The first time I heard of Murali Kartik was when he wove a web of spin and guile around the South Africans, taking 4 for 40 and 3 for 30 in an Under-19 Test at Kanpur in 1996. I did not get to watch him in action for a few more years, but every account I heard of his bowling was encouraging. The young left-arm spinner was emerging when India had a more or less settled three-spinner combination in Anil Kumble, Venkatapathy Raju and Rajesh Chauhan, but Kartik had youth on his side, and there seemed to be no reason why he could not aspire for a place in the national team in the new millennium.
Eventually, what I did get to see of his bowling in the Chennai league when he had grown to his full height of six feet, was most impressive. He had an economical run-up and a superb action that allowed him to spin the ball from that height in a vicious arc—with no obvious effort. To my eyes, despite my early admiration for Raju, it seemed Kartik was ready to step into his shoes. Unfortunately, in my appraisal of the younger man’s cricket, I was somewhat clouded for a while by my disappointment with a show of anger and apparent arrogance on his part that I witnessed during a match I was watching.
It has been one of Indian cricket’s endemic tragedies that for every unworthy Test cap, there has been at least one meritorious one overlooked by the selectors. Ironically, if such travesties of justice were par for the course during our history—when the selectors handed the list of players on a slip of paper down to the captain, himself unsure of his place—they have been equally so in the post-modern era, when the captain calls the shots. It is an ill-kept secret that Kartik, whose best performances came against the Australians, might have played many more Tests than he did if his captain had loved left-arm spinners more than he did.
Kartik was more fortunate than some of the finest left-arm spinners India has seen, in that he did play a few Tests and international cricket. While it was sheer misfortune that the careers of Rajinder Goel and Padmakar Shivalkar ran parallel to that of Bishan Singh Bedi, arguably the greatest of his tribe in the history of the game, I often wonder if in another country, they might have figured in the odd Test or two despite such overwhelming competition.
Dilip Doshi was luckier to be younger than Goel and Shivalkar and still in his prime when Bedi was past his, and the selectors plumped for his greater experience rather than the youth of Rajinder Singh Hans while looking to replace Bedi. Doshi’s excellent record in English county cricket and the high esteem in which the likes of Sir Garfield Sobers held him, perhaps tilted the scales in his favour. It only goes to prove the flexibility of the criteria used in selection, because in the case of Kartik, he could not convince the Indian selectors despite his success in England and the respect he earned from several world-class cricketers.
In my time, there were some other brilliant left-arm spinners, who, like Goel and Shivalkar, were plain unlucky to be born in the Bedi era, though possibly the most unfathomable of them, Mumtaz Hussain of Hyderabad, with his infinite variety, gave up too early, switching to orthodox spin after a couple of seasons in first-class cricket. Overshadowed by Erapalli Prasanna and BS Chandrasekhar, B Vijayakrishna of Karnataka could be a match winner with the ball, and sometimes with the bat, but he eluded the selectorial radar altogether.
Later, Tamil Nadu’s Sunil Subramaniam, another left-arm spinner who delivered the ball from a great height, won many matches for his state, as did his predecessor S Vasudevan—who had to share the limelight with stalwarts VV Kumar and S Venkataraghavan. Sunil, some seven years Kartik’s senior in Ranji Trophy cricket, was distinctly unlucky not to be selected to play for India.
VVS Laxman has recently gone on record with the view that Kartik might have picked up 300 Test wickets had he been given a fair run. Many of us will agree with him, but some of the other bowlers I have discussed here deserved to play for India and did not get a single chance. It is easy to dismiss their cases by claiming they were unlucky to compete with greater claimants to Test places. Still, what mechanism do we have in place to prevent glaring omissions? Is it time for the selectors to start having to explain their decisions to the public, time for greater transparency, so that miscarriages of justice can be minimised in future?