IPL: Has obscene fees, auction culture sunk the cricketers’ voices?

The opportunistic move of a Hardik Pandya strengthens the owners’ call

KL Rahul during an IPL match (photo: LSG)
KL Rahul during an IPL match (photo: LSG)

Gautam Bhattacharyya

The ripples over the Lucknow Super Giants (LSG) owner’s fit of anger at his captain KL Rahul and head coach Justin Langer have not quite died away. While it’s a no-brainer that it is going to be the last season for KL with LSG ahead of the mega auction for 2025, there are now unconfirmed reports that he may hand over the reins to vice-captain Nicholas Pooran for their final two league games to focus on his batting.

Well, it sounds like an honourable exit on the face of it but it brings us back to a bigger question – has the word ‘player power’ then become irrelevant in the era of franchise sport in general, and IPL in particular? The significance of the emotional outburst of Sanjiv Goenka, a celebrity industrialist who also owns the successful football club Mohun Bagan Super Giant, goes far beyond being an isolated incident and begs the question of whether the players are also in a way - responsible for being taken for granted.

The Hardik Pandya trade-off to Mumbai Indians in November 2023 is still fresh in memory, which clearly shows that there is nothing money cannot buy in the private ownership-driven model of IPL. In what has been the most controversial trade-off in the history of the league, the allrounder moved from Gujarat Titans ostensibly at his official price tag of Rs 15 crores and an ‘undisclosed’ transfer fee – though it’s a poorly kept secret that the cricketer had actually received manifold that amount along with a captaincy clause.

‘’It’s the owner’s call...they spend the money,’’ commented Ravi Shastri on the change of captaincy that followed and this, in essence, has been the template of the IPL. Unlike the Big Bash League (BBL) or The Hundred which are owned by Cricket Australia and England & Wales Cricket Board (ECB), respectively as of date, the IPL teams have been sold to the highest private owners and it’s the richest T20 league by a long chalk – it’s prize money much higher than that of the T20 World Cup.

It’s hence a risk-reward scenario for the professional cricketers and the direction that the game may take in the future, where owners take the final call on a cricketer’s worthiness. Just ponder over the composition of the think tanks of teams at the auction tables these days – it’s a motley crowd of some cricketing legends as a coaching staff, high-ranking officials and the second generation owners. The price tag of Rahul, a top-drawer international cricketer, had been Rs 17 crores annually in the three-year cycle till the other day as he had guided the team to two back-to-back playoffs.

When the IPL got underway in 2008, the concept of players being put up for auction was sniggered upon a fair bit till it took a life of it’s own and has become an anticipated media event. It’s the great cricketers’ bazaar these days – where conspicuous consumptions like Mitchell Starc or Pat Cummins can fetch obscene bids.

It’s only natural that the commodification of players is complete with owners’ call ruling the roost. Who cares about the players’ voices under such circumstances?

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