In the week leading up to his departure for Dubai and the Asia Cup, Dinesh Karthik traversed the length and breadth of India, visiting four cities in five days to honour his commercial commitments. Long hours during the day were spent in the green room and in front of television cameras, but his unwavering focus was on what to follow – a session in the gym, a stint at the batting nets, be it in Mumbai or Jaipur.
Last Sunday, on August 21, the wicketkeeper-batsman was at the National Cricket Academy in Bengaluru, honing his batting skills against the likes of the seriously quick Umran Malik, Yash Dayal and Arzan Nagaswalla.
Then came the inevitable tryst with the gymnasium. Having received a fresh lease of life at 37, Karthik is determined to leave no stone unturned in an uncompromising effort to be the best version of himself.
This time last year, an India recall might have been the furthest from Karthik’s mind. He was in the middle of a most rewarding commentary stint with Sky Sports, calling India’s Test tour of England with lucidity, intelligence and articulation. Typically, Karthik had prepared assiduously for his first taste of live commentary, taking lessons from a professional in England on diction, delivery and enunciation.
Commitment to Excellence
There have been no half-measures with Dinesh Karthik. When he plunges into something, he does so whole-heartedly, holding back no punches. In his early days as an international cricketer, that didn’t always pay off because it appeared as if he was all action and not so much thought.
The passage of time and the resultant maturity have now transformed him into an individual totally at peace with himself, embarking on a journey of rediscovery that has rewarded his perseverance with another shot at glory with the national team.
Karthik’s well-documented rejuvenation began with Royal Challengers Bangalore in Season 15 of the Indian Premier League. A heart-to-heart with franchise head coach Sanjay Bangar and Director of Cricket Mike Hesson gave him the role-clarity he was looking for.
Armed with that knowledge, he utilised the two months before the IPL to hone a unique, specialised, highly demanding skillset – that of finishing a T20 innings with explosive finality.
It's a skill that doesn’t come easily, or to too many. The role of a finisher is a double-edged sword, the percentages even more skewed against the person occupying that position as against anywhere else in the order. Oftentimes, the finisher has maybe 20 deliveries, at best, to leave his mark. If he is required to play out more, that means the top order has failed, necessitating him to play against his new-found grain and embrace an approach anathema to his way of thinking.
Karthik’s extraordinary success with RCB – 330 runs in 16 innings at an average of 55 and a jaw-dropping strike-rate of 183.33 – in the garb of a finisher who had to go, and did so, from ball one was vindication of his processes which involved focussed work on acquiring the tools that would augment his end-overs pyrotechnics.
Viewed unfairly as a part-time cricketer in light of his successful media stint, his IPL exploits forced the hand of India’s selection panel. The core think-tank of skipper Rohit Sharma and head coach Rahul Dravid was determined to use Karthik’s unique abilities to the hilt before and during the T20 World Cup in Australia in October-November, which paved the way for an international comeback more than three years after his last game for the country.
The Pant Conundrum
Sunday’s Asia Cup encounter against Pakistan in Dubai was Karthik’s 16th T20 International since June 9. This was particularly significant because he slotted into the playing XI ahead of the effervescent Rishabh Pant as wicketkeeper, ostensibly to free up one of two slots required to accommodate the returning KL Rahul and Virat Kohli.
It’s only in the last few months that Pant has shown signs of coming into his own in white-ball play. Much like Virender Sehwag, his illustrious predecessor from Delhi, Pant’s game would appear tailored for the limited-overs versions; like the Nawab of Najafgarh, however, his best knocks so far have come in Test cricket. But with a greater understanding of his own limitations and the sense of responsibility that comes with leading franchise and country, Pant isn’t far away from being a consistently significant limited-overs influencer.
His left-handedness offers a dimension India are somewhat short on, as evidenced by Ravindra Jadeja’s elevation to No. 4 on Sunday when Pant was overlooked in favour of Karthik. How much should be read into the fact that the more experienced individual was entrusted with the big gloves is questionable.
In as much as it was India versus Pakistan, this wasn’t a qualification-influencing match and so there was some wiggle room to try a few things out. That being said, the decision to plump for Karthik ahead of Pant is another massive vote of confidence for the seasoned pro from Chennai.
At different positions in the batting order, Karthik possesses the capability of doing what the likes of Kohli or Suryakumar Yadav can, but there is no one in India right now, not even Hardik Pandya, who can reprise Karthik’s heroics with the clock ticking down on an innings.
That alone makes him a precious asset. He won’t always come off because that’s the nature of the T20 beast and in any case, cricket is a game of failures more than of success. But there is no one more equipped to come in with 20 or 25 deliveries left in an innings and capable of striking at 170 than the little stumper who made his India debut as far back as 2004.
Karthik has faced more than 20 deliveries just twice in 14 innings since his comeback yet has smacked 22 fours and six sixes in 145 balls. That’s more than impressive, considering he doesn’t have the luxury of getting his eye in for even a couple of balls. As he steps deep into the autumn of his career, his time is here and now. Why it can’t be alongside the electric Pant is something the brains trust must seriously ponder.