How teams prepare for the IPL auction
Numbers, videos and homework
Preparation for the auction usually begins well before the event. While the entire squad has to be rebuilt during the big auction next year, franchises attempt to piece together missing jigsaws in smaller auctions, like the one on Monday.
M Lakshminarayanan, Gujarat Lions' performance analyst, believes only half the job is done at the auctions when the players are bought. A backroom staff comprising coaches, analysts and scouts has to crunch huge amounts of data and watch hours of player footage before zeroing in on who they want. "You need to have options A, B and C, as sometimes the players you want may be bought by other franchises," Lakshminarayanan says.
"If you do proper research and analysis, you end up filling 70-75% of the team. If you are looking for someone who will tick nine of the ten boxes but aren't able to get him, you must be prepared to pick someone who ticks seven. His industrial average [a combination of different parameters, like his average, strike rate, ability to handle pressure and boundary frequency] may only be 70, but you can get more out of him, extract 75 out of him. The 5% is a big achievement for the team."
Research on player statistics goes well beyond averages and strike rates. Lakshminarayanan, who worked with Chennai Super Kings from 2008 to 2015, says he places a lot of emphasis on parameters like boundary frequency, dot-ball percentage and pressure index
"At CSK, we picked Samuel Badree when most teams didn't pick overseas spinners. The reason was, he had an economy rate of around 6.45. From a pressure-index view, he was very good, as the pressure he created cushioned the bowler at the other end. In the IPL, there are generally three-four main bowlers, while the other two are targeted. So how a bowler helps his partner by building pressure at one end is something we look at before buying him."
In the case of batsmen, he says, even strike rates could at times be misleading, as often two good knocks against a weak side could inflate a player's figures. "When you need to gauge someone's boundary-hitting ability - an important attribute, especially when you need quick runs - you need to look at his boundary-frequency data from his previous matches. If a player's boundary frequency is two boundaries every five deliveries, he is very good. Only when you have two boundaries in an over you can reach an average total of 160, which has increasingly become easy to chase.
"Also, you need to look at the batsman's dot-ball percentage and how he does between overs seven and 15, during what we call the 'cooling period'.
"If I am looking at how someone fares in the slog, I will look at the best death bowlers in Ram Slam or BBL in different categories - right-arm and left-arm fast bowlers, offspinners and legspinners - and see how the batsman has done against those bowlers."
Lakshminarayanan points to Super Kings' acquisition of Ashish Nehra for Rs 2 crore (about US$300,000) in 2014 as an example of a player picked to execute a certain job. While he finished with eight wickets that year, he picked up 22 the following year at an economy rate of 7.24. "We knew he was a great choice as a death bowler. The data gave us a pretty good picture, and then we had videos. There were quite a few things going for him - left-arm bowler, wicket-taking bowler. But the main thing was his skills at the death.
"Mohit Sharma is another example of successful research. He had done well in the Ranji Trophy, but back then I am not sure how many people tracked Haryana's progress. We had also picked Ankit Rajpoot in 2013. Maybe to others, these might not have seemed great picks at that time, but it was a success story for us."
Monty Desai, a former Rajasthan Royals staffer who was Gujarat Lions performance coach last year, says it is important to validate statistics of players with what they see on the ground. "Just numbers aren't good enough. We need plenty of match-pressure footage to look at how these players respond to those mini events," he says. "Do they show fearless skills? Are they executing their skills when needed the most: after getting hit for six, did a bowler respond by executing the best possible yorker to create pressure back on the batsman?"
Over the years, scouting in the IPL has become an increasingly specialised exercise, as franchises look to snap up and nurture lesser-known domestic talent, or even rough diamonds. During the domestic season in India, you will invariably see John Wright or TA Sekhar at some ground scouting for Mumbai Indians and Delhi Daredevils respectively. Teams like Mumbai Indians, in fact, are known to send their scouts out to foreign leagues, like the CPL or the BBL.
Kiran More, the former India wicketkeeper and chairman of selectors, has scouted talent for a few years now for Mumbai Indians. He feels it is important to keep track of emerging talent throughout the year. "Any cricket you watch, Under-19 and U-16 also, you just keep your eye on a quality player and how he is going."
Desai says there were a lot of development camps done at Rajasthan Royals, to which they invited potential future buys. "This year, the Tamil Nadu Premier League [where Desai mentored inaugural champions Tuti Patriots] gave me a good close look at the skill sets available in the south."
Delhi Daredevils team analyst Panish Shetty, who has worked with Rajasthan Royals in the past, says scouts look at games in every format to spot talent. "It isn't only the Syed Mushtaq Ali T20 tournament that people see, but also the Ranji Trophy," he says. "We have seen over the past few years that a batsman who has a strong technique can survive in any form. Also, the local tournaments, like the DY Patil T20 tournament, are looked at."
Desai says the Ranji Trophy 2016-17 helped him make a decision on retaining former India U-19 star Ishan Kishan, who recently smashed a 36-ball 67 for East Zone against Central Zone in the Syed Mushtaq Ali tournament. "I am giving you an example of two young guns - Rishabh Pant and Ishan Kishan - hitting plenty of sixes in the Ranji Trophy. It stood out for me this year and helped me to give my view on helping retaining Ishan Kishan, who we are backing as a potential game-changer."
Dummy auctions are a minor yet important exercise in the lead-up to the auctions. Roughly speaking, they are a gathering of the team's officials, the key members of the coaching staff, and sometimes even the captain to replicate the rapid-fire nature of the real auctions. "It is certainly necessary to get a hang of the auction dynamics," a franchise official says. "A few years ago our coach, who was a foreigner and new to the IPL, suddenly panicked because he had no clue as to how to approach an auction."
Lakshminarayanan says these drills ensure you aren't surprised by anything that comes up at the auction; he looks at it as a question of building muscle memory. "It's just something you do to ensure you don't panic and get into the zone."
Such exercises also help teams prepare for last-minute changes, like the late withdrawal of Mitchell Starc this year.
Captains, coaches and team composition
A couple of stories that serve to illustrate the power vested in coaches and captains in some IPL franchises. One franchise had the opportunity of snapping up a leading West Indies allrounder for a throwaway price at an auction, but had to pass up the opportunity as a member of its coaching staff didn't share a good relationship with the player, who was eventually bought by Kolkata Knight Riders.
Another story goes that a south Indian franchise, egged on by its star captain and coach, was keen on going for broke for a leading Sri Lanka player. However, the player's middling T20 record, accentuated by his inability to hit sixes made the franchise's team of analysts feel he was not a good pick. According to one of the analysts, it took them a lot of convincing to get the team owner to plump for an uncapped overseas allrounder instead. To the analyst's relief, the second choice ended up playing a pivotal role in the team's run to the final.
Former IPL chief operating officer Sundar Raman, who currently works with Mumbai Indians' owners the Reliance Group, thinks teams mirror the styles of the captains and coaches. "Most of the teams have had stable captains for a very long time. Stable captains have obviously built in a certain amount of discipline in the process. They may have a wish list of players."
Ahead of the auction in 2015, Delhi Daredevils were reportedly under pressure from their sponsors to have a marquee Indian player as captain. It was an open secret that they would go all out for Yuvraj Singh, and they bought him for a record Rs 16 crore, staving off Royal Challengers Bangalore, who had paid Rs 14 crore for Yuvraj the previous year, in a hectic bidding war.
So the question remains: how much do business considerations or the owners' will influence auction decisions? A franchise official complained about the interference of the team's executive arm. "Sometimes these people tell the coaches which XI to pick," he says.
K Shanmugam, the CEO of Sunrisers Hyderabad, says while certain decisions pertaining to the auctions are made collectively, the team's coach, Tom Moody, and mentors, VVS Laxman and Muttiah Muralitharan, handle the cricket side of things. "This year we don't need to really break our heads to find out because we already have a set team in place. We probably might have just few places to be filled in. May be next year we have to really work on the strategies and how to go about," he says.
"We do definitely have meetings on uncapped players. Of course, we have mentors like Murali and Laxman who handle things day to day. They know who would be right, and coach Tom is there. Certain decisions are jointly taken with the management. Laxman, I am sure, is in touch with most of the cricketers and he follows cricket more than any of us do. Their inputs will be correct. In case we have to discuss something that is critical, or something where we feel we will have to take a joint call, then we sit and discuss."
Desai says, "At RR, over a period of time, we [coaching staff] were able to win certain battles. But look, everyone needs to respect difference of opinion," he says. "We try to challenge a few decisions from our research and experience.
"Also with trial and error, the fact is, we have also got a few decisions wrong, which I try to own up for. Shivil Kaushik last year was a classic case of risk taken for base price on my request, and I would like to believe his performances, especially in the semi-final against Hyderabad, convinced owners that such calls are also good business calls."
Raman feels owners don't make sentimental decisions. "I don't think any owner is interested in acquiring a player. Every owner is interested in winning the IPL," he says. "If buying a player is only going to help win the IPL, then there is a reason, but these are not discussions that are taken on the fly inside the auction. It is discussed, debated, the roles of individual assigned and the planning done much ahead before all this is entered into the auction room."
Shanmugam says there is a ballpark figure given to the coaching staff about how far they can go for each player. "We know what is required for the team and it is not about paying so much for the player. At the end of the day it should not become a situation where the player also feels that he is overpaid and he gets tense that he has to perform," he says.
Running the show
As COO of the IPL from its inception to 2015, Raman believes a structure has been put in place to make sure the auction follows a smooth pattern. "I think the interesting thing is we set the [system of] marquee [players], and then we have a flow which is starting with the batsman, wicketkeeper, allrounder, fast bowler, spin bowler etc," he says. "The sequence is maintained, which allows you to sort of prepare yourself from a team-composition standpoint also while you are in the auction. When the player-sets are being made, you make them based on multiple criteria: Test cap, ODI cap, T20 caps, current national players, captain of a national team, captain of a state team, number of franchises who have requested for them."
He says the entire process was simulated ahead of the day of the event. "We used to simulate how the auction will flow, how long it will last, what is the total purse that will be spent, how many players will be bought, the average player price, and who will be outlier players," he says.
"We know that this phase will be the slowish phase because we also need to time-manage the auction as it is a live broadcast. In the sequence of auction, for instance, between the first round of capped players and the first round of uncapped players, we believe there will be a bit of lull. There will be a lot of 'unsold' because people are giving 1:20 rather than 1:1 in terms of ratio of need to supply.
While he believes the processes put in place are stable, he admits that there is scope to enhance operational efficiency. "The timing of getting the uncapped players into the system [involves] actual contact. Maybe there are better ways to do it," he says. "Maybe you can say that anybody who has played Ranji Trophy for the state in this current reason automatically gets registered. You could circumvent the process of paperwork and documentation by sending them an e-link. Who knows one day in the future there may be an e-auction?"
Arun Venugopal is a correspondent at ESPNcricinfo. Gaurav Sundararaman is a senior stats analyst at ESPNcricinfo