Who is Chris Morris? Till last week, most of the cricket fans would have been stumped for a response if this question was posed to them. A prominent website, which caters only to information about cricket, describes this 33-year-old South African as a bowling all-rounder, who has played four Tests, 48 One-Day Internationals and 23 T20I games for his country. It is also revealed there that he has met with only moderate success having played his last Test match in 2017. Further, he has not represented his nation in limited overs cricket since June, 2019. Thus, there is nothing remarkable about his career in international cricket that merits special attention.
However, Morris was in the news during the week that went by as he fetched a whopping Rs 16.25 crore during the Indian Premier League (IPL) auction. He was snapped up by Rajasthan Royals, the Jaipur-based franchisee, for this amount, which is the highest ever buy in IPL. He displaced Yuvraj Singh who was bought in 2015 by Delhi Daredevils for Rs 16 crore.
What could be the possible reason for Royals spending so much on this cricketer? Experts say that this is on account of paucity of fast bowling options from countries outside India. Each team can play a maximum of four foreign players in their playing eleven and they look to fill up these slots using fast bowlers, who are considered to be capable of dealing the winning hand in IPL matches. In fact, the success of Mumbai Indians during the last two editions of the championship has been attributed to their pace attack comprising Jasprit Bumrah, Lasith Malinga, Trent Boult and Nathan Coulter-Nile. Hence it is not surprising that other sides are also trying to employ the same magic formula and this resulted in fast bowling all-rounders like Morris attracting high prices. This line of thinking, along with his ability to hit quick runs in the end overs, could be construed as the reasons behind Morris commanding this record price. Further, Morris has performed well in the last two editions of IPL, with13 wickets in 2019 and 11 in 2020.
Two other relatively unknown players who fetched high amounts were Jhye Richardson and Riley Meredith, both fast bowlers from Australia who were bought for Rs 14 crore and Rs 8 crore respectively by Punjab Kings.
Richardson was found good enough to break into the Aussie side that has three top class fast bowlers but a shoulder injury bogged down his career in international cricket. He would be looking at the 2021 edition of IPL to make his big comeback to the international arena. Meredith, on the other hand, is yet to wear national colours. Another fast bowler who hit it big in the auction was Kylie Jameson, the pacer from New Zealand, who was bought by Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) for Rs 15 crore.
Glenn Maxwell continued to be a favourite at the auction despite his lacklustre performances during the previous seasons. In IPL 2020 he could score only 108 runs from 13 matches at an average of 15.42 and strike rate of 101.88 while in 2018 season his tally was 169 runs from 14 games at 14.08 per innings and strike rate of 140.83. He had opted out of IPL 2019 to focus on the ICC World Cup in England. In 2020 he was bought by Kings XI Punjab (now Punjab Kings) for Rs 10.75 crore but was released by them this year. But the demand for an off-spinner all-rounder by some of the franchisees spiked up his price and he was finally bought for a staggering figure of Rs 14.25 crore! Surprisingly, Steve Smith, former skipper of Australia and a much more accomplished cricketer, fetched a comparatively lower price of Rs 2.2 crore!
Among the Indian players, Krishnappa Gowtham fetched the highest price as Chennai Super Kings (CSK) bought him for Rs. 9.25 crore. This is also the highest bid for an uncapped Indian player, beating the earlier record of Rs 8.8 crore set by Mumbai Indians in 2018 when they bought Krunal Pandya. Gowtham’s performances in the last two editions of the IPL, scoring a mere 18 and 42 runs with the bat and picking only one wicket in each season with the ball, were anything but spectacular. But the desperate requirement of some of the franchisees to get hold of an off-spinner all-rounder resulted in him being bought for such a high amount, which in the words of the player himself “was a nerve wracking experience”. Incidentally Jalaj Saxena, another all-rounder with better credentials and track record than Gowtham in domestic cricket, fetched only his base price of Rs 30 lakh during the auction!
Another interesting development was the return of Cheteswar Pujara, India’s hero during the tours of Australia in 2018-19 and 2020-21, to the IPL after a gap of six years. Pujara was purchased by CSK for his base price of Rs 50 lakh. The round of applause from all those present in the auction hall when CSK made this purchase showed the regard in which this doughty batsman is held in cricketing circles. But Hanuma Vihari, who braved a hamstring injury to help India secure a draw at Sydney last month, did not find any takers.
As far as Kerala was concerned the positive development was the purchase of Mohammed Azharuddeen by RCB. Azharuddeen was in the limelight for scoring a brilliant hundred, which helped Kerala overpower the highly fancied Mumbai, in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy last month. In all probability, he will take to the big stage provided by the IPL like a fish to water and use it as a stepping stone for higher laurels. Sachin Baby also joins him in RCB dugout, while Vishnu Vinod was bought by Delhi Capitals for his base price of Rs 20 lakh.
S Sreesanth was in the news prior to the start of the auction as his name was withdrawn by the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) from the list of payers who were listed for this process. No reason was given by the BCCI but one can make a fair guess that the sports body continues to harbour a deep resentment and antagonism towards this cricketer, despite him having served out the period of suspension and allowed to play domestic cricket. The message to Sreesanth is that he will need to force his way to the auction hall solely by the weight of his performances in domestic cricket.
Similarly, the last player to be bought in the auction process attracted attention due to the famous surname that he is blessed with. Arjun Tendulkar was bought by Mumbai Indians for his base price of Rs 20 lakh for the final place in their squad. This sparked comments in social media about “favouritism” and “management quota”, prompting statements from the team management comprising Mahela Jayawardene and Zaheer Khan that this buy was on purely cricketing grounds. One should be kind enough to leave the young player alone as he is weighed down by the burden of carrying a surname which raises tremendous expectations every time he steps on to a cricket field. It must have required tremendous courage for the youngster to attempt a career in cricket as he knows more than anyone else how carefully his performances will be monitored across the country.
Let us give Arjun a fair chance and judge him solely based on how he shapes up in the cauldron of IPL. After all, a surname is of little help once inside any sporting arena where only skills and temperament matter, leaving one with no places to hide.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)