Dinesh Karthik’s sense of timing was matchless. Till he arrived, the Bangladeshis had appeared to be comfortably coasting to an upset title win in the Nidahas Trophy. After that they could only watch in shock and awe as his magnificent pyrotechnics snatched victory from the jaws of defeat for India.
India had already dug themselves into a massive hole after greenhorn Vijay Shankar, needlessly promoted up the order, looked palpably out of depth in a challenging run chase. He could not put bat to ball on five consecutive occasions in the 18th over. Even before that fiasco, the pressure of chasing a tough target seemed to have found him wanting.
Thus when Karthik walked in with the team needing 34 runs off 12 balls, a confident Bangladesh would have already counted their chickens and planned a triumphant enactment of the Naagin dance.
Instead, 12 balls later, they found that Karthik had rained on their show with near-flawless batting and presence of mind. Bangladesh’s ace bowler Rubel Hossain, who had figures of 3-0-13-2 till then, was literally taken to the cleaners in his final over.
What made this most impressive was the calm, calculated assault where Karthik almost always second-guessed the Bangladeshi trump card.
The first ball to him was an attempted yorker. Karthik stepped out, took it on the full and punched it over long-on for a six. That shot was a psychological sock and transferred pressure onto the bowler. He was now desperately seeking to bowl dot balls. On another occasion, Karthik went deep into the crease to pull for another six. The 22 runs taken off that over virtually sealed the match.
The high-flying Bangladeshis were now a broken side, although Shankar almost goofed it up in the final over. But then Karthik got the strike back, and carted the final ball over extra-cover for the magnificent six and sealed the four-wicket win and the Nidahas Trophy.
Earlier, India had blundered by sending Shankar ahead of Karthik. Skipper Rohit Sharma’s assertion that the team needed a finisher in the final three to four overs made no sense. Had Shankar not got the leg bye in the 18th over that led to the dismissal of Pandey, India’s finisher Karthik would have been cooling his heels in the pavilion with overs having run out.
Even otherwise, this reluctance to send Karthik higher in the order is a puzzle. For the last eight months he has had a string of unbeaten knocks in ODIs and T20Is (50* versus West Indies in Kingston, in July 2017; 64* versus New Zealand in Pune, in October 2017, 4* versus New Zealand in Kanpur, in October 2017, 26* versus Sri Lanka in Vishakapatnam, in December 2017. In T20Is: 5* versus Sri Lanka in Indore, in 2017; 18* versus Sri Lanka in Mumbai, also in 2017).
In this series too, Karthik’s scores have been 13*, 2*, 39*, 2*, and now this 29* off eight deliveries. So the decision to regularly hold him back till the team ran out of overs is extremely strange.
Be that as it may, Karthik who made his international debut in 2004 lost his place in the team, even though erstwhile India coach Greg Chappell believed he had the potential to be the future India captain. He played his last Test in 2010 but was chosen on and off for ODIs and T20Is.
All along, Karthik found success in domestic cricket. He was also a sought-after wicketkeeper-batsman in Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket where he went for multi-crore deals to the Delhi Daredevils and Royal Challengers Bangalore. However, when he went from RCB’s Rs 10.5 crore to Gujarat Lions' Rs 2.3 crore at the 2016 auction, Karthik, now 32 years of age, knew that he needed help to do something about his career.
He sought out Mumbai’s Abhishek Nayar to get him ready for the ordeals of the 2016 IPL and also the domestic season thereafter.
Karthik had spent some childhood years in the Middle East and had grown soft on the good life overseas and at home in Chennai. Nayar decided that he needed to shake him out of that. He put him up in his tiny Mumbai flat with its broken showers, bucket and mug. Karthik also had to keep the room.
Karthik wanted to stay in a hotel but Nayar insisted that he needed to work outside his comfort zone. He changed many of his training methods, including his early morning training sessions.
Until then, Karthik, who was a bundle of energy, would have finished with his cricket training early morning. But that was reworked to two sessions over the day, with nothing planned for early in the morning.
A series of other coaches were deployed to work on his fitness, stroke play, mental aspect of the game and also rework his entire training method.
They also worked on cutting down his superstitious beliefs in cricket, on getting his mind together before every delivery, emphasising more to focus and process and not losing his shirt when things did not go his way.
This holistic approach to the game paid off. Karthik made a rollicking 704 runs in 14 innings in first class cricket. He also made 607 runs in nine limted-overs matches, with two centuries and a fifty. Karthik was back in business.
He didn’t leave it at that. He went back to Nayar next year too, except that the sessions were now in Bengaluru. He paid for the services of 15 handpicked boys. Their boarding, lodging, travel and other expenses were also looked after. He hired nets and worked on all aspects of the game. He continued the same process in Chennai and thus broke out of the mould that had shaped his early career.
Obviously all the hard work now seemed to have paid off. The Karthik of Sunday evening was a far cry from the restless, self-destructive batsman of a few years ago. This new, improved Karthik 3.0 looked far more assured, calm and focused on smashing the ball out of the park. Just ask Rubel. He will vouch for it.