It’s that time of the year again when the eight Indian Premier League (IPL) franchises engage in an intense bidding war for the best players ahead of the cash-rich Twenty20 extravaganza. But the 2021 auction will be a relatively quiet affair.

When the top brass of the franchises meet in a plush Chennai hotel on Thursday afternoon, they will not only have to keep Covid-19 protocols in mind but will also play it smart in terms of making the right choice. They have limited purses, and of the 291 players who will go under the hammer - after England pacer Mark Wood pulled out of the auction - a maximum of 61 players only can be accommodated.

While most teams have retained their core, franchises like Punjab Kings (the rebranded Kings XI Punjab), Chennai Super Kings and Rajasthan Royals have plenty to play for.

IPL Auction 2021 Live Streaming: When, where and how to watch, Full Players List, Teams - all you need to know

IPL 2021 auction: Players retained, purse and slots available with each team

With the largest purse of ₹53.2 crores, the Punjab outfit has nine slots to fill, five of those for overseas players. The Anil Kumble-coached team will need to make the right choice in picking a suitable all-rounder. It invested heavily in Glenn Maxwell last season, but that choice boomeranged as the Australian had a pale season. This year, it has quite a few options available, such as Shakib Al Hasan – who returns to the pool after serving a one-year suspension – and Dawid Malan.

Even though it had quite a few big names in its ranks, Kings XI struggled in the spin department in 2020, with the young Ravi Bishnoi not receiving enough support. So, the question this time is, with the seasoned Harbhajan Singh available, although at a high base price of ₹2 crores, will the franchise opt for him?

The pace factor

While Punjab will be hoping to get things in place, the Royals too have some thinking to do. After releasing Steve Smith, the Jaipur franchise named Sanju Samson captain and now needs to sincerely address the deficiencies in its bowling department. The team had faltered last season despite the presence of top overseas players, mainly because of a toothless Indian bowling attack.

“We certainly are looking to add further strength and depth to the team’s pace attack and ensure we build the best possible squad for the season,” said Jake Lush McCrum, Rajasthan Royals chief operating officer. “We’ve retained a core group of quality players with a good mix of youth and international experience around which our squad is going to be built for the upcoming season. We do have a few key slots in mind for the auctions and have our targets aimed to fill those positions, for which we will be targeting both lesser-known talent and established players.”

Shahrukh to Azharuddeen: Six uncapped players who can strike big at IPL 2021 auction

IPL 2021 auction: Six overseas players who can trigger a bidding war

IPL 2021: Kings XI Punjab to change its name to Punjab Kings

With nine spots to be filled, the Royals need to pick some solid Indian batsmen who will be able to hold the fort in the middle overs, especially with Robin Uthappa traded to Chennai Super Kings. It’s a slot where a Kedar Jadhav could fit in, or, for that matter, Umesh Yadav, who could streamline the pace department alongside Jofra Archer and Ben Stokes.

Royal Challengers Bangalore has 11 slots to fill and will need to do some smart bidding, and the Kolkata Knight Riders franchise, which has ₹10.75 crores in its purse, would like to add a bit of variety to its bowling department. While Mumbai Indians (with ₹15.35 crore left in its purse), Delhi Capitals and Sunrisers Hyderabad will look to tighten some loose ends, all the focus will be on Chennai Super Kings.

CSK has always shown a preference for experience over youth, but after the side’s dismal showing last year, when it failed to qualify for the playoffs for the first time in the tournament’s history, a regrouping seems essential. “MS (Dhoni) and the team management have plans in place, and the franchise will have to ensure that it covers all the areas that need attention,” said a person familiar with the matter, indicating that the Super Kings could go big on a hard-hitter – a position that has been vacant for a while.

IPL Auction 2021: Full list of West Indies players in auction pool, base price, former teams

IPL Auction 2021: Full list of England players in auction pool, base price, former teams

IPL Auction 2021: Full list of Australian players in auction pool, base price, former teams  

Young guns

This being a rather smaller auction, a few big names may not even find takers. But there is a strong buzz that uncapped Indian players could set the stage on fire, with Kerala’s Mohammed Azharuddeen, Tamil Nadu’s Shahrukh Khan, Baroda’s Vishnu Solanki, Bengal’s Akash Deep and Jammu and Kashmir’s Mujtaba Yousuf in contention.

“The best part is that most of the players have a very low base price, so that could eventually help them earn lucrative contracts. The franchises desperately need good talents who can emerge as potential match-winners,” said one franchise boss.