Mumbai, India – Mallika Sagar’s introduction to the world of auctioneering came when, as a teenager in her hometown Mumbai, she read a book with a female auctioneer as its protagonist.
“And, perhaps, a bit frivolously, I thought: ‘That’s what I want to be,’” she recollects with a chuckle.
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Three decades on, Sagar finds herself at the helm of making history.
After a successful 23-year career in art auctioneering, she is set to become the first female auctioneer at the richest franchise cricket league in the world when she takes the stage at the Indian Premier League’s (IPL) 2024 auction in Dubai on Tuesday.
More than 300 cricketers will go under the hammer during the daylong event, which will be a breakaway from a trend that has seen only men – Welshman Richard Madley, Briton Hugh Edmeades and India’s Charu Sharma – spearhead the event.
“It’s extremely exciting to be asked to conduct an IPL auction,” Sagar told Al Jazeera during an hourlong chat at her Mumbai office last week.
Sagar was born into a business family in the capital of India’s Maharashtra state and has lived in the city since her return, from the United States, where she graduated with a degree in the history of art.
Now a specialist in modern art and an auctioneer at a privately-owned Mumbai-based auction house, she has long been a pathbreaker on the global art auctioneering circuit. In 2001, she became the first female auctioneer of Indian origin at the international art and luxury business Christie’s.
‘All about personality and skills’
Clad in a yellow drop-waist dress and with a cup of green tea in hand, Sagar explained how auctioneering is more down to personality and skills than gender.
“You could be the most engaging male auctioneer, the most boring female auctioneer or vice versa – it’s about personality and skills.”
Sagar takes over the reins from former IPL auctioneer Edmeades, who conducted four IPL auctions, from 2019 through to 2022, when he collapsed midway through the event in Bengaluru.
She credits Edmeades with introducing her to the Indian sports-auctioneering landscape.
“Hugh had approached me to be his back-up for the IPL 2021 auction, given it was held amid quarantine during the COVID-19 pandemic,” she said.
“I am immensely thankful to him for this introduction into the world of Indian cricket.”
The 48-year-old has been responsible for wielding the gavel at both the player auctions for the Women’s Premier League (WPL), India’s IPL-style five-team franchise tournament for women.
“Sport is gendered, so to be part of something where women cricketers have a platform at the highest level and the chance to be financially independent doing what they love, was really special.”
Being one of the few female auctioneers in India, Sagar acknowledged that the inaugural WPL auction in February may have been an unwitting stepping stone to bring her to the IPL auction, a far more scaled-up affair than its WPL equivalent.
Learning the ropes – with kabaddi
Sagar’s first stint at sport auctioneering came at the eighth edition of the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL), an Indian men’s professional franchise kabaddi tournament that ranks second behind the IPL most-watched sports league in the country.
She admits sport auctioneering “was a new world” for her, given her longstanding association with art.
“It did take a little bit of training, largely to change my approach,” she said.
So what does it take to make a good auctioneer?
“Depending on what you’re selling, you have to learn the mechanics of the auctioneering process and blend it with math, theatre and drama – all wrapped up in a smile!”
The PKL experience, she said, warmed her up for the cricket auctions.
Despite a foray into sport, steering a cricket auction at the WPL proved to be a different ball game.
The scale of operations, including the requirements of catching the producer’s cue in the ear during live broadcast, added a different dimension to the job.
‘Can’t let your nervousness take over your job’
Sagar describes a usual auction as an “unknown” as it unfolds in real time.
The ones in cricket often come with last-minute mic-ups or touchups with the makeup, frenzied bidding wars traversing multiple parties or, something as seemingly easy-to-do as figuring out where the franchises are seated based on the draw that allots them their order. Their dynamism warrants significant focus and flexibility.
“You have to be alert and adaptable,” she said. “At times, despite your best efforts, there can be mistakes. You may get a syllable wrong when calling out hundreds of names. It’s best to acknowledge the error, apologise, fix it, and move on.
“Regardless of the situation, you can’t panic. You cannot let your nervousness take over your job. Having composure as part of your skillset is a must.”
Sagar swears by exercise and yoga to refuel quietude and strength of body and mind.
“There’s nothing a downward dog or a headstand doesn’t fix,” she quipped. On auction eve, she retires early to avoid mental exhaustion during the all-important hours on the job the next day.
The bedrock of a well-run auction, in her view, is being as even-keel as possible as an auctioneer, no matter the stature of the players on offer.
“It’s important to present a newcomer with the same amount of energy as you would a star player,” she said.
Among the other non-negotiables, Sagar places the utmost premium on knowing the subject – the order of the sets of players, similar to pieces of art.
“You’ve got to pace out each name well and give it enough time,” she said. “Especially, when there’s a flurry of bids for them.
“And when the frenzy slows down, give it a few seconds and ask the room, ‘Everybody sure? Last chance if you’d like to bid?’ Whether in art or cricket, rapid changes such as a last-minute raise of the paddle or a new entrant coming in are a given. It’s your job to factor them all in.”
Has her preparation for the IPL auction been any different from the WPL’s?
“No, because the basic formats are the same,” Sagar explained. “The key is to make sure you are familiar with the names. You don’t want to destroy someone’s name who’s coming up on a platform as prestigious as this – it’s their moment of glory, after all.”
On Tuesday, as Sagar reels off over 300 such names, it will be as much her moment in the sun as theirs.