Big stars and big bucks

Kevin Pietersen and Andrew Flintoff... big disappointments of IPL 2.-K. R. DEEPAK

The buying strategies of team owners now appear a lot more prudent than they did in the first two IPL seasons, writes Karthik Krishnaswamy.

Kevin Pietersen: $1.55 million. Andrew Flintoff: $1.55 million. The sound of a sweetly-timed drive? Priceless.

There are some things money can’t buy, like form. The two most expensive players in the Indian Premier League’s 2009 edition were also its most abject performers. Pietersen averaged 15.50 with the bat in six games for Royal Challengers Bangalore, and Andrew Flintoff 52.50 with the ball, giving away nearly 10 runs an over, in three matches for Chennai Super Kings.

Yuvraj Singh, Punjab’s icon player, and therefore the franchise’s most expensive at over $1 million, has had two unconvincing IPL seasons, averaging under 30 in both editions, with only three fifties in 28 innings. Delhi icon Virender Sehwag, worth over $800,000, has had a mixed bag so far, with a good 2008 campaign followed by an abject 2009.

It can even be argued that M. S. Dhoni, 2008’s record signing, hasn’t — despite his healthy batting average in both seasons — managed to change enough games to justify his $1.5 million price tag.

Not yet, anyway. For all the short-termism that Twenty20 engenders, it should be remembered that all these players will, for the foreseeable future, remain with their franchises, and still have time to beef up their IPL records.

That’s if they remain fit. Let’s compare these buys to a couple of high-profile football transfers.

Chennai can justify the price it paid for Dhoni using the same principle underpinning Manchester United’s purchase of Rio Ferdinand from Leeds in 2002, for the then British record price of £29.1 million. At the time, some may have thought the price excessive, but few doubted the quality and stability he’d bring to United’s back four. Had United not been prepared to pay as much, another club might have. Likewise, Chennai had to raise its bid as high as it did to shut Mumbai out of the equation. In time, Ferdinand became a vital member of the United team that won three Premier League titles on the bounce. Chennai will beam joyously even if Dhoni manages half that contribution.

Flintoff’s case is different, comparable to that of another United signing, Owen Hargreaves. Both are all-rounders — Hargreaves can play in central midfield, at right-back, and occasionally on the right-wing — but injury has torn great chunks out of both their careers. United and Chennai took the same sort of risk in paying, respectively, £17 million for Hargreaves and $1.5 million for Flintoff. Both players’ futures are in doubt as they struggle to recover from their latest injury crises. Flintoff, recovering from knee surgery, has already confirmed that he will not be part of the forthcoming IPL season.

But Flintoff, his body permitting, may yet have a brighter future in the IPL than Pietersen, simply because he’d be available throughout most IPL seasons thanks to his early retirement from Tests.

At the 2010 auction, team owners seemed to have their eye firmly on the international calendar, and thrust their hands into the deepest parts of their pockets only for those available for the entire IPL season.

“From what we have understood he wouldn’t be playing Test matches anymore and will play only ODIs and Twenty20 games,” said Jai Mehta, co-owner of Kolkata Knight Riders, following the purchase of New Zealand paceman Shane Bond, another early Test retiree due to injury concerns. “Yes, he has been prone to injuries but his coach said he is in pretty good shape.”

Good enough shape, like Flintoff, to run in and bowl flat-out for four overs a match.

The franchises ignored Graeme Swann, whose clever off spin and lower-order biffing would enthuse any Twenty20 side in the normal course of things, because he’d have missed games thanks to being away on England’s tour of Bangladesh. Even someone as revolutionary as Eoin Morgan, who gets his eye in not by playing in the ‘V’ but by reverse-sweeping, was purchased only upon confirming that the ECB wouldn’t suddenly hand him a Test debut in Chittagong or Mirpur.

“Yes, availability is a serious issue with all teams without doubt, and based on that the teams have formed strategies,” said Lalit Modi, IPL chairman and commissioner. “Eoin Morgan was not available 100% of the time earlier but, before the auction, he was released for the full time by the ECB and hence he was bought.”

The buying strategies of team owners now appear a lot more prudent than they did in the first two IPL seasons, when the dynamics of franchise cricket hadn’t yet revealed themselves fully — we saw, for instance, absurd sums spent on proto-stars like Ishant Sharma and Robin Uthappa, and a bizarre bidding war for Bangladesh seamer Mashrafe Mortaza.

A large part of this evolution is down to the business model of the league (based less on the EPL than people assume, and more on American sports leagues such as the NBA and the NFL) which fixes a spending cap on teams. If the initial reaction to this was to splurge on big names and fill in the gaps with bit-part players, team balance now seems a greater priority.

Were the restrictions to disappear, fully expect all caution to disappear as well, and, as in the freer market of English football, top teams will wallow in debts brought on by greed and hubris.