As the IPL season kicks off, one frequently asked question is whether star players deserve their fat salaries. What persuades a team to shell out Rs 10 crore or splurge Rs 16 crore (almost 25% of the team budget) to hire one player? Is the star player expected to win four, maybe five, games off his own bat or has he been chosen keeping commerce in mind? Also, are players conscious of their freakish salaries and under serious pressure each time they take the field?
But upfront, one disclaimer: player wages are market driven where no favours are done. The auction process is transparent, impersonal. Before raising the paddle to express interest in a player, team owners carefully calculate the ‘value’ of the asset they seek to acquire. In basic terms, at least to start with, it’s a demand-supply situation. Foreign players come cheap because there are too many around, multiple options exist for different categories, and a team anyway can only field four in the playing eleven.
This leads to all kinds of imbalances. Take for example Kevin Pietersen, masterly player and match-winner, someone with the most international runs for England from 240 games, Tests and ODIs combined — he has since pulled out of the league. This season, he was bought by Sunrisers for Rs 2 crore. Compare this with the Rs 2.6 crore paid for young Mumbai batsman Shreyas Iyer, who has played 10 first-class games! Last year, Murali Vijay received Rs 5 crore against Rs 4 crore for Steve Smith. This season, Vijay at Rs 3 crore is almost at the same level as Aaron Finch (Rs 3.2 crore).
One reason prices of foreign players stay depressed is Indian fans adore their own stars. Such is the bhakti that even peripheral domestic players like Manoj Tiwary, Kedar Jadhav, Manan Vohra, Manish Pandey and Gurkeerat Mann matter. An unknown KC Cariappa (yet to play a first-class game) went for an astonishing Rs 2.4 crore but franchises rejected Hashim Amla, Kumar Sangakkara, Tillakaratne Dilshan, Mahela Jayawardene and Ross Taylor. It is argued that Amla is unsuited for T20 and the rest failed in the last IPL. While there is merit in that line of thinking, what explains the complete disinterest in Grant Elliott or Alex Hales?
All-rounders (or multi-skilled players) are of critical importance for team balance in T20 and hence command a premium, and if a genuine Indian all-rounder can be found, he would be priceless. Chennai apparently pays serious money to retain Ravindra Jadeja. Delhi once put almost Rs 10 crore on the table for Irfan Pathan but the market corrected itself and Irfan is now down to Rs 1.5 crore. Sri Lanka’s all-rounder captain Angelo Mathews was bought by Delhi for a stunning Rs 7.5 crore.
Given the protection granted by the IPL — through a rule that each starting eleven must feature seven Indians — domestic players will always fetch handsome prices, more so because there are just not enough good players around. Scarcity drives up prices but cricket ability, current form and recent performances matter in determining the market price.
Still, there is no shortage of odd, difficult to explain, player valuations. When Sehwag moved away from Delhi, he took a massive salary cut; his auction price of — 3.2 crore is ridiculously low compared to — 3 crore paid for Rishi Dhawan, — 5 crore for Robin Uthappa and — 2.8 crore for Manoj Tiwary. The question is: how does one explain Sehwag’s number in relation to Dinesh Karthik’s — 10.5 crores? Is Karthik a better cricket option or a bigger crowd-puller, or a more powerful star?
Occasionally, crazy prices are a result of auction dynamics where, once a bidding war starts, it is difficult to pull back. There is a temptation to stretch just that extra bit, especially if the player happens to be central to team balance and strategy. One such instance was Delhi and Bangalore fighting over Yuvraj which resulted in the bid closing at Rs 16 crore, the biggest ever pay cheque in IPL auction history!
Whether a player has ‘commercial’ value is also a consideration. Franchises in the IPL have learnt a lesson that they need an Indian ‘face’ to attract sponsorship, sell tickets and team jerseys.
While fat salaries are a huge bonus, the big pay cheque has its downside too. Players have realised there is ‘contract pressure’, a need to justify their high price tag. For representing India, Dhoni and Stuart Binny get paid equal wages but in IPL, as salaries vary from R10 lakh to R10 crore, there is added pressure to perform, and each failure adds to the stress. It is an unsaid expectation that the big boys need to deliver big.
There is also a growing understanding that beyond a point it is unreasonable to expect a high value player to win matches. After seven years of the IPL, it is difficult to name even seven expensive players who are proven match-winners. This shortlist has Chris Gayle (who turned RCB around), Sunil Narine (who remains a mystery after all these years) and Dhoni/Raina/Sehwag, but not many others.
Also, which players actually influence commerce and score at cricket’s box office? In the IPL, Tendulkar, Dhoni, Sehwag and Yuvraj sell tickets — but even here, the real king is Shah Rukh Khan!
The writer is advisor, sports ministry