Kevin Pietersen held talks with a representative of the Bangalore Royal Challengers when England played their one-day match in the Indian city last November but at least two other Indian Premier League franchises are interested in signing the former England captain. Indeed, if Pietersen were to decide to skip England’s two home Tests against West Indies and play the full six weeks rather than a fortnight in the IPL, he could spark a bidding war that would see teams tempted to blow their $2m budget on securing his signature.
Pietersen met a representative of the Royal Challengers at the Grand Ashok where the team stayed in the city last year. It was more than a cursory chat and in the light of the tumultuous events of the past 48 hours, that fleeting tête-à-tête is bound to come under close scrutiny.
This evening the Royal Challengers did not deny that contact had been made with Pietersen. “Obviously, we’re interested in signing him,” said a team official. “But it all depends on the auction.” But did they, to use football parlance, tap him up? “It doesn’t really matter if we talked or didn’t talk,” was the reply. “There would be several franchises keen to sign him, and we’ll know when the auction comes around.”
The IPL auction for the 2009 season takes place on 6 February when the Royal Challengers would face stiff competition to sign Pietersen, an enormously popular figure in India after England’s decision to return to the country after the Mumbai terror attacks. The Bangalore-based franchise had been bought at a cost of $111.6m (£73.4m) by Vijay Mallya, the industrialist who owns United Breweries, Kingfisher Airlines and the struggling Force India formula one team. Despite all the pre–IPL hype and hoopla, the Royal Challengers had a disastrous first season, winning just four of 14 games. Mallya sacked the CEO and ranted about his team mid-season, and with the transfer window open until 22 January, there’s little doubt that he and his officials will do their best to move on some of the duds from last season.
Jacques Kallis, who cost $900,000 (£592,000), and Cameron White, signed at a cost of $500,000 (£329,000), are both on thin ice after underwhelming displays, and Pietersen would be the perfect fit for a team desperately short of batting oomph.
There will be competition, though. The Mumbai Indians are owned by Reliance, one of India’s leading business houses, and captained by Sachin Tendulkar.Sanath Jayasuriya, who they bought for $975,000 (£642,000) last year, turns 40 in June and Pietersen would be an ideal big-hitting acquisition as they build for the future. Like Bangalore, they too missed out on the semi-finals last season.
The Chennai Super Kings, who splurged $1.5m on Mahendra Singh Dhoni, are also thought to be interested, but the real wild cards could be the Rajasthan Royals, the defending champions. Captained by Shane Warne, old sparring partner and friend, and with Jeremy Snape also part of the backroom staff, the Royals ran a tight ship last season. The only stumbling block on Pietersen’s route to Jaipur comes in the shape of the four-foreign-player rule. The playing XI must have seven Indian players, and with Warne, Graeme Smith, Shane Watson and Pakistan’s Sohail Tanveer having played such pivotal roles in the team’s success, the management would probably be loathe to change tactics, even to accommodate someone of Pietersen’s undoubted ability.
The eight franchises have $2m to spend on players this season, and it’s not inconceivable that a team could sink the whole lot on Pietersen. After leading the England team back to India following the Mumbai terror attacks, he was an immensely popular figure and a rollicking century at Mohali then confirmed what most cricket-watchers already knew, that he’s a once-in-a-generation batting talent. What the franchises want now is some clarity on the central-contract situation. As it stands, he would be available for only two weeks of the IPL season. If he decides to opt out of the two home Tests against West Indies in May in order to play the full season of IPL, it would spark a bidding war.
Last year, Andrew Symonds was the most expensive overseas player at $1,375,000. But, along with the rest of the Australian contingent, he was available for just four games. Teams singed by that experience will be wary of investing too much in a player if he cannot be there for the long haul.
There is also the question of ECB approval. No player can take part in the IPL without a no-objection certificate from his home board, and that will ensure that Pietersen will not burn his bridges with Lord’s. The central contract could be a thorny issue. With an Ashes series looming, can English cricket allow its biggest asset to pick and choose his games? The red carpet has already been rolled out at the eight IPL venues, and it only remains to be seen which one Pietersen chooses to walk down. Bangalore are the front-runners, but if Tendulkar puts in a word, it could be Mumbai and the bright lights of Bollywood that become home away from home.