If April, according to poet T.S. Elliot, is the cruellest month, February must be the kindest month for Indian cricketers.
Way back in 2008, it was a February 20 afternoon that changed the face of Indian cricket forever. That day, a plush South Mumbai hotel witnessed the first-ever auction of the Indian Premier League (IPL). Nearly fifteen years later, another auction day lent as big an impetus, this time for the women’s game. Eighty-seven players – 57 of them Indians – were picked for the inaugural edition of the Women’s Premier League (WPL).
At the Jio World Convention Centre in Mumbai, five franchises spent a whopping ₹59.50 crore to procure some of the biggest names in women’s cricket. There were some early jitters, a bit of initial hesitation in picking rookie talents, and even a few hasty decisions. But in the end, the five franchises – Mumbai Indians, Delhi Capitals, Gujarat Giants, Royal Challengers Bangalore and UP Warriorz – opted for a balanced squad.
Smriti Mandhana – the first player to go under the hammer – attracted an intense bidding war between Mumbai Indians and Royal Challengers Bangalore, with the latter eventually roping her in for a whopping ₹3.4 crore. That not only made Mandhana the most expensive pick at the auction but also gave Royal Challengers Bangalore an option to look at the India player as its potential captain.
Over the next seven hours, nine Indians became crorepatis, while Ashleigh Gardner became the biggest overseas buy (₹3.2 crore).
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But then, there were a few seasoned campaigners, such as India captain Harmanpreet Kaur and Australia’s Meg Lanning, whose valuations went haywire in auction dynamics. Mumbai Indians got Harmanpreet on board at ₹1.8 crore, whereas Delhi Capitals spent ₹1.1 crore to rope in Lanning, who not only adds value to the squad but also emerges as a front-runner for the captaincy job.
Of Aussie dominance and strange auction dynamics
Auctions dynamics could often be strange, and that was proven once again as 14 of 30 permissible overseas slots were filled by the Australians. Quite a few big names – Danie Wyatt, Suzie Bates, Sune Luus, Chamari Athapaththu and Katherine Sciver-Brunt – found no takers.
Similarly, among the Indians, Meghna Singh failed to attract bids, but Deepti Sharma and Jemimah Rodrigues were in hot demand. UP Warriorz went all out to get ‘local connect’ Deepti for ₹2.6 crore, and Delhi Capitals roped in Jemimah for ₹2.2 crore. Capitals also bolstered its batting department by picking up India’s U-19 World Cup-winning captain Shafali Verma at ₹2 crore.
It was a similar story for Pooja Vastrakar, who went to Mumbai Indians for ₹1.9 crore, and Renuka Singh Thakur and Yastika Bhatia – both of whom earned ₹1.5 crore each.
“Some have gone for higher bids, some lower than expected. That’s what auction is about. You are pretty much betting and guessing,” Mithali Raj, the mentor of the Gujarat outfit, said.
The initial trend of the auction indicated that apart from Royal Challengers Bangalore, which was perhaps the first franchise to recruit a talent scout in former India batter V. R. Vanitha back in September last year, none of the others came into the auction room with much of an idea about how things would pan out.
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Most teams relied on the data available, without actually having done its fair bit of research in terms of talent scouting. That, possibly, is the reason why most franchises settled for the tried and tested names at the beginning, rather than pinning hopes on the rookie talents.
And, Delhi Capitals co-owner Parth Jindal admitted that the franchises had to get everything in a real short time. “It’s extremely rushed. Everything happened very fast. Teams will assemble quickly and the matches are also nearly upon us in two weeks’ time. It’s new for me personally,” Jindal said.
“I am a follower of women’s cricket, but apart from Indian players and a couple of legendary players from other teams, I did not know many names. It’s as competitive, as tricky and some skill sets are different from the men’s league. You see more all-rounders here. I felt like a Standard X student trying to learn the entire year’s syllabus in the last nine days. It’s the same for everyone…”
Even BCCI secretary Jay Shah accepted that at one stage, it was difficult to imagine that there would be such a strong talent pool. “A few weeks ago, we became U-19 champions, we were also confused about how we will get into a 100-player pool. But, one of the most important aspects of the auction was that we got appropriate players and teams were also satisfied. That’s the biggest thing. Earlier, people were asking how you’d get a pool of players, so this auction is the answer to your question,” Shah said.
Focus on U-19 players
With a limited budget, which is far lesser than the men’s IPL, franchises had to pick a minimum of 15 and maximum of 18 players to form a squad. As the day progressed and the purse dried up, the focus eventually shifted to the U-19 players.
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After initially being apprehensive about the India U-19 players, franchises ended up picking nine of them – including Richa and Shafali – in their roster. Delhi Capitals got Titas Sadhu on board for ₹25 lakh, while Shweta Sehrawat went to the UP franchise for ₹40 lakh. But as the evening progressed and the purse dried up, the franchises – especially Mumbai Indians – made some last-minute U-19 picks. “This time, there was not much time. But hopefully, next time onwards, there will be more time and the teams will be able to scout more local, rookie talents and that will be a big thing for the youngsters,” former India captain and Mumbai Indians’ mentor Jhulan Goswami said.
In the absence of enough scientific data at the grassroots level, the franchise think-tanks relied on their experience and expertise to pick the talents. For instance, with Mithali and Nooshin Al Khadeer as its coaching staff, Gujarat Giants drew inspiration from the most successful domestic women’s side in the country – the Railways – and roped in the likes of Sneh Rana, Dayalan Hemalatha, S. Meghana and Sushma Verma.
It was a similar story for a few other franchises, who played the ‘local player’ card to tap the local, rookie talents.
The road ahead
But going forward, the BCCI plans to finalise the retention policy for the WPL in due course as the teams will have the option of signing the current set of players for three years. “The women’s FTP is not finalised yet. We are having 22 matches for now. The moment ICC finalises the FTP, we will decide on the future course of action. The current squads will be for the first three years, then it will be decided,” Jay Shah said.
Even a few months ago, the WPL seemed to be a promise on paper, but it took the BCCI barely a fortnight to put things in place. It managed to strike a huge media rights deal and then ensured that the best of the investors came in to procure the five franchises.
Though things happened quickly, there were apprehensions on whether there would be enough interest in the tournament. But with huge excitement among the cricketers and the fans, the WPL seems to be a success, even before the tournament begins.