Sachin Tendulkar was man of the match in the last Test Dinesh Karthik played. Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman were unchallenged middle order occupants. Zaheer Khan took the new ball. Virender Sehwag was stand-in captain.
It has been more than eight years since that forgettable Chittagong appearance in January, 2010. Karthik made 0 & 27. He took four catches. India won comfortably and he was packed off to a familiar terrain – the sidelines. India have played 87 Tests since but Karthik hasn’t added to his 23 caps and thousand runs.
On Friday, Karthik turned 33. This has already been a good year but this recall to do duty in whites for India might well be the high point. Yes, he’s clobbered a last ball six in a breathtaking performance to clinch India an international trophy. Yes, he’s led his IPL team to the playoffs in his first go as captain. Yes, the sniggering doubters have been shut up.
However, another go at resurrecting what appeared to be a permanently comatose Test career is an intervention from the cricketing gods that have belatedly found some love for the boy from Chennai.
The rough and tumble of Karthik’s career is well known. He wasn’t 20 yet when the first India call up came in 2004. While the initial outcomes were moderate, there were occasional sightings of his unmistakable ability.
93 were made batting at number seven against Pakistan at Kolkata in 2005, assisting Rahul Dravid in a second innings stand that set up a big Indian win. In 2007, against a South African attack that answered to the names Steyn, Ntini, Pollock and Kallis, he opened at Cape Town with Wasim Jaffer, making a plucky 63 in a 153-run stand. Karthik stayed in the job of countering the new ball in England in 2007, making three half-centuries and averaging over 50 as India won its first series in the country since 1986.
However, Karthik’s Test spot was always hanging by a thread. Not long after his debut, a certain M S Dhoni had locked in the position of gloveman, rising in stature so rapidly that rivals simply dropped out of the conversation. Karthik knew only consistent runs against the new ball would keep him in the mix, he would only play for India as a specialist batsman.
But after failing as opener in the first two Tests against Pakistan in Delhi and Kolkata in 2007, Karthik was evicted from the role. He would end the series with an average of under 20 and the dye was cast. With Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir and Wasim Jaffer to pick from, Karthik was yet again spare to the requirements of Indian cricket.
Less than a year on, Karthik fluffed another opportunity to restore his fledgling career. With Dhoni opting to rest after a bruising season, Karthik was the designated replacement for the first two Tests in Sri Lanka in July, 2008. Not only did he have a horror run with the bat, making 9,0,7 & 20 in the first couple of Tests, his work behind the stumps was wretched.
In a series dominated by spin, Karthik made a series of errors while keeping to Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh, leaving the management with no choice but to dump him in favour of Parthiv Patel for the series decider. Karthik has only earned two caps since that series. Once Dhoni retired, India turned to Wriddhiman Saha and in a crisis, the selectors would inevitably fall back on Patel.
“He is probably a topper in an university, where I am studying,” Karthik chuckled recently when asked about having to compete with Dhoni for a spot over the last decade. “I am just happy in the space I am in.”
In recent months, Karthik has started to reap the rewards of staying undaunted despite extended spells in the wilderness. His First class record, with well over 9000 runs at an average of nearly 43 and more than 400 dismissals is among the strongest in recent Indian domestic cricket. Noticeably fidgety and restless in his early years, there is a visible serenity to his method these days, best exemplified by the muted reaction to celebrate the last ball six that won the Nidahas trophy.
Observers of his wicket-keeping point to a more natural process to his work now, where he stays low for longer in his position and allows the cup of his hands to take a more natural flow, ensuring his fingers don’t tighten up as receives the ball. Karthik is also in peak physical shape, ensuring he can tackle the rigour of long Test match days. With a slew of high profile international tours coming up and Saha’s injury concerns mounting, Karthik may well become a more constant presence in Indian playing XIs.
In essence, nearly a decade and a half after he first appeared, Dinesh Karthik has restored himself, small step by small step. Alongside the 11 Afghans who will walk out on June 14, he too will be living a dream. A dream that appeared to have been crushed, but through sheer gumption and will, has been put back together.