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Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Fantasy cricket becomes reality at last

We are fantasy sport crazy. Google lists 1.5 million fantasy league websites, covering sports as diverse as football, clay pigeon shooting and drag racing. The Daily Telegraph's fantasy football competition has over 250,000 participants, and the cricket version is not far behind. Labelling yourself a sports fan is sometimes a euphemism for 'I know better' and newspapers have been smart to cotton on to a sports fan's craving to prove it by paying to select their own teams.

  • 'Pick your own' is second nature to cricketers used to killing rainy afternoons compiling lists of the best sledgers or Ugly XIs, and Fantasy Cricket was the inevitable result. Now, with the impending launch of the Indian Premier League, fantasy has become reality.
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    Cricket's answer to football's Champions League, and not to be confused with the renegade Indian Cricket League (ICL) which has recently been concluded, is a chance for eight money-wielding grandees to pick and play their ultimate cricket team in a ground-breaking twenty20 tournament.

    The bidding for 90 of the world's best players starts next week. Cricket has been waiting for the future for quite a while, and it has finally arrived. For the first time since Kerry Packer's World Series Cricket in the Seventies, top players from each Test-playing country will be mixed and matched. Sachin Tendulkar could be batting with Mohammad Yousuf for Mumbai, against Glenn McGrath and Muttiah Muralitharan bowling for Bangalore. It will be compelling and explosive. And that's just the player auction at the Indian Cricket Board's headquarters in Mumbai next week.

    Wielding their bulging corporate wallets like golden lassoos will be Mukesh Ambani, chairman of Reliance Industries and India's second richest man with a personal wealth of $20 billion (£10 billion), Vijay Mallya, India's answer to Richard Branson, owner of the Kingfisher group, a number of other heavyweight industrialists and two major Bollywood stars, Preity Zinta and Shah Rukh Khan.

    Cricket is a fat cats' battleground in India and it will get ugly and expensive as the corporate giants stampede to sign the most sought-after players such as Mahendra Singh Dhoni or Ricky Ponting.

    Into this megabucks mix will step an Englishman relatively unknown in Indian circles. Born in Mumbai but brought up in north London, where he played cricket for Stanmore, the entrepreneur Manoj Badale caused a bit of a stir when he purchased the commercial rights to Leicestershire CCC three years ago, then launched the Pop Idol-style talent programme Cricket Star on Indian TV last year.

    But that was nothing compared to his stealthy acquisition of the eighth of the IPL franchises from under the noses of half a dozen other Indian bigwigs a fortnight ago. Badale's bid partnership with Rupert Murdoch's eldest son Lachlan pledged only £33 million for the Jaipur team franchise, just over half what Ambani paid for Mumbai, but it entitles him to realise his selectorial fantasy just the same. He can pick from the draft of contracted players who have all been designated minimum salaries.

    Each franchise can have as many as eight non-Indian players in their 16-man squad (though you can only have a maximum of four overseas players on the field) and must spend $3.3-5 million assembling their team. This means an average player's salary of $250,000 for about six weeks' work. The only people salivating more than the players are their agents.

    Already the owners are compiling their wish lists. Pairing, say, Sanath Jayasuriya with Chris Gayle at the top of the order (costing at least $500,000) is a mouth-watering prospect, or partnering Murali and Shane Warne with the ball. The fact that Warne is missing the first month of the season with Hampshire to take part is an indicator of the pulling power of the IPL.

    Subject to ongoing negotiations with their board, most of the current Australian team in the list won't be available this year (nor any English players) because of country versus county clashes, but they can still be secured for forthcoming competitions, such as the Champions League-style event in the autumn, featuring the Twenty20 champions from all over the world.

    Four iconic players have been pre-allocated. Tendulkar will play for his home city of Mumbai, Rahul Dravid for Bangalore, Yuvraj Singh for Mohali and Sourav Ganguly for Calcutta. The rest will be drafted in the private auction when owners will supply their choices and be forced to bid up their favourites. It is literally going to be a case of "Lot One, Anil Kumble! Who will start the bidding at $250,000?"

    Now is the time to consider whether McGrath is really worth $300,000 (especially as all players must be signed for three years), if Viranda Sehwag is a steal at $200,000, whether Herschelle Gibbs is a busted flush and why the man rapidly emerging as the best wicketkeeper-batsman in the world, Sri Lanka's Prasanna Jayawardene, has no reserve bid value at all.

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