Dinesh Karthik: The Unsung Hero

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Karthik in action last night against Bangladesh. Image Source: ICC

XtraTime Web Desk: When Dinesh Karthik walked in on Sunday night in Colombo, India were 133/5 chasing 167 for victory in the Nidahas Trophy final against Bangladesh, and only two overs were left. That left 34 to get. Even in this age of batsmen believing no target is impossible, that was a steep ask.

Not for Karthik, though, as he slammed everything out of sight over an eight-ball blitz, providing exactly the kind of ending Twenty20 cricket is designed for – a last-ball win with a six, his third, to go with two fours. And, even as India celebrated, it was worth noting how poignant it was that Karthik was the man finishing the job, the sort of thing Mahendra Singh Dhoni has made such a name for.

The Karthik story is an intriguing one. He was part of the India Under-19 Class of 2004. The squad that had Shikhar Dhawan, Suresh Raina, Robin Uthappa and Ambati Rayudu. Of the bunch, Karthik was the first to make his international debut, that same year in a one-day international at Lord’s against England. That was in September, and in November, he made his Test debut too, in Mumbai against Australia.

And then Dhoni happened to Indian cricket, and to Karthik.

Well over 13 years on from his debut, Karthik has played only 23 Test matches, the last of them in 2010, as well as 79 ODIs and 19 T20 Internationals. Perhaps not a fair reflection of his skills, but as accurate a picture of Dhoni’s impact on Indian cricket as possible.

While Dhoni was around, one spot was out of bounds for others – the wicket-keeper batsman’s. When he missed out for whatever reason, Karthik, Parthiv Patel and others got a chance. Once Dhoni retired from Test cricket, Wriddhiman Saha moved up. But Dhoni still plays limited-overs cricket, doesn’t he?

On the eve of the Nidahas Trophy final, Karthik looked like he was speaking in a lighter vein but was obviously very serious when he said, “From where I sit, every tournament is going to be important. I have one bad tournament, I will be on my way out. Every tournament, I have to be on the top of my game, trying to do as well as I can. Opportunities are few and far between. The competition in the Indian team is so strong that every time you get an opportunity, you have to try to do your best. I also want to be a person, that every time I am given an opportunity, it’s like, ‘wow, this guy can really do well and he needs to be there’.”

How’s that for stating facts?

But, day by day and brick by brick, Karthik has tried to make himself a different cricketer. If he was chiefly a wicket-keeper earlier, he is more batsman-keeper now, and, in fact, has played for India as a pure batsman in recent times. The numbers in domestic cricket were pretty outstanding, and he has also been one of the quiet achievers in the Indian Premier League.

In many ways, Karthik’s metamorphosis began, as he has said himself, with the ‘House of Pain’ that Abhishek Nayar, a 34-year-old all-rounder from Mumbai who played three ODIs in 2009, designed for him.

Nayar has gone on record to say that the boot camp-like set-up was his way of bringing cricketers out of their comfort zones, a concept involving living a hard life – not quite what senior Indian cricketers are used to – and following a strict and elaborate training routine. By the end of it, not only was Karthik a different cricketer, but as Nayar said in an interview recently, “He has less baggage now. He is also very superstitious at the crease. And we’ve worked on cutting down on that. Now he focuses on taking a deep breath before every delivery and getting his mind together.”

It’s clearly worked, as has been evident all through the Nidahas Trophy, when many of the India team regulars were rested. Prior to the final, Karthik had scored just 56 runs from four innings, but all of those runs were scored towards the end. He hadn’t been dismissed even once and had a strike rate of 160. By the end of the tournament, those numbers were 85 and 197.67. He still hadn’t been dismissed. That’s gold class in T20 cricket.

For Rohit Sharma, the stand-in India captain who led the chase with 42-ball 56, it’s Karthik preparedness that’s the key. “To do what he did today will give him a lot of confidence going forward,” said Sharma. “Most important thing he has is belief in himself. Whatever situation comes, he’s ready – whether he bats up the order or down the order. That’s the kind of guy we need in our team.”

Whether Karthik, now 32, retains his spot behind the wickets when Dhoni is back or not remains to be seen, but he might have done enough to warrant a regular place in the limited-overs sides as a pure batsman after the performance in Sri Lanka. If that happens, Karthik might not have to worry about being on his way out again. Though he has done quite well with that worry in his mind, hasn’t he?

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