Wicketkeeper-batter Rishabh Pant once again got the nod ahead of Dinesh Karthik in India’s Super 4 match against Sri Lanka in Dubai on Tuesday after being in the XI for the match versus Pakistan at the same venue three days back.
Bowling first, Sri Lanka used three pacers and a spinner at the death and conceded only 38 runs despite India having wickets in hand. Pant walked out to bat at No. 6 in the 15th over and fell in the penultimate over for a 13-ball 17, which comprised three fours.
“We wanted a left-hander to bat in the middle. That’s why Dinesh Karthik was out. Not because of form or anything. We wanted a left-hand batter in the middle to take pressure off, but it didn’t happen. But by no means DK has been dropped because of poor form. We always want to have flexibility in the group. We will keep changing players every now and then depending on the opposition. Four-five batters will play, but there will always be those one-two changes in the batting," captain Rohit Sharma said after the five-wicket defeat against Sri Lanka.
However, Karthik, unlike Pant, serves a very specific role in this team, one that the former's time with the Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) in the IPL has helped him develop.
When a Kagiso Rabada, Pat Cummins or Shaheen Afridi is bowling in the death at the T20 World Cup, you want somebody who has consistently hit in those death overs and made an impact there.
In all T20Is this year, Karthik has hit at a strike rate of 165.78 against pace at the death. In fact, in the recently concluded IPL, among batters who faced a minimum of 100 balls between overs 17 and 20, Karthik had the best strike rate against pace: 224.34!
This year in T20Is, Karthik has struck at 233.33 against spin at the death. But the sample size is too small (2 innings) to read too much into it.
Of late, Karthik's kryptonite has been spin. In IPL 2022, his strike rate dropped to 95.83 against spin at the death.
But if you do hold back a spinner to use against Karthik, India has the option to counter it with the pinch-hitting qualities of a left-hander like Axar Patel, shielding its finisher.
Malolan Rangarajan, head of Royal Challengers' talent scouting, sheds some light on Karthik's evolution as a finisher.
"Karthik is a man whose performance is directly correlated to the preparation he does. His success in this IPL was due to the clear message he had gotten from the management regarding his role and the preparation he put in with his coach before IPL," Rangarajan said.
"When he came to the IPL practice sessions, he came prepared to the nth detail... he used to practise for specific yorkers, wide yorkers, back of length balls, having fielders up on offside... his preparation was based on match simulation. Seldom do you associate DK with feel-good practice, especially DK 2.0. I have played with DK for 10-12 years. He is a coach killer, as they say, practises a lot."
During the IPL this year, there were games where Karthik was held back until the pacers came on. And there were games where he was entrusted with stemming to a collapse.
But Rangarajan feels in the current Indian team, Karthik might walk out after the 15th over. He also allays concerns over Karthik's expertise against spin.
"I do not think his so-called weakness vs spin will create any problem. Anyway, in this Indian team, players complement each other well. It will be interesting to see what teams do against India - whether they bowl spinners at the death. And if they do, DK is good enough to ace the challenge.
"He has done wonderfully well in the last 12 months. He is a go-getter. Dinesh and I go way back. He has always talked about making a comeback to the Indian team, which did not seem possible at the time. But his determination and hard work made something that looked far-fetched a reality."
With Karthik waiting in the wings, the pressure on Pant will only increase in the coming days. India will play three T20Is against Australia and three against South Africa, all at home, between September 20 and October 11 before the T20 World Cup in Australia from October 16.