Col. Arvinder Singh’s mobile phone barely stops ringing. In fact, since the first edition of the Indian Premier League in 2008, he has had few quiet days. Kings XI Punjab’s chief operating officer till 2014, he became chief executive officer at Gujarat Lions after a year’s break.
A part of the 71 Armoured Regiment of the Indian army for 21 years and a former first-class cricketer, he joined Punjab on the recommendation of Preity Zinta’s brother, who reported to him at the army. Wisden India caught up with him to look at the IPL as seen through his eyes. Excerpts:
What has been your biggest challenge in the IPL over all these years?
I remember landing in Johannesburg on April Fools’ Day in 2009. I was alone, and didn’t know where to start. IPL was supposed to begin April 18. We were looking at 17 days, not knowing where your base is, where your matches are going to be held, what the franchise’s responsibility is. I went to all the venues and like a typical armyman looked for a base. After covering all the ten venues in three days, I decided that Port Elizabeth would be our base. I tied up with the local association there, and the team arrived on April 7.
The logistics had to be managed from India. To get all the merchandise, the kitting, arranging travel; everything was a challenge. The good part is with the few people I had with me there at that point, we were able to overcome this. I think my experience of being on deputation with the United Nations in foreign countries for a very long time helped me.
“When I moved to Gujarat, it was like 2008 all over again. The only thing that was ready when I joined was the name of the franchise and the logo. We did not have a coach, we had five players who were picked up by the franchise in the draft, and that’s about it. Nobody had been a part of the IPL other than me, so one had to get involved in everything down to the last thing.”
The second challenge was of course when Punjab got terminated in 2010 for legal reasons. It was a pretty difficult period for the franchise and you had to literally fight your way through. You went to court instead of focussing on what was supposed to be done. There was a major auction coming up, the one where the team had to be recreated, and suddenly we were told that you don’t exist.
I remember the auction was on January 9, 2011, and till January 5 we didn’t have a coach. We could not even retain players who we wanted to because of litigation. I think December 10, 2010 was the last day for submission of retention, and that is the day we got a stay from the Bombay High Court saying that we can continue with some conditions. I had exactly six hours to finalise the contract, get it approved by BCCI and send it to players overseas and then submit it back to the board.
That was a pretty trying time, but we somehow scraped through. I remember I got (Michael) Bevan as coach three or four days before the auction, and we sat down to work on the strategy. We came out reasonably well, though not 100% satisfied because we could not retain the core of the original team that had done well for us.
All the owners, management and the staff stood up and believed we can get past this hurdle. That was the time that we shifted base to Chandigarh (from Mumbai). It was a turnaround season for Punjab. Because of all the problems that were there, you had to look at everything from scratch and ensure that going forward you do not get into such problems.
After all that hassle, to go through 2011, 2012 and 2013 with a new team was quite satisfying from a working perspective. We stood up against adversity and got to know how good or bad we are.
Starting operations at Gujarat must have been quite challenging too …
Last year when I moved to Gujarat, it was like 2008 all over again. I remember I joined on January 23, 2016 and the first game happened on April 8. So in those two-and-a-half months we practically started from scratch, built a franchise, and did everything. The only thing that was ready when I joined was the name of the franchise and the logo. We did not have a coach, we had five players who were picked up by the franchise in the draft, and that’s about it. Nobody had been a part of the IPL other than me, so one had to get involved in everything down to the last thing.
Give us an insider’s perspective of how the auctions work?
Auctions make for good viewing on television, but a lot goes behind the scenes in every auction. The preparation of all the teams when they come into an auction shows while you are there. Everybody now, after so many years of planning, knows exactly what composition they want.
There are times when you need particular players, and you know that someone else will also go for it. A lot of mind games happen then, as in hiking prices, which sometimes is a strategy. You also keep in mind who has what. There are eight teams and about 80 players are up for grabs on average, out of which 50 players will be such that every franchise will be keen to have in their scheme of things because of their capabilities.
But, it is not just about these seven-eight (big) players. It is about creating a team at the end of the day. You look at a core, around whom you fill up the slots. Say you picked up six or seven major players, how many of them are opening batsman, middle-order batsman, finishers, bowlers, overseas players, Indians. At the end of the day you have to create a team around this core. That is when your planning and strategy comes into play.
“By July you close your last season, and by mid-September you’ve got to be back on the fast track again. Come November-December it becomes hectic. In a regular franchise, among the coach, captain and other management staff, there is a briefing and review at the end of each season. We decide the players that need to be released, and what kind of players we would go for at the next auctions. This is a continuous process and the regular franchises also have a talent scout programme. Mumbai (Indians) is a prime example; they do it beautifully. Pandya brothers, (Jasprit) Bumrah.”
So you work out options for each position, and then you look at it from a position perspective rather than a personnel perspective. For example, I need a right-arm legspinner, so here are my options. Then I look at what is the current composition of every other team, who else could be looking for a right-arm legspinner. So, I see that there are three teams looking for the same, what are the options. You may not be 100% right, but this is how for every position you kind of do an analysis. My first option is so and so, my second option is so and so. Now, the problem happens when you don’t get your first option or your second option, then you have to beef up something else. If you are not getting the best bet from a performance perspective, you still need that player, you still need to fill in the position, but you may not have gotten the best. Then another player, who possibly was your second option for maybe an overseas fast bowler, now becomes very important.
You say, now I definitely need the first option, I am ready to go that extra mile to get that first option because I need to make up for any shortcomings ahead. It is pretty interesting, but it is a long-drawn process and it takes quite a long time to go through that. You work out options, situations, conditions, availability, current performance, price, everything and then your strategy comes down to one little page at the end of the day.
But then there are seven others who are doing exactly the same thing. That is why you sometimes find at the auctions that people get stuck into a player. People wonder why so and so player has gone for this much? It is again about your own requirements. I don’t think how much a player has gone for is a measure of his capabilities, it is more a measure of the requirement of that particular team, and to what extent they are ready to go to get with that particular player, and to fill in that spot in the team. I may have a player who might be a very important player for me, but for somebody else he may not be required.
Like Ben Stokes this season. There was no way he was going to be a part of my team. We did not even consider him because we already had Dwayne Bravo and James Faulkner. He doesn’t fit into the scheme of things. So the teams that wanted him, you can see how far they went. The more the number of teams that want a particular player, the higher the price will be.
People have asked me again and again as to why such and such players went for six crore, and here’s another guy who has done so well for the country, and for himself, and for the franchise and he goes only for one crore. This is why it happens. When more than two franchises get stuck on a player, it is a windfall. Again you have to decide as a franchise to what extent you can go. There are players we went for in the last auction that we didn’t get because we knew to what extent we have to go after them.
When does the preparation for an auction begin?
“You work out options for each position, and then you look at it from a position perspective rather than a personnel perspective. For example, I need a right-arm legspinner, so here are my options. Then I look at what is the current composition of every other team, who else could be looking for a right-arm legspinner. So, I see that there are three teams looking for the same, what are the options. You may not be 100% right, but this is how for every position you kind of do an analysis. My first option is so and so, my second option is so and so. Now, the problem happens when you don’t get your first option or your second option, then you have to beef up something else.”
By July you close your last season, and by mid-September you’ve got to be back on the fast track again. Come November-December it becomes hectic. In a regular franchise, among the coach, captain and other management staff, there is a briefing and review at the end of each season. We decide the players that need to be released, and what kind of players we would go for at the next auctions. This is a continuous process and the regular franchises also have a talent scout programme. Mumbai (Indians) is a prime example; they do it beautifully. Pandya brothers, (Jasprit) Bumrah.
I picked up Manan Vohra in 2011 when he was 17 years old. Even though he was not a part of the franchise since Under-19 players were not allowed (to be a part of IPL by Punjab Cricket Association), I ensured that (Adam) Gilchrist and Darren Lehmann spent time with him, and now look at how he has blossomed.
Look at how the IPL and T20 has evolved; 160 at one point of time was considered a winning score, today you have scores of 190-plus chased down regularly. So with every passing season you have to ensure that the capability of the team and the strategy of your team keeps evolving. If Gujarat thinks today that last year we had a great season, finished top of the table, the same is going to happen this time as well, that is not how it works. Because everybody is fiercely competing for those top-four slots to start with. Everybody looks beyond that only once you reach the playoffs. Nobody starts talking about winning the IPL at this stage.
How much has the understanding of IPL changed among franchises from the first season to now?
For the first two years, all franchises were in the same bracket. I would not say we were absolutely clueless, we got a good team, but what was missing was that you were not ready to experiment, not utilise all the resources that were there at your disposal. You went more with name rather than what is the right combination for your team. It was true with every franchise.
Things have changed over the last four-five years. You have so many players coming up. Last year, Shivil Kaushik is an example for us. He hadn’t even played first-class cricket when our talent scouts picked him up. If it worked it was great, if it didn’t work we would have looked stupid. But that’s not how you look at it; you have to believe in the players. It is a pretty fine line.
What you can do at the backend is provide great conditions. You cannot influence their cricket, which is the coaching staff’s job. And really speaking there’s no real coaching at the IPL. It is more about man management. That is true not just one the field but also off the field. It is very hectic, even for the management team. All this travel and the number of games, it takes a toll. So how you keep it going both on and off the field, a lot people have a role in that.
(With inputs from Ashish Pant)