SYDNEY: It has been fascinating to watch Dinesh Karthik go about his preparations here in Australia. His primary task is to pull off the impossible whenever required so he must be ready at all times.
It is not easy being India’s designated finisher. Not getting enough game time, or enough match situations in which he must ace the superhuman chase or close the innings out with a flurry of audacious strokes, is part of the job description. Add to that India’s tendency to chop and change the T20 line-up over the past year or so. The team has played 36 T20Is after the 2021 T20 World Cup. Karthik has played only 20 innings in which he has struck at 149.72.
This is where readiness comes in. Sometimes he must do what the 10 others in the team may not be capable of at that precise moment. He is a specialist but his captain will wish he is never required. Even when, after an interminable wait, he does get an opportunity in a high-pressure game to finish things off, the odds are stacked against Karthik. At best, there is only a 50:50 chance of success. Karthik must take those odds.
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The other night against Pakistan, in what has been the biggest match of the ongoing T20 World Cup, Karthik lasted only two balls. He came in only in the last over, against the slow-left arm spin of Mohammad Nawaz, with India needing a staggering 16 off five balls and Hardik Pandya having just fallen.
Karthik danced down the track straightaway and although he may have been better off waiting in his crease, he managed to do the most important thing: give the strike back to Virat Kohli. What followed was drama, chaos, panic attacks, wides, waist-high full tosses and controversy as 13 runs came off the next three balls. Now India needed two off two, the pressure was off. DK was back on strike. How should he close it now?
Nawaz bowled one flat, going down leg, as DK gave his intentions away. A hesitant attempt at a sweep ended in a stumping instead. Disaster. Failure. Return. Reload. Prepare for another day.
Both at the MCG and here at the Sydney Cricket Ground, where India will take on the Netherlands on Thursday, Karthik’s methods during nets sessions have been meticulous and tireless. He will stretch a bit and then go for a run. He will begin by doing some wicketkeeping drills. He will then hit the nets and go on and on. He will then keep again.
On Tuesday, he seemed to be in animated conversation with R Ashwin at all times, even during the ‘keeping drills and batting sessions. Around 10 minutes of drills and he was in the nets. He would go on to face spin, sidearm, pace, off-spin, left-arm spin and back again. A lot of left-arm spin. Then he would return to his ‘keeping drills. Karthik’s father too made an appearance for a while, watching him train.
There are very few in world cricket who, at 37 and having completely remodelled himself for a specific role, can sustain this intensity of training. Along with his personal ‘coach’ and friend Abhishek Nayar, Karthik is known for booking stadiums and flying net bowlers over and paying for their stay and expenses. He will move around the country simulating different conditions.
Unlike an MS Dhoni or an Andre Russell, who will simply muscle the ball, ‘DK’ takes the harder route: he has to create angles, keep his shape, get his timing right, look ugly against spin, sometimes play the field, fox the pacer. Basically improvise. He is a busy, fidgety character in the nets and in the middle, not a range-hitting enthusiast. His is a tough job but you don’t get to boast of 6 T20I innings of 25 or more runs at a strike rate above 200 by routine work. He has played 22 innings as a No. 6 in T20Isstriking at 142.78.
On Tuesday, for a while he seemed obsessed with acing the arc between square leg and fine leg. When Mohammad Siraj bowled, he started meeting targets: “Four! Yeh chauka gaya! That’s six! Four!” Siraj replied only in sheepish smiles, and, at one time, laughed, “Arre aap bhi!” He had tried to change his line but DK was on top of it.
A net bowler, Muhammad Irfan Jr, a tall pacer from Pakistan who plays grade cricket in Sydney, troubled Karthik at times with the back-of-a-length ball. He later said, “Woh apni practice karte hai aur unko shots lagana hai (he does his own practice and must play his shots).”
Between interminable periods of lull, a finisher must uncoil and strike. If India are chasing and Karthik is on strike, you can bet it’s a tight game.