Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The over-priced, the steals, the toppers and the unsold

The dust is settled, the final hammer blow has fallen. IPL-4 will get underway with a whole lot of changes in personnel - some expected, some unexpected, some baffling, some daft, and some even inspired.

Of all the players who formed part of the auction, the ones who are likely to be the biggest talking points are the ones who fall in either of the following four categories: unsold heavyweights, over-priced players, under-priced 'steals', and the players who bagged the biggest pay-checks.

Over-priced players: Ravindra Jadeja fetched 950,000 USD, Johan Botha had the same, and Piyush Chawla walked away with 900,000 USD. A bit lower down the scale, Umesh Yadav had 750,000 USD, and Venugopal Rao had 700,000. None of these five are bad players, and all of them could form useful parts of their teams' armouries. However, only they or their immediate family, will feel that the prices they have got really justify what they bring to the table.

Every IPL auction throws up its share of players who seem grossly over-valued, and so far in its short history, none of the players who have fallen in that bracket have done anything to live up to their prices. Think Ishant Sharma, think Tyrone Henderson, think JP Duminy, think Mashrafe Mortaza. For their sake, hopefully Jadeja, Botha, Chawla, Yadav and Venugopal will have the kind of seasons that justify their price-tags. But don't bet on it.

The 'steals': The under-priced 'steals' are also a staple feature of every IPL auction, and this one had its fair share of them. For my money, the best bargains were Eoin Morgan for USD 325,000, Murali Karthik for USD 400,000 and Daniel Vettori for USD 550,000. Granted, the figures are not miniscule, but neither are they in the jaw-dropping category. Vettori's bowling, batting, fielding and leadership ability combined should have made him part of the millionaire club, but Bangalore bagged him for half the price. Eoin Morgan had an average IPL-3, but he can tranform a game in a matter of minutes. He can also keep wickets and Kolkata will feel fortunate in having got him for the price they did. Murali Karthik had the mortification of being unsold the first time around, and he was only snapped up by Pune at the end. He has been the forgotten man of Indian cricket, and was amongst the only consistently brilliant performers for the previously ill-fated Kolkata team, with an economy rate that was astounding in such a weak team. Given better support with the bowling, his bowling strike-rate is also sure to improve. Also important is his nationality: with so few quality Indian players to spread around in ten franchises, and each one having to field seven in the playing eleven, Karthik has even more value, given his proven quality.

The payday kings: Amongst those who breached the million-dollar mark, there were several expected names. All the big Indian players were certain to do it, and Gambhir, Yusuf Pathan, Robin uthappa, Rohit Sharma, Irfan Pathan, Yuvraj Singh and Saurabh Tiwary all fetched upwards of 1.5 million. Rohit Sharma and Robin Uthappa could be considered a tad over-valued after breaking the 2-million barrier, but the demand for proven quality Indian players was always going to be high. Gambhir and Yusuf Pathan were expected to be the biggest draws at the auction, and they didn't disappoint, though the amounts they got were beyond the most optimistic expectations. Amongst the foreigners, Dale Steyn, AB de Villiers, Cameron White, Jacques Kallis, Muttiah Muralitharan, Ross Taylor and Mahela Jayawardene are all quality match-winners and their high price tags are deserved. About the only one who seems out of place in the millionaire club is David Hussey, who has not exactly set the IPL alight with his exploits.

The Unsold heavyweights: The most prominent amongst the unsold players were Sourav Ganguly, Chris Gayle, Brian Lara, Graeme Swann, James Anderson and Tamim Iqbal. While Swann and Anderson have had stellar years with England, the franchises rather surprisingly, seemed either oblivious to their talents or didn't expect them to be available for large parts of the IPL season. Performance certainly cannot be a criteria for not selecting the duo. Tamim Iqbal's non-selection was the most baffling. At a base price of only USD 100,000 he was a steal. Playing for Bangladesh means he has always had to face attacks stronger than his team's and in spite of that, he has acquitted himself superbly. His swashbuckling game seems ideally suited to the shorter versions, and it was a pity that no franchise thought him worth an investment.

Chris Gayle's was the most shocking omission. Here is a player who can rival Virender Sehwag while batting, can chip in with overs and has refused to sign a contract with his national board, thus making him available to play in leagues such as the IPL. Why no franchise bid for him is likely to remain a mystery unless the question is put to them point blank. Reports seemed to suggest that franchises were worried about Gayle's availability, but if that were true, the franchises did some very careless research. And it beggars belief that all the franchises could have skimped over the research and not taken Gayle. The case of his erstwhile captain, Brian Lara was more straightforward. Once a batsman without parallel, the fact that Lara hasn't played competitive cricket for a while and didn't perform with too much distinction in the defunct ICL coupled with his high base price, discouraged franchises.

Sourav Ganguly's omission did not fly in the face of cricketing logic, but it's likely to be the most controversial one. Keeping the controvery aside, from a cricketing stand-point, Ganguly's overall strike-rate during the last IPL - which was his best with the bat - was a very low 117.66 (run-rate - 7.06). He did score a lot of runs, but scoring runs is never independent of the speed of scoring in Twenty20 cricket, and having aged a year and being retired, it was always going to be tough for Ganguly to get picked. Moreover, he had raised his base price to the highest bracket of USD 400,000 and no franchise was willing to spend that much on what was at best a risky investement.

Even amongst the runs he made in 2010, against quality bowling attacks he found the going tough. In the initial match against Mumbai, he made 31 off 34 balls - snail's pace in T20 cricket, while in the return match, with Mumbai resting Zaheer, Harbhajan and Malinga, he made 42 off 36. Against the Bangalore attack of Steyn, Kallis, Kumble and co, he made 23 off 22 and 33 off 32. Against Chennai when they had Bollinger, Ashwin and Murali he made 10 off 12. The fact is, those kind of strike-rates at the top of the order will harm team's chances of victory, even if runs are scored.

Fans may feel emotional about his omission, but they must remember that it was not just one franchise that rejected him - all ten did. And if all ten did, they clearly thought that he was not worth the money that they would have to shell out for him.

A decade ago, Sourav Ganguly would have probably fetched more than Gautam Gambhir did at the auction. He wouldn't even have been in the auction - he'd have been retained with his franchise willing to pay him whatever it took. Today, he found no takers. Sad? Undoubtedly so. Unexpected? Not really.

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