Monday, February 18, 2008

Franchises try team-building of a different kind

Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath will be pursued by franchises not just for their cricketing skills, but also for their attraction as potential brand ambassadors...

Over a crackling long-distance phone line, late Sunday night, the representative of a franchise in Indian Premier League made this confession: "There are still so many permutations and combinations to work out. Frankly, I am confused."

A couple of days before Wednesday morning's auction in Mumbai for some of the biggest names in world cricket, the IPL's eight franchises are working feverishly, round-the-clock. Tentative team lists are being prepared, strategy meetings are being scheduled at odd hours, 'sources' in rival camps are being tapped, former cricketers are being roped in to help the men in suits who own the eight franchises, even the four "icon" players are working the lines to get their favourites on board.

Some of this is because this is completely uncharted territory; some of it is due to the high stakes, and millions of dollars, involved. And some of it is down to the complex rules governing the auction and the signing of players.

The rules of team composition, in brief: there are four designated 'icons' who can only play for their home team [and who each will earn 15% more than the next-best paid player]; each franchise can have eight overseas players from the IPL pool of 85, four players from the local catchment area [specified for each franchise], four Under-22 players, and of course, the big-name Indian players in the pool.

Then there's a new twist: the Cricket Australia stipulation that each franchise can have no more than two Australians.

Even so, there is scope for flexibility, as one franchise representative explained: "You can play a maximum of four overseas players in the XI, and you can work around the other two categories by having four under-22 players from the catchment areas. Remember, the icon player can serve as a catchment area player, too."

Within this framework, auction blueprints that are slowly taking shape in corporate boardrooms across India.

"Four things are clear," one representative, who will be bidding at the auction, said. "Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly and Yuvraj Singh are not up for sale because they are the designated icons for their cities. The rules say that you have to spend a minimum of US$3.3 million at the auction but can't go above US$5 million. You can't take more than two current Australian players per team. And everybody wants Adam Gilchrist or Mahendra Singh Dhoni.

"The rest is up in the air," he said.

Not exactly - strategies are being firmed up, and in a way they reveal the different aims of the franchises. One team is planning to build a team of around 20 bottom-up - get the four best India Under-22 players to fill that mandatory quota, get the four best international players at the auction and fill in the middle from the remaining budget on Wednesday or look outside the IPL pool of 85 players, if necessary.

Another team, which does not have an icon player, will go for a couple of big names at the auction "just to bring in the crowd" and then focus on multi-skilled cricketers to get them through the tournament. Then there's one that will not go for big names at all if "the bids shoot up" and concentrate instead on winning the tournament by picking potential match-winners.

One franchise has already finalised its wishlist XI. "Ideally, my XI will have six multi-dimensional players, one wicketkeeper/batsman and four bowlers," the team representative said. "All of them, or at least nine or ten of them, would be top-notch fielders and quick runners between wickets. That's what I am looking for."

All of them want all the stars from their own area, at any cost: Bangalore wants Anil Kumble and Robin Uthappa, Mumbai Rohit Sharma and Ajit Agarkar, Delhi Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir, Hyderabad VVS Laxman, Chennai Dinesh Karthik

The biggest buzz though is about big names - the superstars who could be worth, as one representative said, anywhere from $600,000- 800,000.

Gilchrist rates high because he is a wicketkeeper-batsman with class and style - and because he is, effectively, a free agent following his retirement from cricket next month. Others of his ilk - Kumar Sangakkara, Mark Boucher and Brendon McCullum - also rate highly. The most-wanted batsmen include three current Australian players - Matthew Hayden, Ricky Ponting and Andrew Symonds - and Sanath Jayasuriya. The bowlers include Brett Lee, Glenn McGrath, Mohammed Asif, Mitchell Johnson and Shaun Pollock.

Among the Indian players, the list starts with Dhoni. "Oh, a lot of people will be gunning for Dhoni," a franchise representative said. "Apart from being a good keeper, he is an explosive match-winning option. Maybe Irfan Pathan, for his dual ability. Others include Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir and Robin Uthappa. And as for the other youngsters, Rohit Sharma might be a big thing, too."

The number of big names signed by a franchise may also be a pointer to its business plans. You may find them doing more work for their teams off the field, in ad campaigns. "That's why most teams are looking at four to five names with star value. There's more to this than just cricket," a senior official of the Indian board said.

"You may see more of these big names in teams backed by the bigger corporate houses like Reliance [Mumbai] or United Spirits [Bangalore]. For them, big names like [Shane] Warne or [Glenn] McGrath would be more useful on the brand-building front. You can have them promote your brands, hold coaching clinics under your name, appear on ads, whatever," he said.

A representative from the Bangalore franchise concurred. "I think four or five expensive players are needed for various reasons," he said. "For their abilities, for sure. The marquee name, for sure - you've got to fill seats in the stadium ... a lot of the spending will have to be understood as a very high-profile brand promotion for the company, gains that you can't really put your finger on in terms of money."

So there you have it. Big names or match-winners? Specialists or allrounders? Veterans with dodgy knees or youngsters with attitude? Finally, business or cricket?

As the IPL takes its first big step, all these questions distil into one wish, voiced by one franchise representative. "We just hope there's no confusion at the auction."