The doubts started to creep in well before the halfway stage of the 2018 IPL. Jaydev Unadkat had taken one wicket each in the Rajasthan Royals' first two matches and gone wicketless in the next three. "Those three games was where I started thinking, if I can't make an impact, I am not worth it."
It wasn't only the pressure of performing at the elite level that was getting to him. Unadkat was being constantly reminded of what a failed investment he had been for the Royals. In January that year, when the franchise had bought him for a record sum of Rs 11.5 crore (about US$1.8 million), he was the most expensive Indian player in that auction (and among the top six most expensive buys in IPL history).
"I knew that if I did not perform well, people would say money did this, money did that," Unadkat says two years later. "I was told that IPL money comes with a lot of burden, expectations, so this [pressure of money] was on my mind. I wanted to fight it, to ensure it's not actually a burden, that the money factor doesn't really affect you if you are aware about it. [But] after a couple of years, I can say that there were instances where I did feel the burden."
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Unadkat made his IPL debut as an uncapped 19-year-old in 2010, for the Kolkata Knight Riders, earning Rs 8 lakhs ($17,000). It was the biggest pay cheque of his young life. He played three matches, earned his first IPL Man-of-the Match award, shared the dressing room with Sourav Ganguly, and earned a pat on the back from Wasim Akram, then the team's bowling consultant.
By the time he entered his first IPL auction, for the 2011 edition, Unadkat said he was getting settled and was absolutely delighted at the pace at which his life was changing. He had played one Test for India and set his base price at the auction at $50,000; he says he had no say in it and doesn't know how it was determined. Eventually the Knight Riders bought him for $250,000.
"My mom has been always telling me: 'You don't need more than a certain amount of money to lead a happy life" Jaydev Unadkat
He followed the auction with his family in Porbandar, a port city on the west coast of Gujarat, and the birth place of Mahatma Gandhi. His mother is a housewife and his father retired from teaching at a government polytechnic college four years ago. Their son's IPL riches haven't changed their middle-class life too much - they still live in the same house as before.
"It was a huge, huge amount. I had just started my career. The family were completely awestruck by everything that was happening. They were worried about whether I would be able to deal with everything coming my way and whether I would be able to stay grounded. I remember my mother would keep telling me, '[Remember] where you are from and where you have come to.'"
Unadkat is the only player to have been part of nine auctions in the last ten years (2011-20). During this time, he has played for five franchises: three seasons at the Knight Riders (2011-12 and 2016), two seasons at the Delhi Daredevils (2014-15), one season each for the Royal Challengers Bangalore (2013) and Rising Pune Supergiant (2017) followed by the last three years with the Royals. Few other players have experienced their auction value soar and dip as markedly as Unadkat's has.
In 2013, RCB doubled his value to $525,000 or Rs 2.8 crore (base price $100,000). In 2015, he suffered a stress fracture to his back and though he recovered, he only played two IPL game that season and the next, going for 49 runs in three wicketless overs in the second, in Mumbai in 2016. A year later, just before the auction, he had a poor outing for Saurashtra in the domestic T20s, so he decided to set a low base price of Rs 30 lakhs ($44,800), which Supergiant ended up buying him for. Then between January 2018 and December 2019, the Royals bought him three times, releasing him in between.
The burden of an expensive price tag had weighed on his mind, Unadkat said after the 2019 auction, where he emerged once again as the joint highest-paid player.
"The RR management told me after the  season that even though people from outside don't see, and the only thing available are your stats - and the stats were not as good as anyone would like, for sure - that I did make an impact for the team's win in at least three or four games."
But Unadkat remained dissatisfied. "The thoughts were always about why I am not able to be as good as last year. Is it a mental thing? Or is it something to do with my skills? I was burdening myself too much. I was trying hard to execute my skills, which doesn't really help."
He lost confidence in his biggest weapon - the slower ball. "If I tried hard to bowl a slower ball, it wouldn't be as slow and smooth as I'd like. Because I was trying hard, I didn't help myself." He began to over-analyse himself and became determined to prove to his critics that he was not one-dimensional.
"People don't realise that when you are injured, you don't get paid as much. You lose out on money for games you don't play or if you are not selected" Tymal Mills
His family and friends realised Unadkat was not in the right mental space. "My sister and my mom kept me asking me if anyone [in the team environment] was telling me I needed to pull up my socks [because of the price tag]. They were worried about whether I would be able to cope.
"My mom has been always telling me: 'You don't need more than a certain amount of money to lead a happy life.' She has told me, 'I would be happy if you would go for a lesser amount. If it is going to help you, if it is in my control, I would do that.' Family or close friends is the place where you should open yourself up. I did that. I opened up about having that pressure or stress."
"That's ten, 12, 15 tournaments all into one pay cheque"
"Too many rands," Colin Ingram laughingly answers when asked how much Rs 6.4 crore (then $900,000 or 13 million rand approx) in South African currency. That was the amount the Delhi Capitals paid at the 2019 auction to hire the hard-hitting South African left-hand batsman.
The pay cheque, Ingram says, was "life-changing". "By a long, long way. I mean, that's ten, 12, 15 tournaments, you know, all into one pay cheque. Living in South Africa and converting to US dollars, it goes a long, long way. That's what's so exciting about the IPL - it's the only tournament in the world [where you have] the potential to go that big as a player."
Ingram, who is 35 now, got his first taste of the IPL in 2011, when he was bought for $100,000 by the Daredevils. He only featured in three matches (scoring 21 runs in total), but was happy to get the chance to play in different conditions, an experience he wanted to use to further his international ambitions with South Africa. However, in 2014, Ingram went Kolpak and eventually became a freelancer.
Since 2016, he has been among the world's top ten T20 run getters, with four centuries and a strike rate of 147.33, which is better than even Chris Gayle's.
Yet Ingram didn't quite get going the 2019 IPL, managing only 184 runs at a strike rate of 119.48 from 12 of the 16 matches the Delhi Capitals played in the tournament.
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"I didn't probably nail it as well as I would like to." Ingram says. "I showed glimpses of what I do day in day out."
As an experienced left-hand overseas batsman, his role was to quickly build partnerships and take charge of the situation at the back end of the innings. But the problem was that he was primarily a top-order batsman being asked to bat at No. 5, a position in which he has batted only 12 times outside the IPL.
Ingram says that is where he "ran into problems", adjusting to a new role, and felt "under pressure" as the low scores piled up.
"I certainly know that the more balls I face, the more success I have for the team. I came in in a lot of tricky scenarios, only faced few balls here and there and didn't nail it. It was baptism by fire and didn't quite work out.
"Then I got onto some of the tough wickets in Delhi, coming in really late with the last couple of overs to go, and didn't spend as much time in the middle as I'd probably been used to. I found myself practising harder and harder and longer and longer to try and make sure I had the volume up and then I could make an impact."
The pressure of not doing well enough was only exacerbated when he thought of what the team had spent on him.
"I felt that if someone has paid that amount for you, they see that value. That is where I might have gone wrong, in that my expectations were maybe a little higher than it should have been. I should have gone there to do my normal job and to carry on enjoying my cricket the way I do. It definitely did play a small role. Although at the IPL, I might have gone for a big number, but there's about a hundred guys who get more than that."
Ingram was disappointed not to get another chance. Once he was released by the Capitals after the 2019 season, he put himself up at the 2020 auction at $50,000 but went unsold.
"One of the things people probably don't realise is, without playing international cricket, when you go to an IPL or PSL, CPL, that's your international cricket, so you don't go there to have a risk. I go to those tournaments to make a big impact."
"You get kind of labelled as a bust"
The night before the 2017 IPL auction, Tymal Mills got a text from Daniel Vettori, the Royal Challengers head coach: "I hope you can sleep well before tomorrow." Mills, who had set his base price at Rs 50 lakhs ($74,650 then), wasn't sure what Vettori, who had coached him at the Big Bash, meant, but he watched the dramatic bidding for him from Dubai, where he was playing the PSL.
When his name came up in the auction, the Mumbai Indians and the Kings XI Punjab went back and forth with rival bids for about a minute, during which they raised the price to Rs 7.2 crore (then $1.07m). After the Kings XI gave up, RCB pushed the bid up to Rs 7.5 crore ($1.11m) at which point Mumbai team owner Akash Ambani indicated he was dropping out of the race. RCB then locked horns with KKR briefly before clinching Mills for Rs 12 crores ($1.79m). The bid had lasted just over two minutes.
Mills was the second-most expensive buy of the auction, not far behind countryman Ben Stokes, who had been bagged by Supergiant for Rs 14.5 crores ($2.16m).
While following the auction, Mills "lost track with the difference in currency pretty quickly", he recalls with a chuckle. "It was a load of money. It was an amazing, very surreal feeling. I went silent for a while. Once the hammer went down, my phone blew up."
The most that people knew about Mills at that point was that he had a lot of pace and that he had survived a career-threatening congenital back condition in 2015.
He wasn't scheduled to play the tournament opener against the Sunrisers Hyderabad, but did as a late replacement for Samuel Badree, who was injured in the pre-game warm-ups. RCB lost the game but Mills did well, taking one wicket at an economy of 7.75 in an innings in which every other fast bowler went for ten or more an over.
"A pretty cool experience. Packed crowd in Hyderabad," Mills says, recollecting his IPL debut. But a hamstring pull and a sore back hampered his season, allowing him to deliver only 17.5 overs across five matches and take five wickets at an economy of 8.5.
On the evening Mills had arrived in India for the IPL, Vettori and Trent Woodhill, the Royal Challengers' assistant coach at the time, talked to him over beers, telling him not to put pressure on himself because of the record sum the franchise had paid for him. But Mills admits it was difficult advice to take, especially when he was injured, alone in the hotel in Bangalore during the team's away games.
"I felt that if someone has paid that amount for you, they see that value. That is where I might have gone wrong, in that my expectations were maybe a little higher than it should have been" Colin Ingram
"As soon as you start missing any games of cricket, it's annoying, no matter what the standard, no matter what the level. And then obviously when you know you are getting paid a lot of money, there is expectation with that. That mainly comes from yourself. Nobody was harping on me, saying: 'Oh we paid X amount of money for you. You need to play to perform.'
"As a player, you want to be out there. As an injured player, you don't travel. You are just waiting in the team hotel, doing your gym work. I tried not to think too much about the pressure of the price tag."
Mills explains that it's misleading to equate a player's performance with what the franchise paid at the auction. "People don't realise that when you are injured, you don't get paid as much. It's done pro rata. You lose out on money for games you don't play or if you are not selected. I don't feel I did terribly in the games I did play. You get kind of labelled as a bust for the money bought, wickets taken - you could say that. But I would like to think I didn't disgrace myself, I didn't look out of place at all."
"People stop caring about us"
Top footballers, especially in widely popular tournaments like the English Premier League, are accustomed to angry fans bringing up their big weekly salaries (which can range from $130,000 to $450,000) every time they are perceived to have failed. Indian cricketers have also long been used to trials by the media and fans, but it can still irk when their IPL price tags are linked to every score or spell. Former India allrounder Yuvraj Singh is part of a select group of players, along with Dinesh Karthik, Glenn Maxwell and Unadkat, who have been repeat millionaires in the IPL. Singh fetched nearly $8 million between 2011 and 2016, probably the most any player in the league has earned in auctions.
In an Instagram chat, his former India team-mate Mohammad Kaif asked him (45.40) whether earning this kind of money made players play differently.
"I don't think you change [your game], but you do feel the pressure," Singh says. "The pressure is there because every time you get out or every time you don't perform, people say things like, 'This player is getting so much money and yet he is not performing', rather than saying, 'The player has not performed today because he played a bad shot.' So the element of money is attached to the performance."
Mills echoes the point. "Every time you have a mediocre performance or a bad performance, the way social media works, you are going to get people directly telling you that they don't think you're worth that money. But it's on you as a cricketer to decipher whose opinions you really need to care about and whose you need to just put down to white noise and ignore. As a player, you just want to give a good account of yourself and play well, no matter if you go for your base price or if you're lucky enough to get a big contract."
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Unadkat says he doesn't mind if fans criticise his performances on social media. What he objects to is downright abuse. "There have been good, sarcastic trolls talking about me getting the money and all that. I am not against them. It is bound to happen if the fans are following you with a lot of passion. I was only against the abuse that happens. People stop caring about us and think they can say anything to us."
"It's not Unadkat's fault that I had to pay close to $2 million for him"
In the 2018 auction, the Royals used up about 50% of their total purse to buy four players: Stokes, Unadkat, Sanju Samson and Jofra Archer.
Manoj Badale, the British-Indian co-owner of the Royals, has participated in every auction for the franchise. He says the buck stops with him when it comes to all cricketing decisions at the franchise, which includes not only bidding for players but also the overall team performance. So does that mean the pressure is as much on him if a player does not perform consistently?
Not really, Badale says, as we discuss the example of Unadkat.
"What you need to be aware of as a player is whether you get X or Y amount, your process needs to be the same" Dinesh Karthik
"Because I am less focused on the 11 crores I am spending on a particular player. I'm more focused on the 100 crores I'm spending on the team. So where I feel the pressure is on how the team performs. I'm less worried about how individuals perform. It's not Unadkat's fault that I had to pay close to $2 million for him.
"In terms of dealing with that pressure, unfortunately that's the challenge of being a highly paid professional sportsman, and the ones that can deal with that go on to bigger and better things. The ones that can't are sort of one-season wonders."
Badale says that like in any other business, the franchise, too, has to economically evaluate whether the player's performance in a season merits the share of the budget spent on him. For him, buying Unadkat back more than once was "just straightforward business".
Unadkat agrees, saying there is no need to feel bad about the fact that players are a "commodity" in the IPL. "It is a business, if I think like a Gujarati [many of whom traditionally belong to trading communities]," he chuckles. "I see it as a fair deal. I was dropped from the Indian team [in 2018], so my [IPL] value did decrease. It is fair on their [the Royals'] part to release me and then make a profit."
Unadkat takes assurance from the fact that franchises like the Royals want him back in their squads.
"People who are sitting at the auction don't just look at statistics. They see the skills of the player, what kind of role he can play, and how he can be useful to the team. It gives me confidence when I see the guys who have seen me up close - like Stephen Fleming or Mahi bhai [MS Dhoni] - were going for me at the auction.
"Manoj [Badale] said post the auction that I am great asset to the team not just with how I play, so I do feel that these guys believe I am a core part of the team. They want me to take up that responsibility of a senior pro who is leading the attack. In terms of performance, there is pressure because they trust me to lead the attack and they speak highly of me. At the same time, if they are considering me as a rare commodity of an Indian left-arm seamer, they are investing in the commodity rather than in the emotions."
Stokes has been the Royals' biggest investment so far. When they bought him two years ago for Rs 12.5 crores ($1.95m), he was not yet the all-star presence he is today on a cricket field, but he had been one of the most valuable players of the 2017 IPL and its most expensive (Supergiant paid Rs 14.5 crore or $2.16m for him).
In the 2018 IPL, Stokes scored 196 runs at strike rate of 121.73 and picked up eight wickets at an economy of 8.18 from 13 matches. If you measure his returns in terms of value for money, he was a failure.
"Has he [Stokes] justified his price tag the RR yet? No, he hasn't," Badale says. "And he'd be the first to say that. Do we still believe he's got the potential to do that for us? Absolutely, we do.
"He's one of those players that you don't buy with a one-year view or a two-year view. You buy him with a five-year view. And that was something I made very clear to him in season one. He takes a huge amount of responsibility on his shoulders. He was very honest about his performances [in 2018]. But I used to say to him: 'Don't worry, don't stress too much about this season, because we're making an investment in you where we hope you'll be the backbone of the franchise for many years.'"
Unadkat recollects having a frank conversation with Stokes. "He said at the end of the day what matters is how much you trust your skills rather than anyone else reminding you about them. He said it is okay to feel bad about it, to feel like shit when you think you are not standing up for the team. That is when you will put in all your effort next time."
At the last mega auction, in 2018, there were at least 20 new millionaire cricketers. Around that time, the IPL's founder, Lalit Modi, predicted that it wouldn't be long before we see players being paid a million dollars a game.
"I am less focused on the 11 crores I am spending on a particular player. I am more focused on the 100 crores I am spending on the team" Manoj Badale, Rajasthan Royals team owner
The money brings comfort and security to the players. Mills paid off the mortgage on his home with just that one IPL season. Ingram has paid for his house and made investments overseas. Unadkat has bought a house in Rajkot, although he still drives the car he bought in 2013, and chooses not to go on "lavish holidays" overseas because his friends cannot afford them.
After the auction for the 2019 IPL, Unadkat said he would "work his pants off" to prove his worth. Mills and Ingram cannot wait for another chance in the IPL. If there is a lesson they have all learned, it is that money can bring expectations and the key to handling this pressure is to first cope with your own expectations.
They would also do well heed the advice of Karthik, the Knight Riders captain, who has played for six different teams and has had million-dollar deals with multiple franchises over the years. In an interview in July, he talked about how it was okay if teams expected their big-budget players to be the ones to take them to the playoffs.
"That is the beauty of IPL," Karthik told sports presenter Radhakrishnan Sreenivasan. "That is the beauty of you earning the money. As soon as the auction is over, people start talking about the performances that need to be associated for you to be value of that money. With that comes pressure. With pressure comes greatness. So you need to know to deal with it.
"A lot of people who have got a lot of money have got caught in the so-called rut of trying to be of value for that money. What you need to be aware of as a player is whether you get X or Y amount, your process needs to be the same. If you get into the mindset of trying to please people or trying to perform that much more because you have got that much more money then that's a very hard one."