Sunday Anchor

Cricketers and their face value

In this May 13, 2014 photo, cricketer Yuvraj Singh obliges fan by giving autographs before the start of IPL 7 match, at Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bengaluru.  

On February 15, shortly after India’s 76-run triumph over Pakistan in the World Cup, Yuvraj Singh, the nation’s hero of the 2011 edition of the tournament, tweeted a link from the International Cricket Council’s (ICC) website: “WATCH: All the Highlights of Virat Kohli's Match Winning Century right here.”

That message showed that the baton for India’s impact player in One Day Internationals (ODI) had long passed. If it was Yuvraj who held it in the past, this was Kohli’s era. But Yuvraj wasn’t sitting smug on a rocking chair because as a cricketer he stays relevant, at least in the domestic level and also in that near-perfect fusion of cricket and commerce — the Indian Premier League (IPL).

The truth dawned through a screaming Rs. 16 crorehe earned the next day (February 16) at the IPL player auction in Bengaluru. An overjoyed Yuvraj promptly tweeted: “Namaste Delhi! @DelhiDaredevils enjoyed playing for Rcb but now look forward to play under a very special man called gaza! @Gary_Kirsten.”

The all-rounder was thrilled about his reunion with former Indian coach Kirsten, under whose watch the last World Cup was won, but the irony could not be missed. A cricketer deemed past his prime in the international arena, who failed to get a berth in the present Indian squad in the current World Cup, ended up with the highest bid.

It showed that the yardsticks that govern the game at the highest level are not relevant in the parallel universe of the IPL. A point drilled home emphatically when the first player on the block — South African Hashim Amla, a modern great — found no takers at his base price of rupees Rs. 2 crore.

Auctioneer Richard Madley called out Yuvraj’s name as the fifth among the marquee player’s list. Coming in at a base of Rs. 2 crore, the southpaw drew an initial response from the Rajasthan Royals and Kings XI Punjab before his value zoomed as Delhi Daredevils jumped into the fray. Daredevils’ enthusiasm could be justified to a certain extent, flush as it was with an available purse of Rs. 39.75 crore, but when Yuvraj’s former team Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) competed to wrest him back, it turned farcical.

The RCB, which coughed up Rs. 14 crore in the last auction to get Yuvraj, had released him recently as it needed the funds. But in a dramatic turnaround, the RCB competed with Daredevils till Rs. 15.5 crore and former-cricketer-turned-analyst Aakash Chopra wryly said: “Wish RCB had picked Yuvi because it would have been the most expensive buyback!”

The eyebrows raised over the money spent on Yuvraj seem justified as his form at the highest level, post his remarkable recovery from cancer in 2011, has been patchy. Since his comeback from the life-threatening ailment, Yuvraj scored 278 runs in ODIs at an average of 18.53 and 401 in Twenty20 Internationals at 30.84.

His last innings for India was a laboured 11 of 21 deliveries in the ICC World Twenty20 final against Sri Lanka at Dhaka during April 2014.

Since then, he has been relegated to the sidelines, grabbing the odd headline thanks to his YouWecan Foundation, a cancer charity organisation. In cricket, he scored 376 at 34.18 for the RCB in the last IPL season and is Punjab’s second highest run-getter this Ranji season with 671 at 55.91, inclusive of three centuries.

Overall it has been a mixed-bag for Yuvraj the cricketer, but for two successive years, he has forced team owners to virtually break the bank. Be it RCB then or Daredevils now, his allure is hard to explain though team officials have their own reasons. If the RCB’s quest for Yuvraj was prompted by its skipper Virat Kohli’s insistence on having his senior within the squad, Daredevils leant on its need to have a big Indian player.

Explaining the rationale of offering big-bucks to net Yuvraj, Daredevils CEO Hemant Dua said: “We wanted Yuvraj. But we didn’t expect the RCB to put him back into the auction and then go all out at 15. That was strange. But yeah, we definitely wanted him. He brings a lot of value to the team. He is hungry, he wants to play and had a good domestic season. We didn’t expect Yuvraj to go for that price. He is a very valuable asset, he brings in more than cricket, and he brings in charisma. He brings in a brand role to the team, and the sponsors will like that. We did lack some form of Icon player in our team, and I guess we have that now.”

It is not an enthusiasm that everybody shares and Ramanujam Sridhar, a seasoned brand analyst and communication consultant, who is the CEO of brand-comm, countered: “I strongly believe that the picking of Yuvraj, be it the RCB earlier or Daredevils now, is an irrational choice. Too much is being made up about him and honestly in terms of match-winning skills, in recent times players like James Faulkner or a Glenn Maxwell are far better. The thing is Daredevils, after releasing 13 players, were flush with cash, and they could afford to splurge. Now to the question of brands cashing in on Yuvraj’s appeal, even there I beg to differ. To be fair, he is not in the Virat Kohli league. Kohli has a personality now, Yuvraj lacks that and plus he is not doing too many endorsements like Kohli. Be it Yuvraj or even Dinesh Karthik [RCB, Rs. 10.5 crore], the prices they got just cannot be justified. I guess the need for Indian players has skewed their rates because you can only field four foreigners in the playing eleven and that could well be the reason for someone as talented as Aaron Finch [Australia] going for just Rs. 3.2 crore [to Mumbai Indians].”

If market forces or bulging wallets influenced bids for famous Indian players, the search for the mystery element forced Kolkata Knight Riders to shell out rupees Rs. 2.4 crore for the untested spinner K.C. Cariappa from Bengaluru. But the unkindest cut was reserved for the Amlas, the Kumar Sangakkaras and the Mahela Jayawardenes. No one showed an interest in these blue-chip cricketers and it just revealed the cold logic of the franchisees.

In the end, they look at someone who can hammer runs rapidly, quickly bowl four tight overs and field with alacrity. The beauty or flaw of Twenty20 is that its short span glosses over the errors and it levels the playing field between the great cricketer and the average one.

Compression leads to a lopsided equality and the result is that the money a player gains at the auction may not necessarily reflect his global standing; it only reveals the motives and wallets of team owners and if a few brands ride piggyback, so be it. Truly, like love and war, all is fair in the IPL auction!

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