The IPL has always been about making a deafening noise. This weekend, the two-day player auction in Bengaluru will raise the volume by a few more decibels, with more than 150 players going under the hammer.
In the inaugural auction in 2008 the eight franchises spent USD 40 million to assemble their squads. A decade later the eight franchises will have spent close to USD 100 million to assemble squads. About USD 60 million will quite likely be spent over this weekend in addition to the USD 40 million the franchises have already spent on retaining 18 players.
Naturally the headlines will capture the millions spent and the millionaires that emerge. Yet it is not just about teams flashing their purses and indulging. The challenge for them, at least the ones that have already retained two or three players, is to spend wisely while trying to reassemble as best as they can their core group of players from past seasons.
Old core, new core
The aim for every franchise is to get a core group of eight to ten players in place and build the rest of the squad around them. Barring Kings XI Punjab, Rajasthan Royals and to an extent Delhi Daredevils, the other franchises, through retentions, will have half that core in place. But with player contracts lasting for the next three years (2020), is it worth investing in emerging talent rather than falling back on old hands who might be in their twilight years?
"Ideally you will say you want everybody," the head of a successful franchise said. "But you will aim to get about 10-11 players from the old group because you trust this group as they have played a role in winning matches and titles in some franchises' case."
A franchise analyst, who has sat at the auction table for a decade, said teams will need to balance the old and the new. "Some of the players will be from the old core and some you are looking forward. It does not really make sense for a franchise to invest in a young player who will be with you for three years and next auction somebody else will buy him."
'Highest-paid player will be an overseas player'
The best route for a franchise to retain one half of the core was through retentions. According to the rules a franchise can retain a maximum of five players with not more than two overseas players and three capped Indian players. The IPL reasoned that since it was an Indian domestic tournament the franchises should be allowed to retain as many Indian players as possible. Out of the 18 players the franchises have retained, 14 are Indian.
However, some of the franchises felt the retention rule was restrictive. The franchise head said the retention rule could actually harm the Indian players as it could end up inflating the price of overseas players. "All the value players among the Indian lot have been retained," the CEO said. "What the IPL actually has done is this is going to drive the prices of the overseas players up because more teams are likely to chase fewer quality players."
The franchise head reasoned why he felt overseas players stand to gain the most from the retention cap. "If you are allowed eight overseas players, it is fair to say then that the franchise would be interested in retaining at least three (from the previous squad) if the players are worthy. Now due to the retention cap, you can only get the third overseas player by participating in a bid. Now if other franchises, too, are interested in that player, his worth is going to obviously go through the roof. The highest paid player after the auction will be an overseas player. I have no doubt in my mind. It might be a case including a retained player."
The right-to-match-card factor
The difference between this auction and the previous two big auctions - in 2011 and 2014 - is significant. In 2011 the right-to-match card did not exist. In 2014, teams were allowed to retain up to five players before the auction. Teams were allowed one right-to-match card in the auction if they retained between three and five players, two right-to-match cards if they retained one or two players, and three right-to-match cards if they did not retain anyone. This time, teams have only been allowed to retain a maximum of five players through a combination of retentions and right-to-match cards.
"The plus point in 2014 was it did not matter who you used the RTM for - it could be on an Indian or overseas player. This time that has also changed," the franchise head said.
The franchise head pointed out that teams would only look to use the right-to-match card if they really wanted a particular player. "If somebody tries to play the game of driving the price up deliberately you forego the RTM and look for another option."
MS Dhoni, who has been retained by Chennai Super Kings, said the franchise would need to leave aside "emotions" at the auction table and figure out whether it would fit its auction strategy to retain a particular player. Dhoni did say the Super Kings still believe in having as much "local flavour" as possible in the squad, and that R Ashwin would be on top of their wishlist. Ashwin is among the 16 marquee players who will kick off the auction.
Uncapped players in line for big bucks
A new challenge awaits franchise think-tanks, with potentially severe impact on their auction strategies. For the first time in an auction, the IPL has brought forward the bidding of uncapped players. Until last season uncapped players would go up for bidding on the second day, allowing franchises to demarcate their budgets smoothly. But with the success of players who made their names while uncapped, such as Jasprit Bumrah, the Pandya brothers, Shreyas Iyer and Sarfaraz Khan, the IPL felt alternating the sets of capped and uncapped players would provide an equal balance.
"It has never happened before, capped and uncapped alternating," a franchise CEO said. "So people have to think a lot and it is going to affect people's auction strategy majorly. The uncapped players will get some money and spoil the strategy. It was clear in the past where uncapped players came in later and you would keep some money for them. This time you need to balance it out."
The franchise analyst, though, has a different view. According to him bringing the uncapped players into the same pool as everyone else will benefit teams like Kolkata Knight Riders who have retained two overseas players and can retain three more Indian capped players through the right-to-match-card option.
"If KKR retain their core group along with the RTMs they are likely to get nine players (they will bid for four of their players from the previous group in addition to the retentions). Then they just need two good overseas players, which they will look for from the uncapped category which could come even cheaper."
Entertainers need to prove performance
One key factor the franchises are alert to are injuries to players. It does not matter then whether the player is a past great or an impact player. Two examples are Chris Lynn and Dwayne Bravo. Lynn, who has provided robust beginnings as an opener at Kolkata Knight Riders, and has one of the best strike rates in T20 cricket, missed the majority of the Big Bash League - he plays for Brisbane Heat - recovering from a calf injury.
In the last year Lynn has also undergone a significant shoulder reconstruction and, according to one franchise official, has begun using his weaker left arm to throw since he cannot throw with his right arm. Lynn is currently desperate to prove his fitness and get back to playing for Australia in the T20 tri-series also involving England and New Zealand. But team owners, the franchise official said, will be sceptical about shelling out big money for Lynn.
As for Bravo, he is playing the Big Bash League for Melbourne Renegades after a long recuperation form a hamstring reconstruction. Bravo is one of the best allrounders in the format along with countryman Kieron Pollard, but franchises are keeping an eye on the future. "When you are 34 and coming from such a serious injury teams will be careful not to push themselves too much since this is their livelihood," the franchise head said.
Then there is Chris Gayle, who has established himself in the IPL with breathtaking innings against all sorts of bowling, in front of full houses, without succumbing to pressure. However, Gayle's age and fitness remain concerns despite his stature. Gayle can possibly still fill stadiums. But will a franchise buy him for just that fact? Not really. "The job of the player is to combine with the team to win matches," the franchise head said. "The reason Gayle attracts crowds is because he entertains and then he wins matches."
The moment you stop performing, entertainment has no value.
'Raising a paddle does not require a genius'
Ultimately the best franchises are those that make smart buys without splurging too much on their bids. In 2014, the last big auction, the purse available to franchises was INR 60 crore (USD 9.4 million approx). This year it is INR 80 crore (USD 12.6 million approx). So franchises have more money which could mean bigger buys and more spending.
However, a team director lays out a simple formula for how franchises would look at spending their purse, including retentions. "You spend INR 76 crore on about 15 players, which includes five retentions. The 15 will have about eight Indian players and seven from overseas. The remaining money you can buy different players for cheap."
IPL auctions have never followed a set pattern. The purest measure, the T20 form of a player, has never been the main determining factor while retaining or picking a player. Instead personality and spur-of-the-moment calls by owners have been dominant factors in decision-making at the auction table. "It needs a lot of hard work to identify a player and convert him into smart buy," the franchise head said. "There are many value players. That is where the skill is. Anyone can pay a top dollar. When you are sitting on a purse, raising a paddle does not require a genius. But you who you raise it for determines how smart you are."