If you ask Dinesh Karthik what his favourite day of the week is, it is more than likely that he will say Sunday.
It was on a Sunday (March 4) earlier this month that he was named the captain of Kolkata Knight Riders, the two-time champions of the Indian Premier League.
It was also on a Sunday (March 18) that, in the space of some 20 minutes, Dinesh Karthik did more to stamp his quality on the consciousness of the cricketing fraternity than he had managed in his previous 13 and a half years in international cricket. Or, at least, that is what the general perception has come to be.
Dinesh Karthik has a quadruple-century in club cricket in the TNCA league. His highest first-class score is 213, one of 27 centuries in 157 matches that have brought him 9214 runs at 42.07. He has an even 1000 runs in Test cricket, from 23 matches at a somewhat sub-par 27.77 because he has batted up and down the order, and because he has played as a wicketkeeper and a specialist batsman. He has held nearly 700 catches – as keeper and as fielder – and is closing in on 150 stumpings across formats.
And yet, all of this combined did precious little for Dinesh Karthik. What the labours of a decade and a half of cricket could not, eight frenzied, frenetic deliveries in a 20-over international did. Perhaps it is the sign of the times we live in. Perhaps it was the magnitude of the occasion, perhaps it was the unexpectedness of the assault, perhaps it was the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow that this eight-ball blitz secured. Whatever, it is unlikely that Dinesh Karthik can ever outdo the sweeping frenzy of adulation that that eight-ball carnage at the R Premadasa Stadium attracted last Sunday.
Vijay Shankar, his Tamil Nadu teammate and captain, couldn’t lay bat to ball at the other end. But Karthik came out like he had spent an hour at the nets, unleashing a flurry of boundaries that were brilliant in conception, staggering in execution. Rohit Sharma was to tell the world later that Karthik hadn’t taken lightly to being pushed down the order to No. 7, behind Vijay. But unlike many others who seek recourse in the lip, Karthik let his bat do the talking, with devastating effect.
Rubel Hossain’s apology to the fans of the Bangladesh team on conceding 22 runs in the 19th over, all of them to Karthik, however sincere it was, was really superfluous. As Shakib Al Hasan – his shell-shocked captain who conducted with greater grace than many thought was possible after his antics during the must-win final league game against Sri Lanka – was to point out, there was little Rubel did wrong. If he was off his lines or lengths, it was but by a fraction. If he did err at all, it was by a miniscule margin. But to such zone had Karthik transported himself that he struck the ball where he wanted, with minimum effort but maximum effect, each contact between willow and leather twisting the knife deeper into Bangladesh’s delicate psyche.
Karthik has shown us in the past that when it comes to dazzling stroke-making, he is second to none. He has produced cameos of similar flourish, if not import, at various levels, not least for different teams in the IPL. He has played more substantial innings of such fluency and authority in first-class cricket that he has left you in complete wonderment. In one particular Duleep Trophy game at the M Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore in January 2009, he made twin hundreds of the highest quality for South Zone against a Central Zone attack that included Pankaj Singh, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Umesh Yadav, Murali Kartik and Piyush Chawla. His range of shots was jaw-dropping, his timing spectacular, the ball rocketing off the bat as he got into position with time to spare and played with a felicity that had even VVS Laxman, his captain for that game, and Rahul Dravid, who made a second-innings hundred, nodding vigorously in delighted approbation.
And yet, Karthik has been his worst enemy in the past, giving the impression of someone who wanted to do the impossible, and do it yesterday. At the batting crease, he seemed cowed down by the options at his disposal. It can happen when you have two or three strokes to each ball, and want to play each of those strokes. It can happen when you feel that time is passing you by, and that you have to keep making cricketing statements if you are not to be left behind and casting doleful eyes at the future. It can happen when you are trying to impress rather than express. It can happen when you know that, with Mahendra Singh Dhoni around, your chances of donning the big gloves are limited to non-existent, and that when you do get an audition, you can so easily fluff your lines not so much because of stage-fright as the attendant knowledge that you are only keeping the seat warm from the incumbent who has taken a recharge-break.
The most noticeable thing about Karthik of yore was the immense nervous energy that transported him from one task to the next, and never mind if the first has not been completed to satisfaction, or not completed at all. The nervous energy translated itself to a restlessness that is never the best state of mind – or body – from which to perform optimally. Of course, with the arrival of Wriddhiman Saha and his own doomed experiments with the keeping gloves in Dhoni’s absence, Karthik could have lost heart and resigned to the life of a cynical, under-achieving domestic performer, but like Parthiv Patel, he has chosen to cock a snook at the odds.
Parthiv made his debut in England in 2002 when just 17; Karthik’s chance came two years later at the same country when 19. Parthiv made a name for himself in his first international appearance, defying Hoggard, Cork, Harmison and Flintoff and nearly an hour and a half to script a face-saving draw in the Nottingham Test in the company mainly of Ajit Agarkar and Zaheer Khan. Karthik caught the eye with a spectacular leg-side stumping to get rid of Michael Vaughan at Lord’s in his maiden outing for the country, a brilliantly intuitive gathering and an awareness extraordinary in one so young to lunge to his right and break the stumps. Both the pockethouse of power from Ahmedabad and the bundle of energy from Chennai seemed cut out then for bigger things, but such is the fickle nature of the cricket gods that nearly 16 years on from Parthiv’s debut and 14 from Karthik’s, the two together have played 48 Tests, 117 ODIs and 21 T20Is. The corresponding numbers for Dhoni are 90, 318 and 89 respectively. Read into that what you want.
And so has Dinesh Karthik finally been bestowed his legacy. As enormously popular and significant as his eight-ball 29 not out was, and notwithstanding that screaming flat six over extra-cover off the last ball of the Nidahas Trophy that allowed Rohit to cradle the silverware, I would love for that not to be Dinesh Karthik’s defining innings, and for that not to be the innings that defines Dinesh Karthik. There is plenty more to him than title-deciding efforts from a bit-part definition. In this era of instant gratification, 29 not out off eight balls with a title on the line could be, as they say, just what the doctor ordered. Hopefully, Karthik’s doctor has ordered a lot more because he is still only 32, with several excellent years ahead of him.