“We are talking to the team management about this,” chief selector MSK Prasad said on being asked about India’s revolving door policy when it came to the number four spot in ODI cricket.
It has been nearly five months since the Indian team began on an experimental path looking ahead to the 2019 ODI World Cup in England. A couple of these ideas have worked wonders — Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Jasprit Bumrah have formed a brilliant pace partnership, Yuzvendra Chahal, Axar Patel and Kuldeep Yadav have given R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja plenty of food for thought.
The number four spot though is still a game of musical chairs. Five batsmen have played at this spot since that Sri Lanka tour in July-August, and in only 13 ODIs. These include KL Rahul, Hardik Pandya, Kedar Jadhav, Manish Pandey and Dinesh Karthik. Disappointingly enough, none of them have had a long enough opportunity herein, with three games the longest run any of them has enjoyed batting at No 4.
This experimentation seems par for course when you consider the time frame. The moment to do this is now, so the optimal candidate for No 4 could use the next year or so and build up confidence before the big tournament. The worrying bit is that despite repeated attempts, the team management’s efforts have come to nought. The Rahul experiment completely failed. Pandya and Jadhav have other utilities. And Pandey is plagued with inconsistency.
In fact, Pandey ought to be bitterly disappointed for this was a golden chance to finally make good on the talent he first showcased in the 2009 IPL season. He was in good form at the end of the Lankan tour, but poor shot selection put paid to his run in the middle order. Whether it was a fair call or not is a separate debate because one series later, Karthik was called up against New Zealand.
And now, his re-inclusion — or umpteenth comeback — to the international fold holds the key to India’s most pressing issue in the limited-overs’ format. In Virat Kohli’s absence for this upcoming three-match series, the burden of shouldering primary batting responsibility will be on Rohit Sharma. The big question will be if Karthik can act as a pivot in the middle order and aid the stand-in captain.
“At this point in time, I do not want to say what position I am comfortable with, whether No 4 or 5. Whatever opportunity I am given, I want to say I can do that role. I am at that stage where I feel I can contribute wherever I bat,” Karthik had said on his recall for the New Zealand series.
One way of looking at things is that it has all worked out nicely for him. Not only Pandey messed up his limited chances, the makeshift first-choice No 4 Rahul couldn’t adapt to the requirements of this spot. The other way of looking at this is Karthik’s form off late. Indeed, at this late stage in his career, he is blossoming as a batsman and his exploits in domestic limited-overs’ cricket for Tamil Nadu stand as example.
Not only did he score centuries in the finals of both Vijay Hazare Trophy and Deodhar Trophy, Karthik carried over that rich vein of form into the new season. Before the New Zealand series, he scored two hundreds in the season-opening Duleep Trophy, which inspired the selectors to give him a recall after missing out during the Champions Trophy and the West Indies’ tour thereafter.
Those two series had seen a previous angle to No 4 play out. Yuvraj Singh, who performed that role in England as also during the early half of the Caribbean tour, is now firmly out of contention. Yet, his comeback — earlier in January — coupled with Karthik’s own recall now indicates that the team management is looking for an experienced hand to guide the middle order. Someone who might not have been a consistent part of the Indian team recently, yet has enough know-how of international cricket that he can adapt and make this No 4 spot his own.
Again then, you want to ask if Karthik is indeed that man. Eventually it will come down to temperament, an examination that he has given time and again, yet never completely aced it.
All his life, Karthik has been in the shadow of more naturally gifted players. In fact, the previous high point of his international career was almost a decade ago when he showcased his versatility as a keeper-batsman on the 2007 tour of England. Yet, back then, Indian cricket wasn’t just looking for run-of-the-mill stuff. It was looking for a saviour, and it found one in MS Dhoni who helped overcome the embarrassment of an early ODI World Cup exit, converting it into a World T20 triumph.
Sure, Karthik couldn’t get past the mega figure that Dhoni went on to become for Indian cricket. But after all this time, fate has afforded him another chance, in the same team as Dhoni, that too in a singular role as batsman. It comes at a juncture when his maturity as a cricketer is at its peak, and the situation is calling for someone to grab it by the scruff of its neck.
In the end then, it only remains to be seen if Karthik can deliver on that long-pending promise and become a pivotal cog for the Men in Blue.