The country's annual cricket carnival — the Indian Premier League (IPL) — is almost upon us and with the player auction slated to take place on 20 February, excitement is definitely in the air. Who would draw the highest bid, who would trigger a bidding frenzy, which franchise would be able to add substantial muscle to their squad, which of them would fail to do so? These are the questions that are doing the rounds as we approach D-Day in about a week's time in Bengaluru.
What characterised the IPL last season was that there was not a lot of difference in the strengths of the eight franchises. The focus was on getting players suited to team plan, and for specific positions, not so much on going after big names as a one-point agenda.
It was the reason some of the stars of world cricket, like Mahela Jayawardene, Michael Hussey, George Bailey, Darren Sammy, Martin Guptill, Brad Haddin and Manoj Tiwary went unsold. So somebody like KC Cariappa attracted Rs 80 lakh and Pawan Negi drew a massive Rs 8.5 crore as they fitted the scheme of their respective teams, while players like Jayawardene, Hussey and Tiwary were left in the cold, even though had done pretty well in the previous editions of the league, as the teams already had requirements addressed.
It was all about getting value for money, even if it meant choosing lesser known and utility players ahead of some of the established stars. That's the way it is in a franchise-based corporate enterprise, which the IPL essentially is, and that is what it will be this year too.
The Shah Rukh Khan-co-owned two-time champions Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) perhaps made the mistake of putting heart over mind when they made purchases before the inaugural edition of the IPL in 2008, going whole hog after pomp, packing their team with top foreign stars like Chris Gayle, Brendon McCullum, Ricky Ponting, Shoaib Akhtar, Umar Gul, Brad Hodge, Mohammad Hafeez and Ajantha Mendis, while they underspent on quality Indian players, with Sourav Ganguly and Ishant Sharma perhaps the only Indian players of note in the side at that time.
Ajit Agarkar and Aakash Chopra were not your archetypal T20 players, while Wriddhiman Saha was still an unknown quantity. The problem with KKR's strategy was you could play only four overseas players in the starting eleven. They had also to ensure that there was a balance between the various arms of the team.
KKR's philosophy in 2008 could perhaps be seen as an extension of that of their flamboyant co-owner, the Bollywood megastar, but it did not make for good business sense. And the results, as expected, were indifferent. KKR finished sixth in 2008 and last the next year, when the squad was more of less the same, while teams like Chennai Super Kings and Rajasthan Royals who had a good mix of foreign and Indian players excelled.
KKR's approach became more pragmatic over the years and it was only in 2011, with the coming in of Gautam Gambhir, Yusuf Pathan, Jacques Kallis, Brett Lee, Shakib Al Hasan, Manvinder Bisla and Laxmipathy Balaji that the team was rendered the balance that was lacking. The addition of mystery spinner Sunil Narine next year bolstered the attack, and the Gambhir-led side went on to win the title in 2012 and 2014.
The Kolkata franchise didn't need to make more than seven purchases in the auctions last year, as they had a pretty set team, but having retained only 14 players, they are expected to make some big purchases this year. They have the scope to double their squad strength, and also have Rs 19.75 crore of their purse remaining to be spent (they have already spent Rs 46.25 crore).
KKR, curiously, had released most of the players that they had bought last year, including Jason Holder, Colin Munro, John Hastings, Manan Sharma, R Sathish and Jayadev Unadkat. They have also importantly retained four overseas players, and can add five more to their squad.
The team was hit hard following the ban on their key all-rounder Andre Russell. The West Indian was banned for a year from all forms of cricket on account of a doping code violation earlier this month, which has left a huge gap in the KKR squad. Their focus now, therefore, would be to find a replacement for Russell, and the name that immediately comes to mind is the England all-rounder Ben Stokes.
The Englishman had been in fine form during the recently concluded tour of India, in all forms of the game. He scored 120 runs and took six wickets in the ODI series against India, and was the Man of the Match in the last match in Kolkata, which England won. With that he exorcised the ghosts of getting hit for four sixes in four balls in the last over of the World T20 final at the same Eden Gardens last year, and now Eden Gardens could be his home ground in the IPL. He had scored 46 runs and taken two wickets in the T20I series against India.
What Stokes can achieve is that he can double up as a pacer as well as a more than handy batsman. With Umesh Yadav and the rookie Ankit Rajpoot as the only pacers in the side, KKR would really be looking to fill up the void in this department. And with the tussle among the franchises expected to be stiff over Stokes, KKR would also target New Zealander Corey Anderson, who comes with similar a skill set, as an alternative for Stokes.
Sri Lanka's Angelo Mathews is another player in the same category that KKR may want to go for, though he has an expensive Rs 2 crore base price. They would also have eyes on Australian Mitchell Johnson and New Zealand's Trent Boult, released by Kings' XI Punjab and Sunrisers Hyderabad respectively, to shore up their pace bowling resources. They may also be interested in England's Chris Woakes and Tymal Mills, Australia's Pat Cummins and Kane Richardson and South Africa's Kyle Abbott and Kagiso Rabada if they don't get the other pacers mentioned.
They had released South Africa's Morne Morkel, who has had injury trouble, and are not likely to go after Dale Steyn, who has also been confronting injury problems of late. The Kolkata franchise would also like to add some Indian pacers as Umesh's partner to add a balance between Indian and overseas players. The main target here would be KKR old boy Ishant Sharma, who, however, may take away a substantial amount from KKR's purse, having listed himself at the highest base price of Rs 2 crore. If the franchise are to take in Stokes or Johnson, both of whom have the same Rs 2 crore base price, and if there is tough bidding for them, Ishant may be out of reach for KKR. The team would then have to make do with Varun Aaron, Rishi Dhawan or RP Singh.
The spin bowling is in good hands under Narine, Shakib Al Hasan, Piyush Chawla and Chinaman Kuldeep Yadav, and KKR may just want to add Karn Sharma as a back-up.
The batting also looks pretty settled with the likes of Gambhir, Pathan, Robin Uthappa, Suryakumar Yadav and Manish Pandey in the side. Adding Eoin Morgan, another former KKR player, would considerably beef up the batting. The England captain had been in sizzling form in the recently-concluded limited-overs series against India, scoring 173 runs in three ODIs, including a century, and 108 runs in three T20Is.
After that, he went on to score a 57-ball unbeaten 80 in the Pakistan Super League (PSL), helping his team Peshawar Zalmi to an easy win over Karachi Kings. Before the India series, he had been in fine touch in the Big Bash League (BBL), scoring 159 runs at 39.75 for Sydney Thunder. However, Morgan will also be an expensive buy, having listed his base price at Rs 2 crore. Hard-hitting Afghan batter and off-break bowler Mohammad Nabi may also be picked up by the Kolkata side and can be the utility player that Ryan Ten Doeschate was for the team.
Aditya Tare released by Sunrisers Hyderabad and Mahipal Lomror released by Delhi Daredevils, and former KKR man Manoj could be the Indian batsmen on the franchise's radar. Tare, additionally will provide a wicket-keeping option apart from Uthappa and Sheldon Jackson. The franchise may also be interested in Australia's George Bailey.
So, expect some big bang purchases by KKR, with a focus on the pace department and batting. The franchise's performance since 2011 have been pretty good, in which they have lifted the title twice and reached the play-offs on two other occasions. They would want to maintain that and for that they would need to spend wisely. If they can do that, and with the players that they already have, KKR can well be the team to beat in IPL 2017.