WPL auction 2023: What we learnt from the inaugural Women’s Premier League auction
The new WPL franchises juggled budgets, market forces, performance data and inexperience during the inaugural auction for the Women’s Premier League.
First, the numbers
Ninety places, including 30 for overseas players, were up for grabs; 87 of those, including all spots for foreign players, were filled.
Three teams, Delhi Capitals, Gujarat Giants and Royal Challengers Bangalore, filled all their 18 slots and had money to spare. Mumbai Indians used up all their funds on 17 players. UP Warriorz, having already shown questionable budgeting in paying someone to suggest adding unnecessary letters to their name, bought only 16 players before hitting their budget cap.
A learning curve for everyone
It was asking a lot from franchises, who found out they were a thing only a couple of weeks ago, to put together tournament-winning teams both on the field and in the backroom in such short notice, so kudos to them for not falling flat. They all even produced matching team shirts in well-fitting women’s sizes for their think tank, which, as anyone working in women’s sport knows, is a luxury.
“I felt like a 10th-standard student trying to learn the entire year’s syllabus in nine days,” said Parth Jindal of Delhi Capitals. “We didn’t have much time to prepare. Everything happened very fast. Team has to assemble quickly, the matches are nearly upon us.”
The three teams with experience on the men’s side were expected to have an advantage. But the newness of the women’s tournament and the limited data available about the non-international players meant there was a learning curve for everyone.
“We had to recalibrate the numbers. We’re used to the men’s numbers and then you come here,” said Jindal. The men have a cap of INR 95 crore for a maximum 25 players, while the women’s teams have INR 12 crore to spend on 18.
Big names claim a big chunk of the purse
Rather than trying to wrap their heads around the absolute numbers, teams came in ready to spend a certain percentage of their budget on top players. Smriti Mandhana, the top buy of the day, went to RCB for INR 3.4 crore, which was 28% of the budget. The top three buys all cost teams more than a quarter of their purse, leaving less to be shared among the rest of the buys.
In comparison, the top IPL 2023 spend, Sam Curran, cost 19% of Punjab Kings’ purse. This suggested that the player evaluations – which are never based solely on performance, but also consider marketability and leadership among other factors – for the women were weighted more towards a small pool of big names.
Would increasing the cap mean more smaller names get bigger bids? Perhaps not. The bidding might only have got more heated for a Mandhana or an Ashley Gardner.
Scouting system is nascent
An accelerated timeline for the auction meant most teams had only an unofficial scouting system in place. Teams went for foreign head coaches, who couldn’t weigh in on the domestic talent. They depended on the knowledge of former Indian players, current domestic coaches and avid watchers of the game to guide their choices of local players.
Most picks were thus low on risk. There were no rags-to-riches stories for domestic players, of some net-bowler-turned-millionaire, like we hear from the men’s IPL.
Jhulan Goswami, the Mumbai mentor, expected this to change in coming years, as the system matures.
RCB stood out among the teams with their selection and scouting process slightly more streamlined. In a press note, the team said they went into the auction with a shortlist of 100 names as a result of their “RCB Hinterland” process, which began last year and was a mix of scouting by a former player, and analysing videos and data.
Mike Hesson, their director of operations, explained: “The amount of data you get is limited. You can’t just sit on your phone and search Cricinfo and find a whole deal about people. It’s about being able to go out and get a number of different eyes on people so you can validate your information.
“Data in terms of strike rates is pretty obsolete. We need to get a number of ex-players who know the modern game who can bring back information and challenge us. We like to triangulate our data – so data, video footage and expert opinion and pull those things together.”
Demand for multi-skilled internationals
RCB spent half their budget in the very first marquee set, clearly setting up to build their team around proven, multi-dimensional international stars. And it was soon clear that all teams had the same idea. A mini Melbourne Stars and Oval Invincibles reunion happened at Delhi, under trophy-winning coach Jonathan Batty. Coach Rachael Haynes, meanwhile, has four Australians to work with, while Mumbai, under Charlotte Edwards, splurged on English internationals.
But in a crowded market for overseas players, several big names went unsold in the first round. The auction dynamics meant that where names appeared had an impact on their demand, with teams either waiting for other targets (Marizanne Kapp is always worth the wait) or having already stretched their purse.
“There’s no denying it was strange,” said Heather Knight, England captain, who was picked up by RCB second time her name came up. England were playing Ireland in the T20 World Cup when the auction was on. Offering important words of solace to those who went unpicked, she added: “Whatever happens at the auction, it doesn’t change the value of those players to us as a team.”
Focus on future
We saw Indian players take a break from T20 World Cup training to celebrate their new riches as well as those of their teammates. Interestingly, the younger players triggered a greater bidding war than their captain Harmanpreet Kaur. Which either means that teams are looking at long term picks or Mumbai got very lucky with their bid for the skipper.
“We want to groom young cricketers for the future and get an opportunity to learn from capped players,” said Mumbai mentor Jhulan Goswami. “You have to plan for next two-three years.”
“We wanted to lay a good foundation for the franchise, which will go a long way,” added Mithali Raj, her counterpart from Gujarat. “You need to have one eye on the future.”
This meant that some members of the U19 World Cup-winning team were picked up, but others who went unsold got a rude introduction to how fickle public memory can be. Perhaps a draft, as it was done with the U19s back in IPL 2008 during Virat Kohli’s batch, rather than an auction, might have helped protect the mental health of the players at a crucial age.
Life-changing amounts? Not quite
I know how many zeroes are in INR 3 crore, but that’s not going to change Mandhana’s life. She’s already on a top India contract and has a roster of brands in her kitty.
More than the well-paid national players, the WPL was expected to change the lives of scores of domestic players in India. These are the ones who play with no annual contracts and can turn to only the Railways for regular employment under the sports quota. But that initial expectation of a financial windfall for them had to be tempered.
Twenty-nine uncapped Indians found teams. Twenty-two of them went for their base price of INR 20 lakh or INR 10 lakh. While this isn’t enough to change their lives with new cars and flats, it is still a vast improvement from the INR 20,000 per match that they earn. It affords them some financial stability for a couple of years, and helps them pay for the nutritionists, trainers and equipment they need to take their game up the next step.
Low demand, high disappointment
In all the excitement of the WPL, it’s easy to forget that only around 40 spots are open outside of the current India internationals and overseas players. That leaves room for plenty of disappointment. Top domestic performers went unsold.
Also disappointed were the Associates. A unique feature of WPL is that teams are allowed to have five overseas players, rather than four, in their squad of XI, if one of them is from an Associate nation.
But this did little to encourage franchises to bid on such players. Only a handful were listed, and only one, Tara Norris, the left-arm seamer from USA, who played much of her cricket in England, was picked. Gujarat were interested in UAE’s Mahika Gaur, but had forgotten that they had already hit their limit of six overseas players in the squad. Another example where market forces and reality didn’t align with good intentions.
But at least there’s next year.