That Ben Stokes is the most coveted overseas player in the Indian Premier League this season shouldn’t really have surprised anybody, though the price he was bought for (Rs14.5 crore) was quite extraordinary, even allowing for inflation.
Stokes is arguably the world’s premier all-rounder in all formats, but particularly so in Twenty20. He has great power and a wide range of strokes, fields brilliantly, but, most importantly, is a bowler effective with new ball and old.
Stokes can be real quick, which is an advantage if a bowler has control, as he does. Moreover, he also has clever variations in pace. This makes him invaluable in the “death” overs when batsmen are looking to play big shots.
The mauling Stokes got from Carlos Brathwaite in the final over of the Twenty20 World Cup final last year (he was hit for four sixes and England lost a match they looked like winning hands down) was treated as an aberration, sensibly, by Rising Pune Supergiants, which took the bid to a record high.
Stokes was in the vanguard of players from England making a fancy-priced debut in the IPL, reflecting the surge England have made in limited-overs cricket since the disastrous 2015 World Cup.
Eoin Morgan is an old hand in the league, but Jason Roy, Chris Woakes and Tymal Mills—who has made a big difference to England’s fortunes in limited-overs cricket—had the franchise owners agog.
Mills was the big surprise, bought for Rs12 crore by Royal Challengers Bangalore. He is not an all-rounder like Stokes, but the franchise is clearly looking at him to fill in for Mitchell Starc, who pulled out at the last minute.
Stokes and Mills led a pack of fast bowlers who found themselves in great demand. These included players from overseas (Trent Boult, Kagiso Rabada, Nathan Coulter-Nile) as well as home-bred youngsters like T. Natarajan and Mohammed Siraj.
The tilt towards pace bowlers is pronounced. This should alert the administration to whether this poses an existential threat to spinners, and if it will have any long-term impact on other formats too.
Karn Sharma, Murugan Ashwin and Pawan Negi were in demand, but nowhere close to pace bowlers—even uncapped ones—from India. Imran Tahir, amongst the most successful in this format in the world, didn’t even attract a bid.
Short boundaries and bazooka bats have imperilled slow bowlers, so much so that even on Indian pitches, many are increasingly being seen as a liability in the IPL. Surely, there is a need to restore balance. Extending the boundaries to 70 yards is the least that can be done.
All said and done, the most memorable aspects of this auction, held on 20 February, were the breakthroughs made by some unknown players: those who in the ordinary course of events would have been consigned to the footnotes of cricket history till a decade ago.
Natarajan and Siraj make for extraordinary stories, and also highlight the manner in which the IPL is giving young, domestic talent opportunity not just to capture attention, but also make a profitable livelihood.
Natarajan’s father worked in a sari manufacturing unit on a daily wage, his mother made snacks and sold them at a roadside stall. Siraj’s father is a rickshaw driver in Hyderabad.
Their rise from such humble origins will be inspirational for a host of young cricketers who, but for the IPL, may have spent their lives in obscurity, if not poverty.
The most compelling story of this auction, however, was two Afghan players—Mohammad Nabi and Rashid Khan—finding a place in the league, the latter at a whopping Rs4 crore.
Afghanistan’s advent into this sport has the civil war in the country as a backdrop. The rapid progress made by the team in the past few years stands testimony to their passion and determination to build life anew, using sport as a vehicle.
This breakthrough—by two players to start with—not only expands the horizons of cricket, but also uplifts the soul.
Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters.