CRICKET

IPL 2016: The Day of the Unknown

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New players from nowhere are poised to shift the IPL balance of power

QUITE LATE INTO the proceedings, auctioneer Richard Madley raises his left hand to reveal an unknown name. With his glasses drawn to the edge of his nose, his voice booms through the speakers. “It is player number 171,” he says. “M Ashwin.” The date is 6 February at the ITC Gardenia hotel in Bengaluru, the venue for this year’s IPL player auctions. After months of apprehension—with two teams suspended, big cricket administrators cut to size, and two Supreme Court-appointed committees putting the BCCI to scrutiny—here we are back again, thick in this money-spinning jamboree.

By the time Murugan Ashwin’s name comes up, the fate of most big names in Indian and international cricket among the 351 players up for grabs have already been decided. One could be forgiven for thinking that the suspense and gasps of the bidding process was behind them.

The face that appears on the TV screen along with the bid— the lowest, at Rs 10 lakh—is that of a young man. If it weren’t for the faint hint of a moustache, one could even think he was just a boy. A paddle goes up from one of the two newest tables in the midst: Rising Pune Supergiants (RPS). There are two known faces occupying the table: Stephen Fleming, former coach of the now-suspended Chennai Super Kings (CSK), and Raghu Iyer, former CEO of the other suspended team, Rajasthan Royals (RR). As M Ashwin’s name comes up, Fleming consults a list of what is probably the names of players he wants for the new team.

Nearby, another paddle rises. Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) has upped the bid by another Rs 5 lakh.

RPS raises for Rs 20 lakh.

RCB goes for Rs 25 lakh.

“Thirty, 35, 40, 45, 50, 55, 60...,” the auctioneer tries to keep up with the quick duel of paddles. “Eighty, 85, 90, 95, 100 ...”

Vijay Mallya, the centrepiece at the RCB table buries his face in his cellphone, either hiding his nerves or looking up the player for whom his team is ready to shell out a crore.

M Ashwin is a 25-year-old legspinner from Tamil Nadu. He has taken just one wicket in three first-class matches; that too, three years ago. His best figures in a match read 1/176, hardly the stuff anyone would get excited over. He’s also played two List-A matches and taken only three wickets. As the TV camera pans from one table to another, there is a bewildered look on some faces.

But both Fleming and Daniel Vettori, RCB coach, know something the other teams perhaps haven’t given much consideration. Just before the auction—at a domestic Twenty20 competition, the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy—M Ashwin emerged as the second- highest wicket-taker for his state. He took 10 wickets in six matches for an economy rate of 5.52.

Fleming appears to glance at the RCB table. Mallya is looking up from his phone now, the bid having reached Rs 2.9 crore. Vettori is whispering something into Mallya’s ears, cupping his mouth as if to ensure no one can lip-read him. Fleming has been in several player auctions. He can probably tell when teams bluff to pressure opposition purse-strings. But, today, RCB looks serious. Fleming fidgets with his shirt. Iyer, his CEO, is tracing the edges of his moustache. Earlier in the day, Fleming lost the spinner Pawan Negi to Delhi Daredevils for Rs 8.5 crore. He’s in no mood to lose M Ashwin.

So it continues. From Rs 2.9 crore, to Rs 3 crore, to eventually RPS’s bid for Rs 4.5 crore.

A hush descends upon the room. Bewildered eyes turn to the RCB table, whose occupants are now huddled together in a deep conversation. Amrit Thomas, the current chairman of RCB, emerges from this huddle and traces an imaginary line as though he were slicing his neck. RCB, he is suggesting, is pulling out.

“Selling, selling, selling...” the auctioneer goes, “for 450 million” (Rs 4.5 crore). As the gavel sends out a big thud, there are smiles, laughs and contemplative silences across the tables. A bid of Rs 4.5 crore for a fledgling cricketer who has only played three first-class and two List A matches, despite his recent prowess in a tournament, sounds pretty crazy.

For much of IPL history, uncapped players—those who have never represented their country—could not be part of an auction. They could be purchased by IPL teams but for a maximum salary of Rs 30 lakh per season. The reasoning perhaps was that such players simply wouldn’t be much in demand. In 2014, however— after several murmurs of horse trading, where IPL teams were allegedly luring promising uncapped cricketers with under- the-table deals and perks began doing the rounds—the auction was opened up for them.

Last year, an odd thing happened at the auction. Shreyas Iyer, who had just begun to play for Mumbai, and KC Cariappa, a cricketer from Coorg who had never even played first-class cricket, were picked up for Rs 2.6 crore and Rs 2.4 crore respectively. The English star Kevin Pietersen, in comparison, went for only Rs 2 crore.

This year, this oddity became de rigeur. Big names went unpicked, while unheard of amounts were shelled out for unheralded youths. The likes of Martin Guptill, Hashim Amla, Darren Sammy, Mahela Jayawardene, Michael Hussey, and Usman Khawaja went unsold. Players like M Ashwin, Karun Nair (Rs 4 crore to Delhi Daredevils), Nathu Singh (Rs 3.2 crore to Mumbai Indians), none of whom has come close to playing for the country were aggressively fought for. Foreign players can be impact players. But the core, as the talk now goes, has to comprise of young Indian talents.

Talent scouts from IPL teams now spend much of the year identifying and backing such players. They go and watch small domestic matches; they network with head coaches and cricketers; and they exchange notes and track promising youngsters. Last year, for instance, a 35-year-old legspinner, Yogesh Golwalkar, who had last played for his state Madhya Pradesh in 2008, and then quit the game to pursue a career in corporate banking in the UK, was called for a trial for the Kings XI Punjab team based on videos of him bowling that he put up on YouTube. He was selected, although he didn’t get a game in that tournament.

“It is really here that the IPL is making a big difference,” says Anutosh Poll, CEO and manager of Hubli Tigers in the domestic Twenty20 tournament Karnataka Premier League, some of whose players have been picked by various IPL teams. “Talented cricketers who’ve never got much of a platform now have the opportunity to exhibit their skills.”

For several years, Shivil Kaushik, a 20-year-old left-arm spinner played only for his school and college. He never made it to a higher level or to any of the age-level state competitions. Then two years ago, he was identified as one of the top three under-19 spinners in a spin competition launched by the former cricketer Anil Kumble, who was intrigued enough to allow the youngster to join the Mumbai Indians squad for a month. But this did not lead to a selection the following year, as he had hoped.

What Kaushik does possess is an extremely unusual bowling action. With what appears to be sudden starts and stops in his run-up, by the time the ball pops out of his hand, his body is convulsing into what seems like an epileptic fit. When one watches Kaushik, one is reminded of Mike Gatting’s ‘frog in the blender’ comment about the South African chinaman Paul Adams’ bowling action. But unlike Adams, Kaushik is taller, around 6 foot one inch, and extremely accurate.

Last year, he played for Hubli Tigers in the Karnataka Premier League, the state Twenty20 cricket tournament. “Nobody could pick him,” Poll recalls while referring to the batsman who faced him. “He is so mysterious. He himself often doesn’t know which way his ball will turn.” In one game, Stuart Binny, who sometimes plays for the Indian team, got out on the first ball to Kaushik, unable to tell that the ball was spinning into his pads.

“The fact that he’s not played too much competitive cricket actually worked for him,” Poll explains. “That way no eager coach tried to change his action.”

During the course of the tournament, according to Kaushik, several IPL teams began to evince interest in him. He was also called for several IPL team trials. He was eventually picked by the new Gujarat Lions team. They didn’t field him in the first match, but as the tournament progresses, Poll claims, and perhaps as the need of a mystery spinner is felt, Kaushik could be launched.

IN THE SEMI-FINALS of the 2013 Champions League Twenty20, between Rajasthan Royals (RR) and Chennai Super Kings (CSK), the former is short by at least 15-20 runs, according to its captain Rahul Dravid. CSK needs just 119 from 14 overs to win, with most of their big hitters still to come. And then Pravin Tambe, a stout 41-year-old legspinner comes on. S Badrinath tries to heave the first ball of his second over. The ball whizzes past the bat, bounces off the wicketkeeper’s pad and onto the wicket. He’s been stumped. By his third over, the celebrated West Indian all-rounder DJ Bravo is having trouble working the ball around. He tries to push a ball to the leg side. But it is way skiddier than expected, and he is found to be LBW. Tambe has by now created such a web around CSK’s celebrated batsmen that something’s got to give. Suresh Raina tries to tonk him out of the park in his last over. All he can manage is a catch to mid-off. RR wins the match and Tambe is adjudged the man of the match. During that tournament, as RR progressed to the final, doing one giant-killer act after another, Tambe stood out. Rotund and double-chinned, the bowler who had not even played a first-class cricket match, sent down one skiddy leg-break after another, with the odd flipper that tricked the best of batsmen. Pravin Tambe, a bowler from Mumbai’s Mulund district, emerged as the highest wicket-taker in the tournament (taking 12 wickets in four matches), beating illustrious names like Sunil Narine and R Ashwin.

According to Monty Desai, then RR’s coach and talent scout currently employed with Gujarat Lions, it was Tambe’s performance that really opened the floodgates for lesser-known talents. “Franchises began to realise that you didn’t have to necessarily have played at the state and national level to make an impact,” he says. “There are many still to be unearthed. And [Tambe’s performance] made the system to go and look for such talent.”

Back in 2013, Desai and the RR management were looking to pick another more well-known legspinner for the team, only to realise that he had been signed by another franchise. The question that plagued the team’s then captain Rahul Dravid and the rest of the management was, who could be the next legspinner?

Desai, when he was younger, had played against Tambe in Mumbai. But while most cricketers, upon ageing, gravitated towards other aspects of the game, Tambe continued to toil in local tournaments. The feedback Desai always heard from batsmen in Mumbai was how tough it was to slog Tambe. “Well, there is this other one guy...” Desai recalls telling Dravid.

In the many years he spent at RR, Desai has played an instrumental role in discovering and nurturing less-known talents. The team unearthed, among others, Sanju Samson, Ravindra Jadeja, Stuart Binny, Karun Nair and Naman Ojha. In 2014, they benched one of their finds, Deepak Hooda, for an entire season so he could soak in the pressures of the tournament. When they launched him the next year, he was a revelation, changing the complexion of games within a few overs. Unsurprisingly, this year, he was picked up by Sunrisers Hyderabad for Rs 4.2 crore.

Every IPL team is now packed with uncapped talents. Mumbai Indians picked up Kishore Kamath, a 21-year-old legspinner who was spotted in the Karnataka Premier League, for Rs 1.4 crore, and Nathu Singh, a promising Rajasthan fast bowler whose father works as a labourer in a wire factory, for Rs 3.2 crore. Gujarat Lions bought Eklavya Dwivedi, who never got much of a chance when he was part of CSK and Pune Warriors for Rs 1 crore, and the 17-year-old Ishan Kishan for Rs 35 lakh. Delhi Daredevils, for instance, has dumped most of its star players and opted to build a team entirely on youngsters.

Earlier this year, Desai went to Wankhede stadium to watch a Twenty20 Syed Mustaq Ali Trophy match between Baroda and Mumbai. Tambe was one of Mumbai’s bowlers. In the opposite camp, were heavy hitters like Yusuf Pathan, Deepak Hooda and Hardik Pandya. With Tambe, now over 44 years of age, the question everyone seems to ask is how much longer he can play and at what intensity. That day, although Mumbai lost, Tambe took three wickets, including those of Pathan and Pandya.

Later, when Gujarat Lions was picking their squad, Desai had no hesitation zeroing in on a legspinner. “I had heard about many names in the domestic circuit,” he says. “But to me, on a good batting pitch, Tambe is still the most difficult legspinner to hit.”

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