It’s hard to be part of a losing side. Especially when, on paper, you had as good a chance of winning as the others in the fray. Especially if last season, you’ve been among the star performers for a side that won everything on offer.
Dinesh Karthik was one of the lynchpins around whom Mumbai Indians built their twin title runs in the Indian Premier League and Champions League Twenty20 in 2013. This year, he’s been part of a Delhi Daredevils side that doesn’t seem to know where its next victory is coming from. This after a February auction in which each franchise seemed to have spent money wisely and well, and built a side that could challenge for a place in the play-offs.
While things haven’t clicked for Delhi on the field, the tactics they have adopted have also baffled several people, with the in-form JP Duminy and Kedar Jadhav making appearances very low down the order, match after match, while the scoring has stagnated in the middle overs. It seems like a straightforward equation: you have only 20 overs to bat, so your in-form batsmen must make the maximum use of them. Delhi have a backroom staff led by Gary Kirsten, among the foremost cricketing brains you could hope for. And while Kevin Pietersen may have been accused of whistling inappropriately, no one has ever questioned his cricket smarts. With such a coach-captain combo, what’s the logic behind the batting order?
“I hear that question being asked a lot,” says Karthik to Wisden India with the hint of a wry smile. “You know, we want JP (Duminy) to finish an innings, bat three-four overs, get set and finish well for us. Which means basically bat the last five overs, and be somebody who can give us power. We don’t think we have that kind of power in the middle so for us it’s important he stays till the 20th over.”
Karthik allows that Duminy is also among those who can “obviously rotate the strike, even if he goes in the sixth or seventh over”, but says the batting order has been conceived with each person having a specific role. “We’re looking to fit Quinton (de Kock), KP, (M) Vijay and Mayank (Agarwal) into the Power Play. In the middle overs it will be up to me, JP, Kedar Jadhav and maybe another middle order batsman – it could be Manoj Tiwary, Laxmi Ratan Shukla, Ross Taylor. At least for the batting side of it, we’re kind of set there.”
But – and there’s the nub – what’s the thinking behind assigning these roles? Karthik’s answer is pat. “Who fits which role best. It’s as simple as that. If somebody is able to give their best during Power Plays, it’s best to bat them there. It’s important that you get the best out of these players at whatever spots they are comfortable in.”
Karthik is also clear that whatever may be the results on field, the transition from Mumbai to Delhi has been smooth. He once said the Mumbai side was “like a family” to him, but he’s settled into his new home well. “It’s been smooth and comfortable,” he says. “It’s a very soft environment in the sense that we are a young team. We have a lot of youngsters, and it’s not like the big names that existed in Mumbai, so it’s a different set-up.
“I guess leaving Mumbai was inevitable. I mean every player, barring one or two, are going to go in for a change every three years. So it was there at the back of my mind. I have to say I had a really good time at Mumbai. It was a wonderful team and I enjoyed playing with them.”
But given his success, surely there must have been talk of retention? Karthik has a valid counter. “The thing was, because we had won the tournament, literally all XI players stood a chance of being retained. Obviously Mumbai had to see financially who fitted their bill best. If you see a lot of teams have fed off players from Mumbai and they are really doing well, so that goes to show how strong we were as a team last year.”
Karthik has a straightforward answer to what is going wrong for Delhi this season too. Bowling has been among Delhi’s weaker suits, and Karthik agrees, though he points to Nathan Coulter-Nile’s unfortunate tournament-ending injury as crucial.
“Holistically looking at it, we can definitely get better in our bowling aspect. It all boils down to the confidence of the bowler, and we can get better at that,” he reflects. “Nathan Coulter-Nile’s injury has also hurt us. I keep telling everyone, he was the key for us. He was bowling up top and at the bottom end. The whole bowling unit revolved around him, which is why we missed him. We still miss him. He would have made a big difference.”
I wonder if the campaign going awry has added to the pressures Karthik must have faced on two issues that were potentially tricky ones when the teams were built at the auctions. The first was the price he had been bought at, the second most expensive player to go under the hammer, fetching a jaw-dropping Rs 12.5 crore.
Karthik’s almost pre-empted the answer, because it’s not a question that’s come exactly out of the blue. “A lot of people ask me this question,” he begins with a smile. “All I can say is that if I had been bought for Rs 2 crore I wouldn’t have played any differently to how I’m playing now. And if I was bought for Rs 25 crore, I wouldn’t have played any differently either. Having said that, I’m very happy with the responsibility that I’m a vice-captain. I feel like I can guide a few guys in the team, and at the same time, I’m trying to get into a good space with Gary and KP (Kevin Pietersen), feel them out, feel their leadership skills, and when given an opportunity – whenever down the line – I’m confident I’ll be in a space where I can drive the team forward.”
Which dovetails nicely into the other burning question that every Daredevils player gets asked about. How has it been dealing with Pietersen?
“This is the first time I’m meeting him and he’s been a wonderful guy. He’s a total team man, and he’s always helping. I thought he would be somebody who would be tough to handle. But he’s been an absolute pleasure to get to know,” says a candid Karthik. “He’s always up for a chat and up for fun, a great guy to hang around with. I think if you ask all the guys to name one of their favourite players it will be Kevin Pietersen because he just mingles with everybody very comfortably. What I thought he would be and what he is, are two different people. He has no airs about himself.”
His team is not doing well, but throughout the interaction, Karthik seems relaxed, almost at peace. He confirmed to me during the CLT20 that his stated goal of making it to the Indian team just on the strength of his batting was “the logical choice” given that Mahendra Singh Dhoni dons the wicketkeeping gloves, and while reiterating that the goal still held true, Karthik reveals a remarkable calm about getting there.
“I’m in a very happy space right now. Yes, when I was 20-21 I used to be desperate to get into the Indian team. But right now, it’s a goal and an ambition, but I’m not desperate,” he starts. “It’s not like I sit down 24 hours and think ‘How do I do it? How do I do it?” I have been through those stages, I’m not going to deny it. But right now, I’m comparatively in a calmer space. It wouldn’t fluster me or isn’t something that consumes me everyday. As I said, for me the ultimate goal is to play Test cricket and give my best for my country in all three formats, and definitely I’ll be looking to achieve that. But it’s not something I’ll keep thinking about over and over again, and have a very stress-filled life. I’d much rather take it easy and improve my game, look to score runs whenever given an opportunity, and take it from there.”
For a man who has plenty of restless energy on the field – “It’s natural” – Karthik sounds almost zen-like when he says, “Sometimes, when you are too consumed, you don’t score in a couple of innings and you think, ‘I’m losing a chance. I need to do well, I need to do well.’ And that’s added pressure – in addition to all the pressures that are already there when you’re playing a game. It’s important to let go at times and be at peace with yourself. Sometimes it’s important to be content with what you’ve done, and still always have the hunger to do better.
Perhaps some of Karthik’s calm is what Delhi need – if not to turn their season around, at least to end it on a high.