The IPL doesn't need the best players to thrive, it only needs the biggest
Chris Morris was available for $70,000 yet fetched over $1million at the Indian Premier League auction. What is the reason for such reckless spending?
The IPL franchises’ shopping habits are among the competition’s most intriguing peculiarities and attempts to analyse them are generally pointless, because the process has as much to do with the satisfaction of vanity and cold, hard economics as it does cricket.
Morris is not one of the most valuable Twenty20 players in the world when it comes to his ability with bat and ball that is obvious.
So why did Delhi Daredevils fork out such an eye-watering sum for his services? And why do other, more in-form players - or simply better players - get cast aside?
It’s hard to know exactly who makes the decisions when it comes to recruitment for the eight teams involved. The coaches, like the players, are drafted in on short-term contracts - their loyalty to their respective franchises lasting no longer than the tournament itself before they return to their respective corners of the globe.
Each team has men who fulfil strategist roles - studying statistics in true Moneyball style and spitting out suggestions for players who might best fit their team’s ‘style’ - but much of their recruitment appears one-dimensional.
Much more importance appears to be given to previous IPL performances than current form, with the costly capture of Morris by Delhi a prime example.
Morris was amongst the most potent batsmen at IPL 2015 and is a handy change option for any bowling attack. His value increased ahead of the 2016 auction because of his displays a year previously. Little account was taken of his 12 months in between - a couple of useful knocks for South Africa and nothing hugely notable with the ball.
Delhi representative T.A. Sekar was hardly convincing when he tried to explain the Daredevils’ decision to spend around $1million on the all-rounder.
“We feel that he is a very good bowler who can bat a bit. He has been in good form,” said Sekar.
Morris averages just over 21 with the bat and has an economy rate of over 7.5 with the ball in all T20 matches over the course of his career. With four wickets against Afghanistan aside, he barely stole a column inch at the World T20 and with the exception of two flash-bang contributions with the bat in South Africa’s series win over England in February, he has not lit up the T20 scene in general for the best part of a year.
But Indian audiences and, perhaps most significantly, Indian franchise chiefs know him. When they see him they recognise a match winner just for his past heroics in the IPL. His association with past success is what drives his price up.
And that’s the thing with the IPL... as spectacular as it is; its scouting network is neither innovative nor expansive.
Foreign mercenaries are signed as much for business reasons as they are for their cricketing prowess. Big names are likely to prove more popular with the Indian crowds and TV executives than those rising stars that are making their names in the game.
World-renowned big-hitters can command big fees because they are marketable in their own right. It’s much easier, for instance, to sell Shane Watson to the Royal Challengers Bangalore faithful than Chris Jordan.
For all of Watson’s undeniable talent and impressive CV, the Australian all-rounder is one poor campaign away from being a part of cricket’s past. But he is a star name to any cricket fan. He adds value to the IPL’s product, without even bowling a ball or hitting a boundary.
And that is and may always be the problem for overseas players trying to break into the IPL - the old guard are always hired first.
Chris Gayle and Kevin Pietersen are likely to still be commanding seven-figure auction prices as they approach their 40th birthdays, regardless of whether or not they are still the most prolific batsmen in the format.
In fact, both men could have several meagre runs in the IPL and still continue to find themselves a franchise year on year. They’ve earned that right of course, thanks to a decade of extraordinary batting, but whether or not they will continue to add value to the competition - from a purely sporting perspective - remains to be seen.
When Usman Khawaja, who was simply irresistible during the Big Bash in the winter, cannot get an IPL contract and Dwayne Smith is picked up for $400,000, there’s something wrong. Particularly given Khawaja’s base price was less than half paid out for Smith. The Australian batsman, remember, hit two centuries and a fifty in four knocks during BBL6 and scored consistently at the World T20 - the two of the elite three tournaments in the shortest format, with the IPL being the third.
Smith, conversely, has been slapping bang-average Pakistan Super League attacks around Dubai for fun, a task he could manage with his eyes closed and one hand bound to his thighpad.
Martin Guptill didn’t get a look-in despite being able to hit a cricket ball further than anyone in the game, largely because he’s not been there and done it in India before.
Jordan has proven to be dynamic death bowling option for England but didn’t get a chance in the IPL.
One of the two new franchises in this year’s competition - Gujarat Lions - showed perfectly how names rather than form drives recruitment in the IPL.
Their list of foreign mercenaries includes Aaron Finch, Dale Steyn and Smith - superstars of the past turned headline acts of the present.
These are men who attract TV cameras, advertisers, sponsors and the general public. There’s no reason for franchises to scout deeper into T20 competitions to find the top talent because tournaments like the IPL do not need the best. They simply need the biggest.
The competition is not worse for teams choosing to fill up their roster in this way - the runs will still flow and the spectacle will be just as engrossing - but it does beg the question… is it as good as it could be