Apres the auction

In the Indian Express, Shailaja Bajpai is less than impressed with the way the IPL auction was covered by various television stations, and you can’t fault her for feeling as she does. Or rather, you can — fault her, that is, for a degree of naivete. After all, when was inventiveness and originality a pre-requisite for TV coverage? An Indian version of MasterChef? Simple, hire the priciest film-star you can, work on his back story to puff up his cooking credentials (“21 years ago, I created this dish in a Bangkok kitchen,” said the TV host du jour, blithely forgetting earlier versions of his own autobiography that had, in Horatio Alger style, had him talking of how he had been a waiter before being spotted for films), fill in the remaining two slots with “celebrity chefs” who can be trusted to keep their mouths shut and beam adoringly at the celebrity’s bursts of nonsense, and you are done. Player auctions? Fill your studio with talking heads, make all their mikes live so they can all talk at the same time and we can have our jollies deciphering who said what in response to who — and there you go, done. What’s Bajpai talking about graphics and legible name-boards and stuff for?

On Cricinfo the other day, Sharda Ugra was venting her angst on badly behaved team owners, and how mean they were to laugh while players were being brought up for auction, discarded, brought up again, discarded… You can’t fault her for feeling that way. Or rather, you can — I mean come on, you expect dignity, classy behavior, from a bunch of has-been film stars, sons or wives of the rich and famous, and businessmen used to treating their workers as soul-less commodities?

Elsewhere, I noticed Harsha Bhogle’s piece ‘decoding’ the auction. The title seduced me into thinking Harsha was going, in that piece, to address some concerns/questions that have been nagging at me ever since last weekend’s tamasha. As it turned out, not. For instance, on the question of uncapped players that has been creating a lot of heartburn among the cricket-following fraternity, Harsha says:

I suspect some of the heady pricing might have been contained if the uncapped players had been signed before the auction. But given that the IPL and the BCCI were in court till a day before the auction, that wasn’t possible, and that made things much more messy. And led to the mad, unfettered pursuit of players later. Young players are being yanked into one corner, then into another, with offers and incentives (in itself strange since they cannot legally be paid beyond the price points set up by the BCCI), and that cannot be good. The IPL has, necessarily, to resolve the issue of uncapped players, and to be honest, that might well be achieved if law courts cease to play the predominant role in Indian cricket.

Yes, well. Why was the BCCI in court till the day before the auction in the first place? Because the BCCI — or rather, one particular official — decided to arbitrarily axe two franchises from the tournament, in pursuit of some personal beef. Which is why I am not particularly impressed by that excuse — “They fucked up then, therefore it is understandable that they fuck up now” isn’t the best defense to mount, frankly.

In any case, I’ve been reading a lot of the commentary surrounding the IPL auction, hoping to find someone with the ability, the insight and the insider knowledge to answer a few of the questions that have been bugging me — without much success. So I’ll list those line items in seriatim — and hope to find the answers, or someone with the answers, at some point.

What precisely is the rationale between splitting players into capped and uncapped? Supplementary question: The IPL is a T20 tournament — what then is the logic in a rule that says a player who won a random Test or one day cap, either to make up the numbers or on a tour none of the top players were interested in going on, has a higher value than players with proven expertise in the format, and a track record in past editions of the competition, but who have been unfortunate in not finding favor with the national selectors? To underline that, why must a Manish Pandey, or an Ambati Rayudu, to cite just two instances, be devalued in the T20 format only because selectors in their wisdom didn’t give them visas to play against Zimbabwe in some other format?

Responding to various comments on his Twitter stream, Harsha recently commented that fans were trigger happy with criticism, but had not produced much by way of solutions, or alternative ways of doing this. So a brief pause from the questions, and a quick stab at an alternate:

Firstly, the IPL has 10 teams; each team needs to have seven Indian players in the XI. If you put up only 48 Indian players for auction, that is a 22-player deficit right there, and that is apt to inflate prices for these players artificially. (Think onion scarcity.) Who decided on that number and why? (Think traders who stand to gain by hiding supplies of onions, and thus artificially inflating prices). If the answer is, only 48 fitted the eligibility criterion, think again — “eligibility criterion” is not an absolute; it was decided by certain individuals; further, the rules were arbitrarily re-written between the last auction and this one, so the question still remains, why? In other words, the “eligibility criteria” were abruptly, arbitrarily, rewritten to create just this situation — so the question is, by whom, and why?

As opposed to that, how about if there was a system where the selectors, working with representatives of all franchises, drew up before the auction a master-list of the top 70, or 80, or 100, Indian players qualified and capable of doing well in the T20 format — and had all of them in the auction, without pointless segregation into “capped in a single Test, therefore worth premium in T20” and “great player in T20 but we couldn’t pick him for Tests so he is worth bupkis” categories?

In such a situation, franchises would bid for a Rayudu, a Pandey, a Chahar or whoever purely on the cricketing value they bring to their side — not on the basis of whether they had found favor with Krishnamachari Srikkanth or no. Also, since there are as many and more players to chose from as there are playing XI slots to fill, such a system would really level the playing field, permit franchises without properly defined catchment areas to ensure that they at least could field a decent first XI. The money that remains to them would be what they use to fill up their bench — and franchises would be on their mettle to go talent-spotting for real, not merely rushing to where the final of a national tournament is being played and signing up every bloke they find there.

So there’s your solution — what’s the downside here?

At first sight, this whole debate about ‘capped’ versus ‘uncapped’ could appear to be just so much hot air; fans and cricket journalists filling the narrative cracks between one match and the next. But to dismiss the question on those grounds is to omit one very real possibility — corruption.

Even the naivest, most Panglossian of cricket fans will admit — even aver — that selection at every level, from age-group cricket to state and, say this in hushed whispers, national — is rife with corruption. [Memory being what it is, maybe a reminder or two of the dozens of stories I could throw up is pertinent: Sharda Ugra on age-group selections; a blog post on a state level controversy; and just for fun, another post on the whole question of corruption itself).

So. Corruption exists. Why then is there no questions asked about whether this whole “capped player” business opens the door to the possibility of large-scale corruption? All a selector or selection committee now has to do is confer a cap on some random player. It comes in very handy that thanks to a BCCI rule introduced some years back, selectors no longer have to face the media and account for their picks. Even if questions were asked, the answers have been templated long ago. Ask why a player was picked completely out of the blue, the answer invariably is “We think he shows promise, and will benefit from traveling with the team and sharing the dressing room.’ Ask why a player with obvious credentials was not picked, the answer invariably is ‘He is still in the frame… we have our eye on him… his name came up for intense debate in our selection meeting… his chance will come soon…’ I’ve heard these words and phrases used time out of mind after selection meetings; you’ve read these words in countless reports of such meetings.

So — confer the cap and the questions be damned. With that one act, you ramp up the player’s “value” at the IPL auction by a factor of hundreds of thousands of dollars; is it beyond the bounds of probability that the grateful player on the receiving end of this valuable headgear, or his agent who has just discovered a golden fowl, rewards you with a certain percentage of that moolah? (Note: I am saying the possibility exists; I am not claiming it has happened, or is happening).

Is any of this improbable? Really? When money changes hands for players picked to represent the state — not a platform that offers up untold riches?

Questions abound; doubts proliferate — and answers, as always, whether you are discussing the way our cricket is run, or our country, are in short supply.

In passing, and referencing the Sharda Ugra column mentioned earlier, I’d tend personally to shrug off what appears to be boorish behavior by franchise owners and their reps — from such, I expect no less. I don’t find it so easy to shrug off the crassness of the BCCI, which casually “uncaps” a player who has done duty in national colors.

You can, if the rules you wrote on the back of tissue paper in some restaurant between the soup course and the entree dictate, refer to them as being ineligible for auction — but you cannot “uncap” a player who went through the grind and won the right to represent his country. A Sunil Gavaskar, a Bishen Bedi, a Prasanna, a Kapil — all of them remain “capped” players; winning the national cap was their greatest, proudest moment just as it was for an Aakash Chopra or a Hemang Badani (I mention these two because both, friends of long standing, brought up this question in chats on Twitter).

In “uncapping” them as off-handedly as it did, the BCCI showed itself incapable of appreciating the symbolism of the national cap. And that in my book is more unfortunate than a bunch of giggly Bollywood has-beens throwing sponge balls at one another while the auction was on.

The argument here would be that such a system, of degrading demoting players who haven’t turned out for the country in the past five years is necessary, because you just cannot equate a has-been player with a currently active one.

Really? Why?

You are a franchise; a player comes up for auction, you will bid based on your appreciation of the value he brings to your side, no? For instance, an Irfan Pathan who last played for India in February 2009 attracted top dollar because a franchise decided that it needed a player capable of bowling four good overs and getting 30, 40 quick runs from any position in the order. A Rahul Dravid, by contrast, with 150 Test caps to his name, was playing for the country the day before the auction (and don’t tell me Rahul hasn’t played ODIs in a long while; firstly, the BCCI hasn’t made that distinction when talking of “capped” players, and secondly, Rahul’s last ODI came after Irfan’s) — and yet, his home team did not want him; he was picked by a different franchise after bidding that, in comparison with less illustrious names, can only be called lukewarm. And in the final analysis, the “market forces” (we have been rabbiting on about how the IPL auction is an example of the functioning of the “free market economy”, so why not apply that thinking here?) determined that a Rahul’s value was less than half of an Irfan’s.

Why wouldn’t the same logic have worked when an Aakash Chopra came up for auction? Or a Hemang Badani? Or any of the many players of quality who haven’t been picked for national duty in the last five years, but are still performing at the domestic level?

So, bottom-line, it doesn’t matter one jot whether some BCCI mandarin caps or uncaps players at will — franchises will bid not on such arbitrary classifications but on their own perception of the player’s intrinsic worth. And all of that is why I will continue to believe — unless I hear convincing arguments to the contrary — that some of these rules crafted for the IPL auction were not for the stated reasons, but for other, ulterior motives.

PS: This is what the capped versus uncapped rule, coupled with the deliberately created scarcity of Indian players in the auction list, has led to. Did all of this happen by accident, or was it deliberately planned and implemented?

While Pandey, who was the first Indian to hit a century in the league, has upset Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) by keeping them in suspense over his joining them, another southern franchisee is arm-twisting a left-arm spinner and a flamboyant batsman, who can keep wickets, and with a strike rate of 144 in IPL 3.

Both the players have received an SMS from a senior Indian cricket board official, warning them of severe consequences if they negotiate with any other franchisee.

Southern franchise. Senior cricket board official. Pick up your pencil, connect the dots, muse over the resulting picture.

44 thoughts on “Apres the auction

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  3. Hey Prem, Why should there be a cut off on players who can join the auction. We know there are 200 spots ( at most) in the auction. Any Amar, Akbar and Anthony should be allowed to put their name in the fray (say for a small application fee to cover the cost of teams going through the hassle of evaluating the persons talent/background etc.) Each team can individually value a player they want and pick up the player in the appropriate round.

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