On top of the charts

R. V. MOORTHY

Dhoni, the leader, has shaped Dhoni the batsman, and made him the force he is in Indian cricket now. He’s an icon with all its perks and perils, writes Nandita Sridhar.

As fragile egos went under the hammer on the IPL players’ auction day, M. S. Dhoni emerged unscathed, his price tagged at a million and a half. The day marked a certain simplification of cricket-watching. Accountability, henceforth, takes on a defined monetary form. Judging cricketers and reaching out for that inflammable effigy will not be a matter of speculation anymore, should performances merit a few thousands less.

The figures that made their way across the auction room were, even by the standards feared, startling. That Dhoni was the most valuable player wasn’t so much a surprise as the amount he went for. After Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid, Yuvraj Singh and Virender Sehwag were labelled icons, there were little doubts that Dhoni would be the prize catch; but at this price?

What makes India’s one-day captain worth as much as he is? Or are we over-reacting? Going by the obscene standards set on February 20, $1.5million for a proven leader who can walk the talk, alter the principles of batting, run like a manic sprinter, ’keep adeptly and sell hair cream, seems a steal. We’re not talking of SMS polls, but a business-driven decision.

“He’s a much sought after player, and we were prepared to go to any lengths to get him. His leadership qualities stand out more than his batting or his wicketkeeping skills. He’s someone who can help the younger players settle and can carry people around him, which is why he plays very well with youngsters. He tries to win,” former cricketer and national selector V. B. Chandrasekhar, who was part of the India Cements team that procured Dhoni, told Sportstar.

Judging purely on cricketing merit, Andrew Symonds is dynamite with the bat, a useful bowler and a livewire on the field.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

The 27-year-old’s transformation from a longhaired maverick with a virulent bat to someone who can compile laborious match-winning half centuries has lent a degree of malleability to his image. The Dhoni of yore had an appeal about him. Watching the boy from outside the metropolis decimate attacks and ply his trade on an international scale was thrilling. Back then, his methods lacked finesse, but they appealed.

Dhoni’s newfound sedentary ways have come from leadership. Dhoni, the leader, has shaped Dhoni the batsman, and made him the force he is in Indian cricket now. What’s more, the Chennai Super Kings’s surrogate icon keeps it all together with a steady head. He has rapidly grown from a small-town cricketer who satisfied the vicarious aspirations of his countrymen to meeting the demands of that hype-driven tag that often struggles with its identity. He’s an icon, with all its perks and perils.

The World Twenty20 champion team captain’s winning bid amount broke through all straps of control, as amounts went through the roof. The greater demand for Indian players was understandable. This was a league that would be played domestically, which meant Indians would be readily available.

The imbalances in acquiring foreign talent seemed glaring. Andrew Symonds went for $1.35million, while Glenn McGrath went for his base price. David Hussey’s nascent international career was fancied more than the Test credentials of his brother Michael. Ricky Ponting and Matthew Hayden, two current greats, went for relatively low amounts.

While factors such as form, availability, team balance and long-term interests were involved, the message that the inexplicable bidding patterns conveyed was the value attached to young multi-dimensional and marketable cricketers. Acquiring two or three skills for the price of one (and a little more) made business sense, but would it backfire?

“A lot of people who bid that day were not spontaneous. They came in with fixed ideas on exactly what players they wanted,” said Chandrasekhar.

The case of Symonds seemed the most curious; or was it? Judging purely on cricketing merit (a tough ask with Symonds), he’s dynamite with the bat, a useful bowler and a fielding livewire. But he isn’t well-liked. There’s no such publicity as negative publicity. A Symonds in the 20th century might have been a villain, but the 21st century allows him the fancy tag of anti-hero. Should he make it with CA’s blessings, he could be booed, or he could find cardboard cut-outs, depending on how he plays and how little he talks. Importantly, in this context, he will be noticed.

The parameters of measuring a player’s worth haven’t gone down well with all. “Auctioning players is terrible. Cricket has changed a lot, and has become commercialised. The game isn’t being played, it’s being abused. This will spell the end of the traditional forms of the game,” said former India spinner V. V. Kumar.

Former India captain Krish Srikkanth, whose son Anirudha will play for the Chennai Super Kings, wasn’t concerned with territorial infringement. “This is a good thing. The game is going to a different level now, and we will have to accept that. We’re in modern times, and changes happen. Twenty20 is different from Tests and ODIs, and it will not impact those two forms.”

All that would depend on the success or the failure of the IPL. How big will the tournament become? How far will it go? How much time will the cricketers spend playing the game and how much time will they spend being commercially viable to their paymasters? Will there be a balance? Is balance an issue at all? Will M. S. Dhoni — a genuine all-round talent supported by a strong market value and not vice-versa — be an exception?

“It will be interesting to see how things develop from here. Next year, for example, there’ll be a window for trading players, and a few other additions. The one thing that’s certain is that a lot of young Indian players will become hot property,” said Chandrasekhar.

Can the youngsters keep their heads?

What remains to be seen is if the IPL will change the definition of the modern-day cricketer and lead cricket to days when being marketable will not just be an advantage, but a compulsion.

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