With nearly Rs 50 crore spent on 200 players by 12 franchises during the two-day Pro Kabaddi League auction, Siddharth Desai emerged as the most expensive buy. The 26-year-old entered the auction with a base price of Rs 30 lakhs and within seconds, his worth had jumped three times to reach Rs 1 crore. Eventually, Telugu Titans acquired his services for the 2019 season for Rs 1.45 crore – the highest figure this year and second highest overall. And yet, his fate was decided not by people who know the ins and outs of the kabaddi mat.
With Telugu Titans raising their paddle most frequently for the raider from Chandigarh in Kolhapur district of Maharashtra, he had gone from a remarkable debut campaigner with U Mumba to a high-profile addition for another team. A team which was willing to bet big money on the player who had broken records aplenty.
Away from the posh, swanky room of a South Mumbai hotel where lakhs and crores were being spent on each player, the planning for the auction began two months earlier for Telugu Titans.
Owner Srini Sreeramaneni shed light on what happens before everyone enters the room. "The strategy begins before the coaches join in. It is decided among the owners, the fans, who we should get and how our team composition should look like. It starts about two months before the auction when we know which all players are coming in. Once the coaches come in, they add their inputs on which players (we should focus). But how the team composition should represent is what our marketing team and the owners decide," he said in a telephonic conversation.
With marketing at the heart of the auction strategy, it is no surprise that players are chosen based on fan reactions. For the first six seasons of the league, Rahul Chaudhari formed the heart and mind of the team. During this period, he earned the nickname "Raid Machine" with 876 points to his name – most in PKL history. But now the backroom staff shifted focus on another up-and-coming raider in Desai. "We discuss what kind of audience we’re trying to cater to (the fan base) and who would we make the hero of the team and who should we build the team around. For example, we chose Rahul Chaudhari in the first year. He clicked, he played well and we built the team around him. So we built the heroism around him."
"Now, it has been six years and we have to decide who the next hero is going to be. And we’ve chosen Siddharth Desai to be that hero. Once we have clarity of the franchise player, we have to decide the composition of the team to support him," stated Srini.
In the past, Srini has acknowledged that the strategy during the auction is to force other teams into paying more even if you don't get the player you desire. He stated in 2017 to this paper that "we rake up the numbers and then pull out which eventually creates an imbalance. There is a game of kabaddi in the auctions as well." During the 2019 auction, the strategy continued.
"My strategy is that for every position we want, we go in for players one, two and three. Then we go with selecting the player and driving the other guy (franchise) out. For example, if I needed a left cover badly and I am willing to pay a certain level of money, say Rs 80 lakhs, if I get him, I will live with him. If I don’t, then other team can’t buy any other players because they’ll be maxed out. That’s the strategy we’ve employed with Mahender Singh or Parvesh Bhainswal. During the auction we will try to weaken the other teams by taking up the costs and get the players we can get," he added.
With each franchise supposed to keep a roster of minimum 18 players and a maximum of 25 while limiting their spending to Rs 4.4 crore, it was important for the teams to keep an eye out for their spending and that of others in making their respective buys.
Srini suggested it would be ideal if the base price – from the current minimum of Rs 5 lakhs – be reduced further. "I think the budget is good enough to bring in those 18 players. I would rather that the base price be lessened compared to what it is today. So that if the player is worth anyway in the auction, a Rs 30 lakh player like Desai went for Rs 1.45 crore. If he’s worth it, teams will anyway compete for him. Why have a higher base price? They should have kept their base price lower so that if the player is not worth that much, at least you’ll have more number of players playing. This year a lot of Grade A players got left out because of that," he reasoned.
Going into the auction, players were split into five categories (A, B, C, D and New Young Players). The players in Categories A, B, C and D were set a base price of Rs 20, 12, 8 and 5 lakhs with NYP having a fixed price of Rs 6.6 lakhs.
With some players going for astronomical amounts, including Desai in just his second season into the league, it remains a concern whether these big spendings are worth it in the end. "There’s nothing like a ‘fair price’ for any player. It depends on who is trying to get him. It depends on how other teams are shaping up. If Desai was bought by Haryana Steelers, I wouldn’t have gone into the auction with Rs 1.45 crore. Since it was Tamil Thalaivas who are in the same zone, and if they had Ajay Thakur and Siddharth Desai, it will be tough for teams to compete against. We couldn’t let that happen. That is why we put in that much money," he said in the end.