"It was an extremely challenging and unpredictable auction"- Punjab Kings analyst, Sankar Rajgopal

Punjab Kings analyst, Sankar Rajgopal (Image via Sportskeeda)
Punjab Kings analyst, Sankar Rajgopal (Image via Sportskeeda)

Punjab Kings are set to begin their TATA IPL 2022 campaign soon, as the northern-based franchise will take on the Royal Challengers Bangalore on March 27, 2022.

The stage is set for a successful season, especially after they enjoyed a splendid mega auction last month. The Punjab Kings were the only side to retain only two players in their squad, namely Mayank Agarwal and Arshdeep Singh.

Agarwal was recently appointed their new captain, while the latter is a budding young bowler who has impressed over the last couple of years in the competition.

These retentions left Punjab Kings with the highest purse before the mega auction, and they made effective use of it. The foreign quartet of Kagiso Rabada, Liam Livingstone, Odean Smith and Jonny Bairstow, coupled with the Indian additions of Shikhar Dhawan, Rahul Chahar, Sandeep Sharma and Shahrukh Khan, ensured that the Punjab Kings would have a strong starting XI.

But how did the Punjab Kings sign so many superstars and never exceed the ₹12 crore mark for an individual? How did the franchise manage to sign quality Indian players as well as overseas stars?

How did they acquire players who could benefit them this year and in the future? To find out more about the same, Sportskeeda caught up with Punjab Kings data analyst, Sankar Rajgopal.

Sankar Rajgopal's journey as Punjab Kings Analyst

A man of great experience in the sports industry, Sankar has previously been associated with Tata Consultancy Services and the Head of Broadcast Analytics at Star India.

He has been with the Punjab Kings franchise for the last two editions and has continued this year in the same capacity. His role in the mega IPL auction was integral, as was the case for the entire team that spent two grueling days at the auction table.

However, the role of data analytics in the IPL has increased over the last half a decade. So it was only fitting that the Punjab Kings had an able and more than competent individual in that position to help them build a squad that can challenge year after year.

Video software and statistical models are essential for mapping out the targets. However, Sankar emphasized defining a "style of cricket" for the franchise before using crucial data. He said:

"Video analysis, data models, etc., are used to help identify the right players. But before that, the pertinent step after the last IPL was to define a' style of cricket' that we wanted to play for this season and all future seasons. After the retentions of Mayank and Arshdeep, we needed to identify players who would fit that style of cricket."

Speaking about the role of Dan Weston, a data recruitment analyst, in identifying players, he said:

"Identification of those players happens using a mixture of on-ground domestic and international scouting, advanced video analysis, and data modeling."
"I worked closely with Dan Weston, a brilliant data-based recruitment analyst, for most data modeling work. He uses various proprietary modeling tools that helped us identify the players and form our team."

Identifying players can only take you so far. But the dynamism of the live auction does not take anybody into account. Moreover, every team is bound to miss out on some key players they thought they would have signed at the start of Day 1. But the strength of any franchise at the auction is the ability to adapt to every scenario.

To put this into context, Anil Kumble, Punjab Kings Director of Cricket Operations, explained after the auction that they also wanted to sign Ishan Kishan and Harshal Patel.

The Indian duo would have undoubtedly strengthened their squad, but it was not meant to be, and they were signed by Mumbai Indians and Royal Challengers Bangalore, respectively.

However, the Punjab-based franchise did not let those failures deter them as they went on to sign the likes of Liam Livingstone, Kagiso Rabada, Shikhar Dhawan, and several other stars. So there are several ups and downs in the process. But as mentioned before, planning for every scenario is crucial for every franchise.

Emphasizing creating a dynamic plan rather than a fixed one, Sankar said:

"With two additional teams and a higher purse this year, it was an extremely challenging and unpredictable auction, but I believe we coped well. At the auction, it was important not to have a fixed plan but to have a dynamic method to adapt to any situation."
"For example, if a target player went above the allocated budget, we had to be disciplined enough to let go after a certain point and immediately adopt a different strategy for the next few players."

Groundwork for the 2022 IPL mega auction

Punjab Kings had a forgetful 2021 IPL season as they finished 6th, thereby not making it to the competition's playoffs for the seventh consecutive season. It is easy to get bogged down by such numbers and lose hope.

But the Punjab Kings went the other way. As soon as the 2021 season ended in October, they began preparations for the 2022 campaign and had their eyes on the mega auction. Data analysts and scouts are at the center of everything during such periods.

They play arguably the most pivotal role in the build-up to the auction because they provide a basis and foundation for how the team should look in the opening game of the season. The process intensified this year due to two new sides and that each franchise could only retain four players.

However, it is crucial to find solutions to problems rather than dwelling on them. Sankar explained how the Punjab Kings set the groundwork for the mega auction by saying:

"The work started a week after the conclusion of the last IPL. As I mentioned earlier, once we defined the style of cricket, it was easy to identify players who fit that philosophy. We studied previous auctions to analyze spending patterns for various roles of different teams and coaches."
"We also held multiple mock auctions to simulate multiple scenarios that gave us an understanding of what to expect at the auction table and helped us estimate the potential cost of players."

Key metrics employed by Punjab Kings to sign players

It is worth noting that defining the style of cricket is not as simple as it sounds. Mumbai Indians and Chennai Super Kings have been better than most franchises over the last 14 years, but there is no specific mantra for success.

Signing top players does not guarantee silverware. It just elevates the team's game to a certain extent. But analytics does not just involve finding the perfect strategy to attain objectives. It focuses on identifying metrics that can help create a team with the least flaws.

Sankar laid down the key criteria observed by the Punjab Kings while bidding for players:

"We needed to be mindful of the drivers of success in modern T20s and, more specifically, the IPL. For example, one of the many drivers of success in T20s is boundary-hitting. Therefore, boundary-hitting batters and bowlers who concede fewer boundaries were of high value to us."

Describing other metrics that play a role in team tactics, he said:

"Another example is with regards to matchups that play such a big role in team tactics - we specifically looked at anti-matchup bowlers, bowlers who are comfortable bowling to both left and right-handed batters, and anti-matchup batters – batters who are comfortable facing most bowler types."

Building a squad for the present as well as for the future

Since the two new teams joined the IPL this year, a mega auction was inevitable. So every franchise had no choice but to build from scratch again or, as the Punjab Kings saw it, take it as an opportnity to get a fresh start.

The Punjab Kings made their intentions clear from the beginning itself as they signed the first player to go under the hammer in Shikhar Dhawan. They splurged ₹8.25 crores on the Indian opener, a valuable investment when you look at his record in the IPL and the fact that he is still going strong.

But there was something more admirable about their auction strategy this season. Every team placed a focus on signing young players. However, the Punjab Kings notched things a level higher and brought youngsters with proven potential.

The likes of Raj Bawa, Ishan Porel, Rahul Chahar and even Harpreet Brar and Shahrukh Khan to a certain extent are evidence of the same.

These signings, coupled with names that are yet to realize their potential on the big stage like Vaibhav Arora, Ansh Patel and Atharva Taide, meant that the squad's average age came down to 25.

This makes them the youngest squad in the IPL this season. Considering that a mega auction is unlikely to be held for a long time, these purchases are more valuable than they seem at the moment.

Speaking on managing to build a squad for the present as well as the future, Sankar said:

"There may never be another mega auction. With that in mind, we put together a squad with future potential - players who can grow with the franchise and potentially win us the trophy. The average age of our team is 25, which makes us the youngest squad in the IPL."
"At the same time, it is also critical to have a few senior players who will provide a stable foundation for the younger players and the franchise, and we believe we have aptly managed that."

So the emphasis is on the short-term and the long-term needs of the team. It proved to be a fulfilling mega auction for the Punjab Kings, who are yet to lift their maiden IPL trophy but are far from giving up their hopes on the same.

The real challenges will begin with the commencement of their campaign against RCB. Sankar Rajgopal has done the first part of the job brilliantly but realizes that the task is far from over.

He is part of a franchise hoping to bring about a winning mentality and then build on it. They have signed players who match those ambitions. If they prove their worth this season, the Punjab Kings can reach out and finally touch the gold at the end of the 2-month tournament.

Quick Links

App download animated image Get the free App now