In a couple of days, the first match of the sixth IPL will be played, but the buying strategies at the auction in February are already coming under scrutiny.
Glenn Maxwell, the Australian allrounder, was the only million-dollar buy. Today, after his less than impressive debut Test tour (39 runs at 9.75 in two Tests, redeemed somewhat by seven wickets), the question that might be asked of Mumbai Indians, the franchise that bought him, will be whether they spent too much.
Maxwell, Kane Richardson ($700,000, Pune Warriors), Chris Morris ($625,000, Chennai Super Kings) and Sachithra Senanayake (also $625,000, Kolkata Knight Riders) fetched jaw-dropping sums. Not many outside their countries had heard about the talent and skills of these players, but IPL franchises were willing to gamble on them.
The four players above were on the radar of many franchises, who did active research on them, and other players, over 2012. Local coaches in various countries acted as scouts, relaying information on these and lesser-known players, and some of the franchises' own coaches travelled or kept a keen ear to the ground on the progress and performances of these cricketers.
Delhi Daredevils team director TA Sekar and his assistant coach Aashish Kapoor, the former India offspinner, made repeat trips to Australia to scout for local talent, where they spotted Maxwell in 2012. This is part of a trend where franchises have moved from chasing big names to looking for untapped but promising young talent.
Take the case of Richardson. The South Australian, recently turned 22, was the third-most expensive player at the 2013 auction, bought by Pune Warriors India. The former South Africa fast bowler Allan Donald, who is the Warrriors' bowling coach, saw Richardson play in the Ryobi Cup and was hooked. "The thing that excited me about Kane was his death-bowling skills," Donald said. "He is completely left-field, he brings something completely new, and not a lot of people know about him."
Equally left-field was Morris, who was sold for $625,000 after having his base price set at $20,000. "I have never seen this much money in my life," he said. Apparently Morris was on the wishlists of more than one franchise on auction day. Donald believes Morris has a good "heavier ball", which, along with his pace and attitude, will serve him well.
According to Venky Mysore, Knight Riders' chief executive, his franchise could have happily returned empty-handed from the auction, but having perceived a couple of gaps in the side during their pre-auction analysis, they decided to bid for Senanayake, who Trevor Bayliss, Knight Riders' head coach, had watched play in the Big Bash League. Bayliss, who is also the coach of Sydney Sixers, hired Senanayake in the BBL first and recommended him to Mysore.
"He [Senanayake] is a very interesting mystery bowler. If you look at his stats, he has done a very good job in the shorter version of the game especially. He has the variations and he can bowl with the new ball, in the Powerplay, [and is] someone who batsmen have found difficult to counter." That was enough for Mysore to pay over half a million dollars for Senanayake.
Over the years Knight Riders have continued to be bold at auctions. In the 2011 auction, the first big one after 2008, they spent $4.5 million on buying Gautam Gambhir and Yusuf Pathan, and $1.1 million on Jacques Kallis - $5.6 million out of an auction purse of $9 million. Too many eggs in one basket, seemingly, but a year later, with the same core of players, Knight Riders won their first IPL crown.
Under Mysore the emphasis has been on keeping the squad lean. "Everybody has become conscious that player costs are going up and clearly it is not sustainable from a franchise point of view," he said. His biggest priority has been on getting value for money. Last year he released four Indian domestic players, including the left-arm seamer Jaydev Unadkat, who had been signed for $250,000. That money and the sum left over from the previous auction purse, was used to buy Senanayake this year.
In the first two seasons nearly all the franchises adopted the high-risk strategy of building teams around big names. "Everybody came bleary-eyed to the auction table," said an official who attended the first auction. "A few said they had done overnight mock auctions. However, nobody had a clue about how to distribute the money, how many Indians to buy, how many overseas players to buy, considering only four could play." The auction purse for the inaugural auction was $5 million per franchise. Except for Chennai Super Kings, Deccan Chargers and Rajasthan Royals, the rest of the franchises had icon players, who would be paid 15% more than the most expensive player they bought at the auction.
Those first player contracts were worth three years, and most franchises learned from their mistakes over that period. In 2009, Super Kings picked up a young George Bailey at his base price. He was playing for Tasmania and had yet to make his international debut, but former India selector VB Chandrasekhar, who was then with Super Kings, was tempted to try Bailey out, having watched his penchant for hitting sixes.
By 2011, only Chennai retained most of their original squad, as they believed they had invested a lot in these players and the returns had been fair. Knight Riders disbanded their entire set-up, bringing in a new coach, new captain, new players, and a new ethos. In 2008, Royal Challengers Bangalore resembled a Test squad full of old warhorses. Three years later, only one player, Virat Kohli, the first draft pick in 2008 as an Under-19 player, was retained.
Frugal does it
How much money did Rajasthan Royals, the inaugural IPL champions, spend at the first player auction? $3.6 million. And over the years the franchise has continued to remain the most parsimonious.
"People are not spending stupid money, as in the past auctions. They are now going for high-impact players," Raghu Iyer, the Royals' CEO, explained. For Iyer and his team the strategy at the auction is to "outthink the opposition". The franchise spent $6.2 million (out of the available purse of $9m) in 2011, $1.1m (out of $2m) in 2012, and $630,000 ($1.5m) at this year's auction, where they bought three players.
Kings XI Punjab have also shown that being sparing with cash can be an effective way of making profits while retaining a healthy position on the points table. In the 2011 auction, Rajasthan Royals spent $6.2 million and Kings XI $6.9 million; the other seven franchises each spent more than $8 million of their $9 million.
Aravinder Singh, the CEO of Kings XI, said being cautious has not hurt the franchise. This year the side bought only two players: Indian fast bowler Manpreet Gony ($500,000) and Australian batsman Luke Pomersbach ($350,000). "In 2012 we missed the playoff by just one win. We won against both KKR and Chennai, the finalists last year. Chennai has not beaten us in two years; in 2012 they lost both home and away games. We beat KKR in Kolkata. So it is not that we are lacking anything by not spending big money."
In 2011, Kings XI purchased Abhishek Nayar, a quality Indian alllrounder, for $800,000. "Michael Bevan, our coach then, wanted a quality left-handed Indian batsman. So we got Nayar. Unfortunately it did not click, so we released him, thinking it is better to try somebody else," Aravinder says. Punjab played the uncapped pair of Siddarth Chitnis and Gurkeerat Mann, who were paid about $18,000 apiece and who, Aravinder said, fit in nicely.
"Over a period of time we have realised that names are not as important as much as the value a particular player brings in the specific role that you are looking for him to perform," he said.
Iyer said it is not business but cricket that drives the decision-making. "We firmly believe that the squad we pick has the ingredients to win the IPL. Our aim is to win consistently. Over the five years our win percentage is pretty healthy."
Apart from saving money at the auctions, Rajasthan Royals have been smart traders. "For a league to be healthy, trading should exist," Iyer said. In 2011 the franchise bought Ross Taylor, the New Zealand batsman, for $1m, and before the 2012 tournament they sold him for $2.3m to Delhi Daredevils. "We had discussions with Taylor and spoke to him about him not having the kind of impact we thought he could have had." They got Owais Shah as a replacement for his base price, $200,000. Kings XI too, showed a similar eye for a deal when they sold Dinesh Karthik for more than $1 million to Mumbai last year.
There may be no major trends in the auction game so far, and ego and adrenaline can overpower the best-laid plans, but on the whole franchises are getting smarter with experience.
"The IPL is a very young league and it will take some more years to stabilise," Sekar said. "Owners have become prudent compared to 2008, but it can still get better."