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Dinesh Karthik: Unfulfilled potential or hard luck?

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Roar Guru
24th April, 2021
7

As India were desperately looking for a wicketkeeper who could provide runs down the order in the early 2000s, young and upcoming wicket keepers in the cricket-crazy nation were thrust into the Indian side in their teens.

One of those young keepers included Dinesh Karthik.

Born in Chennai, Karthik was coached by his father, who had played first-division cricket in Chennai, which is regarded as one of the toughest club competitions in India. Scoring runs for fun at age-group levels for Tamil Nadu and in Chennai leagues, Karthik made his first-class debut for Tamil Nadu in the 2002-03 Ranji Trophy as a 17-year-old. As his form at the Under-19 level for India and Tamil Nadu’s senior side was steady, Karthik was called into India’s ODI side in August 2004.

Making his ODI debut at Lord’s against England in September 2004, Karthik made a great impression with the gloves following an acrobatic stumping to remove Michael Vaughan. But opportunities were few and far for Karthik in ODI cricket, especially with the rise of MS Dhoni. But Karthik didn’t have to wait long for his Test debut. Following Australia winning the Border-Gavaskar Trophy within the third Test in 2004, Karthik replaced Parthiv Patel with the gloves for the fourth Test as the Indians bagged a consolation victory.

Given a long rope in Test cricket, Karthik failed to capitalise on his opportunities with the bat. Despite scoring a classy 93 against Pakistan, an average of 18.85 after ten Tests wasn’t good enough with the bat as DK would lose his Test spot to MS Dhoni.

MS Dhoni plays a shot

MS Dhoni. (Photo by Nathan Stirk/Getty Images)

With Dhoni performing consistently as both a keeper and as a batsman, Karthik was forced to change his gameplay – becoming a frontline batsman and being asked to open the batting in India’s Test tour of England in 2007.

To say Karthik opening the batting was a genius move is an understatement. As India won the series 1-0, Karthik scored 263 runs in six innings (the most by an Indian in the three Test series). Following his success in England, Karthik was part of a young Indian T20 squad that would lift the maiden ICC T20 World Cup in 2007. But his Test career would go through a slump again.

Failing to succeed as a keeper batsman against Pakistan in MS Dhoni’s absence, Karthik would be ignored for the 2007-08 Border-Gavaskar Trophy.

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Unsurprisingly, Karthik would continue to be ignored from India’s Test squad bar the odd game MS Dhoni would miss out and by January 2010, Dinesh Karthik would be ousted from India’s Test squads for years to come as Wriddhiman Saha was preferred over Karthik. But his ODI career was slowly on the rise. Batting from 1-6 as a frontline batsman, Karthik would do whatever would be required with the bat. As the world witnessed Sachin Tendulkar’s ODI double hundred, Dinesh Karthik’s 79 often goes under the radar.

Come the 2010 Asia Cup, Karthik would open alongside Gautam Gambhir in the latter half of the tournament. In the final, Karthik would top score with 66 as India won with ease and his knock would see him earn the man of the match award. As Karthik was set to make a case to make India’s 2011 ICC Cricket World Cup squad, he would miss out as poor form came at the worst time.

Grinding out runs for Tamil Nadu and for his franchises at IPL level after being dropped from the Indian team in 2010, Karthik found himself recalled into the Indian ODI side for the 2013 ICC Champions Trophy. Scoring 106* vs Sri Lanka and 146* vs Australia in the practice matches, Karthik would get the number four spot during the tournament. Bar a 51 vs West Indies, DK didn’t have a consistent tournament, but the Indians went on to win the Champions Trophy.

Once again, Karthik failed to cement a spot for the long term and was dropped from the ODI team after the 2014 Asia Cup. Then he’d go score runs for fun in Indian domestic cricket before being recalled for the Indian squad for the 2017 ICC Champions Trophy after Manish Pandey was ruled out of the tournament due to injury. And from here on, it seemed Karthik’s career would go on the up. Recalled into the T20 team for the first time in seven years since the 2010 ICC T20 World Cup, Karthik was performing well in ODI and T20 cricket.

Come January 2018, Karthik would be recalled into the Test squad after eight years and would keep against South Africa as a sub for Parthiv Patel. With MS Dhoni and a host of senior Indian players rested for the 2018 Nidahas Trophy (T20 tri-series between India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh), it was a chance for Karthik to cement his spot as a T20 player. And boy did he do it in style.

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In the final against Bangladesh, Karthik came in to walk with the Indians needing 34 runs off 12 balls. Smashing 29 off eight balls, India won the final by four wickets on the final ball with DK smashing Soumya Sarkar over cover for a six.

Dinesh Karthik

Dinesh Karthik. (Photo by Mike Egerton/PA Images via Getty Images)

With Wriddhiman Saha injured for a couple of months and Afghanistan preparing to play their maiden Test match, Karthik would play his maiden Test in eight years against Afghanistan in Bangalore. But come the five-Test series against England, Karthik’s batting form would leave him when required the most as he was dropped for Rishabh Pant within the third Test. Lord’s was a special place for the beginning of Karthik’s international career but the iconic ground would also spell the end of his Test career.

But this wouldn’t affect his white-ball career. Playing primarily as a finisher in ODI and T20 cricket, Karthik would be in India’s 2019 ICC Cricket World Cup squad as a finisher. Coming into the Indian XI into the latter stages of the tournament, there would come a shock in the semi-final. With India 3-5 in their run chase of 240, Karthik was surprisingly sent ahead of MS Dhoni despite Dhoni batting at five during the tournament.

As Karthik had nearly survived the powerplay, he pushed at one with hard hands as Jimmy Neesham took a blinder at gully. 10 July 2019 would spell the last time Dinesh Karthik would play international cricket as he would be dropped from India’s white-ball squads following India’s World Cup exit in the semi-finals.

Now captaining Tamil Nadu in the limited-overs formats and playing for Kolkata Knight Riders, Karthik holds hope that his IPL performances can force his way back into India’s T20 World Cup squad for the T20 World Cup. Had Karthik not got limited chances and been given 10-15 ODIs when he debuted, he could’ve garnered more belief that he belonged at the international cricket level instead of always fearing he was two poor performances away from being discarded.

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As for his Test career, India should’ve kept him as an opener. To score 263 runs against the Duke ball in three Tests as an opener is no joke. India missed out on a golden chance to have Virender Sehwag and Dinesh Karthik open together in Test cricket. They would’ve had the potential to change the course of a game within a session for many years.

Karthik’s T20 axing still seems baffling, considering he was a brilliant finisher for India in T20 internationals between 2017-2019. A classic case of mixing formats and disregarding a player for the wrong reason.

Whatever people think of Karthik’s international career, one thing is for sure – Tamil Nadu are creating better cricketers for Indian cricket because of Karthik. The likes of Vijay Shankar, Washington Sundar and T Natarajan have had their careers backed heavily by Karthik, while many other new up and coming Tamil Nadu cricketers have had their state performances be recognised by IPL franchises as Karthik creates a new generation of Tamil Nadu cricketers.

The most talented batsman I’ve seen hail from Tamil Nadu, it’s a real shame Karthik’s domestic performances weren’t able to be replicated at the international level consistently.

Karthik’s international stats
Tests: 26 Tests, 1025 runs, one century, 25.00 average

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ODI: 94 ODIs, 1752 runs, nine fifties, 30.2 average

T20I: 32 matches, 399 runs, 33.25 average, 143.52 strike rate