Mallika Sagar will be the first female auctioneer to wield the gavel at the IPL 2024 sale.

Mumbai (India) – Mallika Sagar first became interested in auctioneering as a youngster in her birthplace of Mumbai, when she read a book about a female auctioneer.

“And, perhaps a little frivolously, I thought, ‘That’s what I want to be,'” she chuckles.

After three decades, Sagar finds herself at the wheel of history.

She is expected to become the first female auctioneer at the wealthiest franchise cricket league in the world when she hits the stage at the Indian Premier League’s (IPL) 2024 sale in Dubai on Tuesday, following a successful 23-year career in art auctioneering.

During the daylong tournament, more than 300 cricketers will be put under the hammer, bucking a pattern that has seen only males – Welshman Richard Madley, Briton Hugh Edmeades, and India’s Charu Sharma – headline the event.

“It’s extremely exciting to be asked to conduct an IPL auction,” Sagar told Al Jazeera last week during an hour-long interview at her Mumbai office.

Sagar was born into a business family in Mumbai, India’s capital, and has remained there since her return from the United States, where she earned a degree in art history.

She has long been a trailblazer on the global art auctioneering circuit, now specialising in modern art and working as an auctioneer for a privately held Mumbai auction house. She became the first female auctioneer of Indian descent at Christie’s, the multinational art and luxury firm, in 2001.

all about personality and abilities

Sagar, dressed in a yellow drop-waist dress and holding a cup of green tea, described how auctioneering is more about personality and talents 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 succeeds previous IPL auctioneer Edmeades, who fainted midway through the tournament in Bengaluru in 2019 and was replaced as auctioneer by Sagar.

Edmeades is credited with introducing her to the Indian sports-auctioning environment.

“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 went on to say.

“I am immensely thankful to him for this introduction into the world of Indian cricket.”

The 48-year-old has presided over both player auctions for India’s Women’s Premier League (WPL), a five-team franchise league for women modelled after the Indian Premier League (IPL).

“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.”

As one of India’s few female auctioneers, Sagar admitted that the first WPL sale in February may have been an unintentional stepping stone to the IPL auction, which is significantly larger in scope than the WPL counterpart.

Learning the fundamentals of kabaddi

Sagar’s first experience with sport auctioneering was during the eighth edition of the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL), an Indian men’s professional franchise kabaddi tournament that ranks second only to the Indian Premier League (IPL) in terms of viewership.

Given her extensive experience with art, she confesses that sport auctioneering “was a new world” for her.

“It did take a little bit of training, largely to change my approach,” she told me.

So, what qualities constitute a good auctioneer?

“Depending on what you’re selling, you have to learn the mechanics of the auctioneering process and blend it with maths, theatre and drama – all wrapped up in a smile!”

She claimed the PKL experience prepared her for the cricket auctions.

Despite a venture into sports, directing a WPL cricket auction proved to be a different ball game.

The size of the operation, as well as the demand to catch the producer’s cue in the ear during live transmission, introduced a new complexity to the task.

You can’t allow your nerves take over your job.

Sagar defines a typical auction as a “unknown” since it takes place in real time.

The ones in cricket frequently include last-minute mic-ups or cosmetics touch-ups, feverish bidding fights involving many parties, or even as apparently simple as determining where the franchises are seated depending on the draw that determines their order. Their dynamism necessitates a high level of attention and adaptability.

“You have to be alert and adaptable,” she explained. “Despite your best efforts, mistakes can happen.” When calling out hundreds of names, you can misspell a syllable. It’s preferable to own your mistake, apologise, rectify it, and move on.

“You must not panic in any scenario. You must not allow your anxiousness to take over your job. “Having composure as a skill is essential.”

Sagar swears by fitness and yoga to recharge his inner peace and vigour.

“There’s nothing a downward dog or a headstand doesn’t fix,” she said with a laugh. She retires early on auction day to minimise mental tiredness during the crucial hours on the work the next day.

The core of a well-run auction, in her opinion, is being as even-keeled as an auctioneer as possible, regardless of the magnitude of the players on sale.

“It’s important to present a newcomer with the same amount of energy as you would a star player,” she went on to say.

Among the other non-negotiables, Sagar prioritises knowledge of the topic – the sequence of the sets of players, akin to pieces of art.

“You’ve got to pace out each name well and give it enough time,” she went on to say. “Especially when there are a lot of bids for them.”

“And when the frenzy subsides, wait a few seconds before asking the room, ‘Everybody sure?'” Is this your last chance to bid?’ Rapid adjustments, such as a last-minute paddle lift or a new entrant stepping in, are unavoidable in both art and cricket. It is your responsibility to account for all of them.”

Is her preparation for the IPL auction any different than it was for the WPL?

“No, because the basic formats are the same,” stated Sagar. “The trick is to make sure you recognise the names. You don’t want to ruin someone’s name who is about to appear on such a prominent platform – it’s their moment of glory, after all.”

On Tuesday, when Sagar rattles out over 300 such names, it will be her turn in the spotlight just as much as theirs.