Indian Premier League (IPL) is the biggest stage in Twenty20 (T20) cricket, some would argue in all of cricket. Indeed, if money is the prime consideration, the stakes don't get any higher.
What makes IPL unique as a sporting contest is the auctions that precede it. It is almost like an IPL final before the actual IPL final. Teams that pick their players wisely will have the best chance of doing well in the season. Teams that don't go after the right players or get the right combination may not have a chance to redeem themselves. Remember RCB from last year? Virat Kohli tried every possible combination at his disposal, but just couldn't get the team balance right. An IPL team captain has to play with the cards he has at his disposal. If he doesn't hold enough trump cards, then the whole season may become an agonising attempt of hoping against hope that something will work.
This year, before the all-important auction, teams will get a chance to hold on to some of their trump cards and let go of others. As Kenny Rogers sang, "You got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em", deciding which players to keep and which to let go may be the difference between having a memorable or a forgettable IPL, 2018.
The nitty-gritty of how pre-auction retention and Right to Match (RTM) card work were explained a few weeks back by BCCI. Simply put, teams can retain a maximum of five players per team, out of which a maximum of three can be capped Indian players, a maximum of two can be uncapped Indian players, and a maximum of two can be overseas players. The players retained (a maximum of three) by a team will not go into the auction pool. Teams will get a second chance at holding on to a player on their 2017 roster (2015 for Rajasthan Royals and Chennai Super Kings) by using a RTM card (a maximum of three) during the auction.
IPL teams have over the years thrown in quite a few surprises with their choice of players and strategies, so it's not an easy task to guess which players each team is going to retain, but we are going to do precisely that. Let's put each team's thinking cap on and decide what could be the best way to use their retention options in 2018.
Rohit Sharma is an automatic choice. Captain of the team and the man who hit most sixes in international cricket in 2017, MI cannot risk letting any other team get near Rohit. Given the premium teams put on all-rounders, Hardik Pandya and Krunal Pandya, both could be retained. Krunal, being an uncapped player can be held back in the team for just Rs 3 crore.
Keiron Pollard and Jasprit Bumrah could both fetch a high price in the auction, but MI will be keen on using their RTM cards on them. The bidding war may get interesting with other teams being aware that MI will be keen on holding back a key player, say someone like Pollard, at any cost and may try to raise the stakes just to force MI to spend more out of their purse.
DD have a few interesting choices to make. Perennial underachievers, the team found themselves in the bottom half of points table in 2017. They didn't have any Indian superstars in their team. Their batting was dominated by young Indian batsmen who haven't set the international stage on fire so far, yet they are all capped which means instead of paying a hefty Rs. 33 crore to retain three players, DD may be able to pick them at a much lower price in the auction itself. The only player they may be tempted to retain could be Rishabh Pant, who despite having an average domestic season this year, remains one of the biggest draws in the competition for his reputation as a clean hitter. Kagiso Rabada and Quinton de Kock could be the other candidates for retention for retention. Uncapped Shahbaz Nadeem is a handy T20 bowler, and DD may look to retain him either pre-auction or with an RTM card. One of Shreyas Iyer, Sanju Samson and Chris Morris might also book a place in the Delhi dressing room during auctions with an RTM card.
Kings XI Punjab
In a team dominated by overseas stars in 2017, choosing just two international players for retention may be tricky. Last year's captain Glenn Maxwell should be an automatic choice. England's T20 captain, Eoin Morgan could be available for a full season given England are only playing Test matches from March to May 2018. They may also be tempted to go for the all-rounder Marcus Stoinis who is a much-improved cricketer in the last year or so. Among Indian players, Axar Patel, Wriddhiman Saha and Sandeep Singh will be on their radar during auctions for using an RTM card.
Kolkata Knight Riders
KKR have managed to maintain their core group over the past few years and have been among the more successful teams in IPL. Gautam Gambhir has been Mr. KKR ever since he was picked up in 2011. He was their highest run-getter in 2017 and has been among the runs this year in the Ranji Trophy. KKR wouldn't want to part with their leader just yet and may retain him on the team roster first up. Chris Lynn and Sunil Narine could be the two international players retained. Manish Pandey, Kuldeep Yadav and Robin Uthappa will be the prime candidates for the other slots during the auction.
Royal Challengers Bangalore:
Virat Kohli, AB de Villiers, Chris Gayle. RCB may not think twice before writing these three names on the list for pre-auction retention. Three of the most prolific limited over batsmen of all time, they are also huge crowd pullers.
The crowd at Chinnaswamy stadium may feel cheated if these three aren't seen in an RCB jersey again next year. That leaves them with a choice of two Indian players for retention using RTM cards during auctions. One of them has to be India's first choice limited over spinner at the moment, Yuzvendra Chahal. The other pick is most likely to be Kedar Jadhav for his abilities as a finisher.
For SRH, the first two names pick themselves, David Warner and Shikhar Dhawan. The two attacking openers set the tone for the Sunrisers, and the team wouldn't want to enter 2018 without them. Uncapped all-rounder Vijay Shankar can be a handy third pick for pre-auction retention. Vijay has enjoyed a good season for Tamil Nadu and was picked in the Indian squad during the Test series against Sri Lanka, but couldn't get his first international cap. Afghanistan's leg-spinner Rashid Khan has been making waves around the world in the T20 format, and there can be a bidding war for him in the auction, but SRH will look to secure him with an RTM card. Bhuvneshwar Kumar is one of India's most versatile and skillful bowler these days, and he should also be an automatic choice for retention with an RTM card. The team may also keep a close eye on Yuvraj Singh during the auction. There have been question marks over his fitness, but he has worked hard over the past few months on getting back to peak fitness. He also remains a crowd puller for his larger than life image and his ability to clear the ropes.
Chennai Super Kings
The man they call 'Thala' or the leader in Chennai, MS Dhoni is the first name on CSK team sheet. His retention is a no-brainer. Suresh Raina isn't the same force he used to be, but he is still IPL's highest run-getter and a crowd favourite in Chennai, and should be the second candidate for retention.
Being an all-rounder and a brilliant fielder, Ravindra Jadeja should also be an automatic retention choice. The other two spots for retention during auction could go to Brendon McCullum and Dwayne Bravo. This, unfortunately, leaves out Chennai's local boy Ravichandran Ashwin, who I am sure still has a lot to offer in limited-overs cricket. The team management may surprise us though by picking Ashwin ahead of either McCullum or Bravo to retain the core of CSK.
A number of players that Royals may have wanted to retain from their 2015 squad were picked by teams other than Gujarat and Pune, and that leaves them with very few options for retention. Barring Steve Smith and Ajinkya Rahane, they have no obvious choices. The two may be their pre-auction retention not just as their premier batsmen but also as leadership core group. The players they may keep an eye on during the auction for using an RTM card could be Dhawal Kulkarni, Stuart Binny and James Faulkner.
In the end, it is also important to note that teams will have several players on their mind for the use of RTM card. During the auction, most teams will bid aggressively on core players they had in the previous seasons. So, for example, CSK may be the first team to bid for Dwayne Bravo and buy him outright. That would mean they will have room to pick someone like Washington Sundar with an RTM card at a lower price.