The writing was probably on the wall when the eight Indian Premier League (IPL) franchises revealed their retention lists, in November. In January, the two new franchises drafted in six cricketers to meet their quota.
Of the 33 cricketers listed by the ten teams, 10 were overseas. Of the rest, Yashasvi Jaiswal, Abdul Samad, Umran Malik, Arshdeep Singh, and Ravi Bishnoi are yet to play for India. Mayank Agarwal, Prithvi Shaw, and Shubman Gill have played international cricket, but not T20Is.
Among the others, Venkatesh Iyer debuted after the 2021 IPL ended, and Varun Chakravarthy and Ruturaj Gaikwad in last year’s tour of Sri Lanka, where India put together what can barely be called a second-strength side between the two phases of last year’s IPL.
In other words, 11 out of 23 Indian cricketers guaranteed an IPL contract for 2022 had not played T20Is before the start of IPL 2021.
Contrast this with the mega auction of 2014. The eight franchises had, between them, retained 24 cricketers, 10 of whom were overseas. Of the remaining 14, only four – Manan Vohra, Stuart Binny, Sanju Samson, Ambati Rayudu – were yet to play T20Is for India. Of them, Rayudu had played ODIs.
The leap has been significant. And as we saw at the 2022 auctions, the franchises stuck to the same strategy.
The trend was evident from the onset of the auctions, when the marquee players – all priced at INR 2 crores – were announced. Shreyas Iyer, already touted as a potential expensive buy, earned a whopping INR 12.25 crores, more than six times his base price, from the Kolkata Knight Riders.
An outstanding Test series against India, and two excellent seasons in IPL 2019 and 2020, had probably helped the franchises overlook an ordinary 2021 when they bid for Kagiso Rabada. He went to Punjab Kings for 9.25 crores.
But Shreyas and Rabada remained the only two marquee cricketers to earn more than nine crores. Trent Boult and Shikhar Dhawan hit the eight-crore mark, but the others fell short. The second set featured Jason Roy, who went for his base price, and Suresh Raina and Steven Smith, who went unsold.
From the set that followed, Shakib Al Hasan went unsold too. The same set – of capped all-rounders – consisted of Harshal Patel and Nitish Rana, both of whom went for more than seven times their base price. Shreyas had a higher contract, but as a marquee cricketer, Shreyas was also expected to earn more.
With odd exceptions like Jofra Archer, several star cricketers ended up earning less than young, often uncapped, Indian cricketers. If Ishan Kishan became the most expensive purchase of the auctions (Mumbai Indians, 15.25 crores), Lucknow shelled out 10 crores for Avesh Khan, a whopping 50 times his base price of 20 lakhs. Rahul Tewatia, Shahrukh Khan, Rahul Tripathi, and Kartik Tyagi also got 20 times their base price or more.
At the same time, Amit Mishra and Piyush Chawla – the two Indians with the most IPL wickets – went unsold. Kolkata did not show interest in Eoin Morgan, who had led them to the IPL final a few months ago. Chennai paid 14 crores for Deepak Chahar (more than Mumbai did for Jasprit Bumrah, or Chennai themselves for MS Dhoni). They got back Ambati Rayudu, Robin Uthappa, Dwayne Bravo, but there was no place for Suresh Raina, the leading run-scorer in their history. Morgan and Raina went unsold.
The bids converging early for star cricketers and going a long way for lesser names are both counterintuitive strategies. Below are some examples.
What made the franchises think on these lines?
Less focus on top order
The retention (for Gujarat and Lucknow, draft) list for every franchise included a high-profile cricketer who batted in the top three, often at the top. Since retained cricketers are expensive, the franchises were reluctant to spend substantial money on another cricketer in the same slot.
Kishan’s selection was an aberration, not the rule. It also had to do with the fact that he is a special talent. To add to that, he is both Indian and a wicketkeeper, thereby helping the balance of the side on both counts.
The big names who fetched less money were mostly batters who typically feature in the top three. Middle-order hitters like Shahrukh Khan, Shimron Hetmyer, Nicholas Pooran, Liam Livingstone, Tim David, and Abhishek Sharma did fetch big bucks.
Given that the top three are often the leading run-scorers for any side, they usually end up becoming the biggest stars, particularly in a tournament like the IPL, where the Orange Cap is more celebrated than strike rates.
At some point, the focus had to shift to middle-order hitting. In 2022, building an innings is a redundant skill in T20 cricket.
Focus on seamers
The ‘surprise packages’ of the auctions have mostly been seamers, especially Indians. Shardul Thakur, Chahar, Prasidh Krishna, Avesh, Harshal, Shivam Mavi, Kartik Tyagi, the Under-19 stars, Raj Bawa and Rajvardhan Hangargekar, among others, bear testimony to that. There are also the retained fast bowlers – Mohammed Siraj, Anrich Nortje, Malik, Arshdeep.
Some of them are specialists at the death. Some have raw pace. Some can slog. But all of them are capable of bowling four overs of seam.
The list is not restricted to Indian seamers alone. Jason Holder, Lockie Ferguson, Josh Hazlewood, Mark Wood, Tymal Mills, Romario Shepherd are seamers with, just like their Indian counterparts, specific skills.
Focus on pace bowlers has resulted in a logical shift towards younger cricketers.
Spinners need a second skill
India produces spinners. Even at the highest level, the competition is intense. Given the trend at the 2022 mega auctions, it seems the franchises prefer spinners with a second skill. Ashwin, Chahal, Kuldeep Yadav, Mishra, and Chawla are among the five best spinners in IPL history, but two of them went unsold, while none of the other three fetched as much money as expected.
Contrast this with Axar Patel, Sunil Narine, Ravindra Jadeja, Moeen Ali, and Rashid Khan, all of whom were retained; or Washington Sundar and Harpreet Brar, who can bat; and you get the basic idea. Of course, there are counterexamples, like Bishnoi and Chakravarthy.
India won an Under-19 World Cup
The Under-19 cricketers were expected to cause a stir, for not only did they win the World Cup last month, but also demolished every side that crossed their path. If anything, BCCI’s rule of cricketers below 19 requiring to have played domestic cricket prevented some of them from getting contracts.
The likes of Hangargekar, Bawa, and Yash Dhull were expected to be picked. It was unfortunate that Dinesh Bana, a wicketkeeper who seems capable of playing shots without getting set, will have to wait.
The COVID-19 threat
The last two seasons of the IPL were impacted in different ways by COVID-19. In 2020, several cricketers had to spend months in lockdown when the season resumed. They looked rusty, and – as expected – looked better and better as the season continued.
Chennai featured several cricketers who had retired or made sporadic appearances in international cricket. They also had the highest average age of all franchises. They struggled more than in other seasons. It was perhaps not a coincidence that it is the only time they failed to qualify for playoffs.
As India reeled under the second wave of COVID-19 in 2021, several overseas cricketers were forced to opt out or leave India. The Indian cricketers generally stayed put. As the cloud of the pandemic still looms large, the franchises probably wanted to invest in cricketers who would stay back.
The last mega auction?
Speculations are that 2022 may be the last mega auction. If that is indeed the case, it only makes sense for teams to plan for longer than three years.
Abhishek Mukherjee is the Chief Editor at CricketNews and co-author of Sachin and Azhar at Cape Town.