right-to-matched them) subsequently. Scouts at Royal Challengers Bangalore even visit the families of potential buys they have identified from the trials to understand the culture and the environment they come from. In the end a happy player is a free player who can perform at his best.

Gaurav Sundararaman is senior stats analyst at ESPNcricinfo. Prior to that he has worked on auctions with the analysts of various franchises, had stints with RCB at the IPL auction in 2015 and consulted the West Indies men's World Cup team in 2016.