MIDWEEK FIXTURE with Dylan Cleaver
On February 20, 2008, New Zealand's best cricketers were pleasantly exhausted, having tied England – 340 runs apiece, Jamie How run out on the penultimate ball for 139 – in a one-day international for the ages at McLean Park.
Settling down to pizzas and beer at the Shoreline Motel on Marine Parade, the players pulled some outdoor lounges together and gathered around a couple of laptops to watch the inaugural IPL player auction. Although there were only four players involved, the rest of the team were keen to see the fate of teammates and Brendon McCullum, Jacob Oram, Daniel Vettori and Scott Styris, who were up for auction along with Stephen Fleming, whose ODI career had already ended.
Right from the start, weirdness was in vogue. Ricky Ponting, a bona fide genius who had sprinkled stardust on the first T20 international by scoring 98 not out from 55 balls against New Zealand, went for US$450,000, while inferior teammates Andrew Symonds and David Hussey went for $1.35 million and $625,000 respectively.
In his newspaper column, Ponting admitted the apparent lack of logic left him dumbfounded. He wondered if accusing Indian hero Harbhajan Singh of racism had affected his price, but then remembered Symonds was at the forefront of that conflict too.
Lalit Modi, then commissioner of the IPL and no stranger to controversy or courtrooms, would later explain away the anomalies: "Some players have gone surprisingly low, some players have gone surprisingly very, very high. The rationale is not for me to judge, it's for the team owners to judge."
In other words, it was just capitalism at work: you are worth what the market is prepared to pay and the same economic mechanism that can value a weatherboard state house in Auckland at $3m, can also value a middling allrounder at $600k for a couple of months work.
The New Zealanders did well that night – mostly.
McCullum went for $700,000, Oram for $650,000, Vettori for $625,000 and Fleming $350,000. The only downer was Styris, reputed to like a dollar more than most, going to the now defunct Deccan Chargers for his reserve price of $175,000.
And what was New Zealand's reaction to this craven excess, to cricket's modern take on the saleyards? Well, it was extremely positive actually.
The players, apart from Styris perhaps, were delighted, and the CEO of New Zealand Cricket was positively giddy.
"The auction was a watershed night for cricket and, I believe, for New Zealand in particular," said Justin Vaughan. "The auction did not discriminate between nations. If a player was good enough, he was bid for.
"That was a big moment for New Zealand cricket because it made people stand up and realise there really was a pathway to aim for. That if you played well at first-class level you could play for the Black Caps. If you played well for the Black Caps there was an opportunity to be picked up in the IPL."
The IPL, in all its gaudy glory, was held in such esteem by NZC that it allowed its players, who were staunchly backed by their association boss Heath Mills, to miss the first two weeks of a tour to England in order to maximise their pro rata payments.
To those of us watching from a distance, the auction always felt repugnant, yet strangely compelling. It has made a few New Zealanders very rich but this year was bit of a fizzer.
McCullum remains New Zealand's most marketable T20 player but at $770,000 he is a long way from the stratosphere occupied by the likes of bad boy Ben Stokes ($2.7m) and bad sledger Mitchell Starc ($2m).
Colin Munro, ranked the world's best T20 batsman, appeared to be grossly undervalued at $406,000, while recent No 1-bowler Ish Sodhi and the outrageously talented but enigmatic Martin Guptill weren't valued at all.
"I think the whole system is archaic and deeply humiliating for the players, who are paraded like cattle for all the world to see," Mills told the Herald yesterday.
And he's right in many respects, but most of us have known this for a decade.
Shame it took a lousy auction for New Zealand to make some noise about it.
New Zealand, even with its T20 capitulation to Pakistan, have been blandly excellent this summer, but the real test starts shortly.
A 13-2 win-loss record does most of your talking for you, but we've been here before.
New Zealand has made short work middling opposition in recent home seasons before flubbing tests against Australia (badly) and South Africa (a little unluckily). England arrive soon and the success or failure of this season will be determined by the results of that tour, particularly the two tests.
Munro has been hands down the most entertaining cricketer of the summer; his combustible batting providing spectacular successes and crazy failures.
It would be a thrill ride to see him play a year or two of test cricket with a licence to fail. On some days he'll look like a walking wicket, on others a few hours of Munro might win you a match.
Will it happen? Unlikely.
Some other random observations from the safety of my sun lounger:
Preconceived ideas around age and sport are being obliterated by ageless wonders Roger Federer and Tom Brady. At age 40, Brady has led the largely despised New England Patriots back to another Super Bowl and is the presumptive regular season NFL Most Valuable Player. Brady has never been a mobile quarterback but he stills runs figurative rings around players much quicker, stronger and younger than him.