One of the most contentious issues in the Indian Premier League (IPL) has been the player retention rule, introduced before the 2011 auction, which allows teams to retain up to four players for the next two seasons. Those players are to be kept out of the mega auction while the rest are up for sale. The 2011 auction was the one where Gautam Gambhir, Robin Uthappa, and the Pathan brothers, Yusuf and Irfan, joined the million-dollar club.

The issue will come up again before next year’s auction and has already been the source of much grumbling among some franchises, which point out that it goes against the IPL’s abiding principle of a level-playing field and helps the successful clubs while the others just stumble along.

Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Chennai Super Kings. Photo: Vipin Kumar/Hindustan Times
Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Chennai Super Kings. Photo: Vipin Kumar/Hindustan Times

Mumbai Indians retained Sachin Tendulkar, Harbhajan Singh, Kieron Pollard and Lasith Malinga, and went on to win the Champions League Twenty20 in 2011. If these franchises retain all or some of these players in 2014, it will give them the core of a team that would have stayed together for nine years by the time of the auction in 2017. That’s some stability.

That’s exactly how the great football teams have been built. Liverpool’s success through the 1970s and 1980s came in no small part from the stability of their “boot-room" policy—from 1959, when Bill Shankly took charge, to 1998, when Roy Evans left, Liverpool were managed by a succession of insiders, many of them coaching assistants specifically groomed for the top job.

Barcelona’s success—stylistic and material—is directly linked to Johan Cruyff, who served first as a player in the 1970s and then came back as manager in 1988 to create the “dream team". One of his most influential players was Pep Guardiola, who would take the style he had learnt, hone it while coaching the youth teams and finally unleash it to universal and unqualified acclaim with the senior team. Indeed, one crucial factor in the success of their tiki-taka football was that almost all the team members had been playing that way—and together—for years from their days at the La Masia academy.

Manchester United’s success over the past two decades also owes much to stability on the field and in the manager’s chair. Alex Ferguson has, in his 26-plus years at the club, created a clear style of play—counterattacking, with fast wingers and emphasis on scoring goals—that is actually founded on the three great teams (of the late 1940s-early 1950s, the team of the late 1950s and the team for the mid-1960s, with different personnel and distinct identities) built by Matt Busby, who managed the club from 1945-69.

Ryan Giggs, Manchester United. Photo: Adrian Dennis/AFP

It’s a slightly different story at Chelsea—Frank Lampard, one of their all-time greats, will probably be deemed surplus to requirements (to the bemusement of the club’s supporters and other observers). No matter that he’s been at the club since 2001—predating owner Roman Abramovich and manager José Mourinho—and has gas in the tank for a few more seasons. No surprise then that Ferguson is among those waiting to snap him up.

Shane Warne, Australia. Photo: Girish Srivastava/Hindustan Times
Shane Warne, Australia. Photo: Girish Srivastava/Hindustan Times

Similarly, Australia’s reign at the top of world cricket is in no small part due to the small group that played as a constant—a fixed opening pair, Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne in the attack, Ricky Ponting at No.3. Warne was their link to the great days of Allan Border’s captaincy and Australia’s decline began when he retired (along with McGrath). That West Indies couldn’t perpetuate their success beyond the mid-1990s can be put down partly to the lack of that hard core to drive the team forward.

Giggs’ ability to play at 39 is down to his—and the club’s—understanding of the importance of longevity (and to the merits of yoga). Longevity is taken to a fine art, though, at AC Milan—their MilanLab is responsible for lengthening the careers of several top stars, and concurrently adding to the silverware in the trophy cabinet.

Paola Maldini, AC Milan. Photo: Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images
Paola Maldini, AC Milan. Photo: Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images

The corollary to long-serving players is catching them young—which means building one’s own academy. Manchester City’s billionaire sheikhs have spent obscene amounts of money buying the club; they won their first league title in 2012 but the real concern for their opponents lies in their plans for the future. The highlight is a $150 million (around 815 crore) academy on an 80-acre plot near their Eastlands stadium that will have 17 training pitches and a 7,000-seater stadium for youth team games. The stunning recent success of German sides was built from academies too; Bayern Munich’s core of Phillip Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Thomas Muller was produced in-house and their latest signing, Mario Götze, came up the youth ranks at Dortmund, Germany.

So the trick is to identify the core at an early age and nurture them to an extended playing career. As in the IPL, occasionally changing the rules so that you get to keep them.

Jayaditya Gupta is executive editor of Cricinfo.