T20 World Cup: Dinesh Karthik still has fire in his belly
At 37, Dinesh Karthik is perhaps at his handsomest in his new avatar in T20 cricket. Role clarity may hand him his best run yet with the Indian team.
In his book Brightly Fades the Don , Jack Fingleton conveys that Bradman, with all his reputation, had a lot to lose by signing up for the 1948 tour of England at the age of 39. As it turned out, Bradman hardly embarrassed himself despite not leading the run charts as he bid adieu to Test cricket, famously departing for a duck in his last innings.
In contrast, the more mortal Dinesh Karthik, now in the evening of his career and after a stop-start journey with the Indian team, will have everything to prove at the T20 World Cup this year. Unlike Bradman in 1948, Karthik will be seeking to make his reputation on the big stage rather than save it.
This late impetus that makes him a likely member of the squad for the World Cup has come with his numerous remarkable cameos in the death overs for Royal Challengers Bangalore in IPL 2022. He has for long been known to possess boundary-hitting skills, but this season, he was considerably more savage. Some of his performances, such as his unbeaten 66 against Delhi Capitals, were scarcely believable: he plundered 28 runs off Capitals’ Mustafizur Rahman in one over, and collected 22 off Sunrisers’ Fazalhaq Farooqi off the last four deliveries of the team’s innings. Karthik’s efforts were key to facilitating Royal Challengers’ march into the playoffs.
He had everything in his arsenal. Sometimes he would stand out of his crease to unsettle the bowlers, and at other times he would go deep for leverage for big hits. Often, he would shuffle across to the off-side for a possible slog or slog-sweep, and on the odd occasion he would bring out his reverse-hit. Of course, he pulled and cut fast bowlers with alacrity.
His value shows in the stats: 330 runs at an average of 55 and a strike-rate of 183.33, the highest strike-rate among batters with 300 or more runs. He scored considerably quicker than in the previous seasons, too. His strike-rates in the previous years were: 131.17 in 2021, 126.11 in 2020, 146.24 in 2019, and 147.77 in 2018.
An inspired finisher
The reason? “Before this season, my coach and I worked out what’s going to be required this season to do something different because we could have got a little predictable,” he told the broadcasters during the IPL. But what he didn’t mention was role clarity as he is now seen as a death-overs specialist. A glimpse of what suits him could be gauged from the fact that his strike-rate this year during the last four overs is 212.92, but it drops sharply to 118.75 during the middle overs (overs 7-16).
Moreover, he seems to be more comfortab le facing fast bowling than spin – his strike-rate this year against spin bowling is 119.73. It was probably a factor, too, in Royal Challengers’ decision to keep him for the business end, as the likelihood of fast bowlers is more in these overs.
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When he is playing for India in T20s, Karthik has always been preferred in the middle order. He batted in the middle order in the first T20I he played for India – against South Africa in Johannesburg in 2006 – and barring a brief phase during the 2010 World T20 in the Caribbean when he opened the batting, he has always been there. And his returns with the bat were good when he made a comeback to the Indian team in 2017, after a gap of seven years. For a year and a half, he added valuable runs in the middle order, often coming in to bat at No. 6 or No. 7 even as India hit a purple patch, winning five in a row from November 2017 to February 2018, and seven in a row from March 2018 to July 2018. A training and mental conditioning regimen in Mumbai with former Mumbai all-rounder Abhishek Nayar had helped.
His finishing skills handed India the Nidahas tri-series crown as he blasted a six off the last ball – India needed five to win – in the final. He seemed matured. He was inspired. He had his most prolific season with the bat in the IPL in 2018, but even then, his strengths were visible: his strike-rate that year in the last four overs was 192.46 (in 21 innings), and between overs 7 and 16 only 129.89 (19 innings).
After moderate returns with the bat for Kolkata Knight Riders in IPL 2019, he didn’t play for India until this year. He struggled in IPL 2020, giving up his captaincy in the middle of the season to focus on his batting. It was clear why he was struggling – he was trying to shepherd his team through the middle overs a lot. In those overs (7-16), he scored his runs at 105.88 and average of 8 (12 innings). Whereas in the death overs he was still pretty good, scoring 85 runs in four innings at an average of 42.50 and a strike-rate of 197.67.
His India career was far from over, though, as another period of resurgence was to follow. This year, although he missed the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy with injury, he utilised the Vijay Hazare Trophy to make a mark. He added valuable runs in the middle order throughout the tournament, and he nearly won Tamil Nadu the crown by scripting a magnificent recovery – he scored 116 – and taking the team to a mighty total in the final against Himachal Pradesh.
The team’s coach M. Venkataramana says it was an excellent innings. “When others were struggling on that wicket (TN had collapsed to 40 for 4), he showed his experience and took on some of the bowlers where he put the pressure back on them. The runs started flowing. He got the team to a very comfortable position by taking calculated risks.”
Venkataramana says Karthik was smart to know his areas of strength and focused on them, and was always ahead of the fielding side in that 50-over tournament. Perhaps this clear-headedness is what sets him apart from the others this season, helped of course by role clarity. There was no ambiguity; he was an out-and-out finisher, and was being treated as one by his IPL club and the Indian team management.
“I see a different DK these days. He knows his role now and he knows this is what will bring him into the side. And he’s working towards that target. His approach is totally towards that – it is making him more successful.
“He has worked on his areas. He has made himself much stronger in those areas. And if there’s anything in his zone, he is more confident of clearing the ground, in those areas. His range and options have gone up much more these days than before,” Venkataramana observes.
After Royal Challengers made it to the knockouts of the IPL, Nayar was happy for his friend. He recognised Karthik had turned it around once again. “Proud of you @DineshKarthik,” he wrote on Twitter.
At 37, Karthik still has fire in his belly. He is arguably at his handsomest now, in his new avatar. Regardless of how many years he carries on for, the coming months may be his best with the Indian team.