“I believe there is a middle-order slot right now, at Nos. 5, 6, 7 (in the Indian team). And I can slot into any of the three.” (courtesy ESPN Cricinfo)
Dinesh Karthik was months into his commentary stint with Sky when he made the above-mentioned comment. It was a train of thought that was certainly ambitious because Karthik, at that point, had every reason to believe the door had shut for him. Permanently.
For a start, Karthik's age worked against him. It is one thing to eye a comeback having fallen out of the selectors' radar, but it is another thing altogether to do so at the age of 36. That too in a country like India, where selectors never seem particularly fond of picking players beyond a certain age. Karthik probably had to go back a decade or so to find the last instance of a 35-plus year-old earning a recall.
Then there were his own performances which, if anything, tended to suggest that he might be near the 'past it' stage.
At the time of his commentary stint, Karthik was in the midst of one of his worst ever slumps in the IPL, averaging 18.25 across a 21-match period. People did talk about him, but most of the comments about DK the batter were along the lines of, "haha, look how bad he is against spin."
Broadcasting, therefore, seemed the natural career progression for an out of favor, out of form 36-year-old veteran that already had one foot in commentary.
Yet all Karthik could see and think of was a supposed light (at the end of the tunnel) that seemed non-existent.
Crazy? Delusional? Perhaps. But above all, it underlined his unmatched, unwavering self-belief.
14 months on, here we are.
If you ever need to know just how far sheer determination can take you, look no further than Dinesh Karthik. Against all odds, at the age of 36, the veteran has made it back to the Indian side and it is a comeback that’s been driven solely by self-belief.
How RCB’s genius strategy paved the way for the unlikeliest of comebacks
In the aftermath of the auction, Royal Challengers Bangalore’s decision to purchase a 36-year-old Dinesh Karthik for INR 5.50 crore was met with a lot of trolling.
“Same old RCB.”
“Imagine splashing the cash on a washed veteran.”
“RCB have replaced a Rolls Royce (AB de Villiers) with a Tata Nano (DK).”
As it turned out, however, the franchise knew exactly what they were doing when they went the extra mile to get hold of DK.
As poor as Karthik was for KKR across the IPL 2020 and 2021 seasons, something peculiar stood out: just how effective he was when his entry point was late.
Across the two seasons, Karthik entered between the 1st and 13th over of matches 16 times and averaged 12.50. He was dismissed 8 times by spinners, against whom he averaged 9.88, and there was many an occasion where the right-hander looked completely lost.
However, the 13 times he entered in the 14th over or beyond, the 36-year-old averaged 36.6 and struck at 151.2
His numbers against spin were still abysmal (avg 14, SR 78) but later entry points meant facing less spin (he only faced 18 balls of spin in 13 innings). This worked in Karthik’s advantage, as did the fact that a late entry point emboldened him as he simply could come in and throw the kitchen sink rather than worrying about constructing an innings.
KKR never really bought into the pattern, but RCB did. Remarkably, in 15 of his 16 innings in IPL 2022, only once did Karthik ever bat in the first ten overs.
In fact, RCB were so keen on exclusively deploying DK at the death that in 60% of his games in IPL 2022 (9/16), the veteran walked in to bat after the 15th over.
The plan worked like a charm. Karthik ended IPL 2022 with 330 runs at an average of 66 and SR of 183.33. He still had his fair share of struggles against spin, striking at a mere 110.77 against the tweakers, but he more than made up for it by obliterating pacers, scoring 258 off the 115 balls he faced against them.
It is no secret that Karthik prefers spin to pace, but the delayed entry points played a humongous role in his success, for it just gave him an unmatched sense of clarity.
Once Karthik put up the numbers he did, in a specialized position like finishing where there’s a scarcity of individuals in the country, the national selectors couldn’t say no.
The dream had been realized.
How DK became indispensable in the Indian set-up
When Karthik received the call-up for the South Africa T20Is in June, pretty much the entire nation was chuffed. Still, the prospect of him being a starter looked very unlikely.
Jadeja, Hardik and Suryakumar being automatic picks meant that there was space for only one of Rishabh Pant or Dinesh Karthik in a full-strength XI.
But at that point, such was the faith the management had in Pant that he was named stand-in skipper for the South Africa series. Barring an injury (or injuries), DK looked like he’d warm the bench.
Remarkably, however, almost as if fate intervened, the events that followed across the following four months resulted in DK leapfrogging Pant.
Karthik did his own bit right; he wasted no time in making an impact. In his comeback series against the Proteas, the 36-year-old played two trademark knocks: a 30* in Cuttack and a 55 in Rajkot.
India, to their credit, used DK the ‘RCB way’ — delaying his entry points — and the veteran delivered.
He had an ordinary tour of England but bounced back strong against West Indies, laying the marker with a 19-ball 41* in the very first match.
Ironically, however, what ultimately led to Karthik sealing his spot was the inability of his competitor to deliver.
Pant averaged 22.22 (SR 128.2) in his first 11 T20Is post DK’s comeback, but still got the nod ahead of the veteran for the crucial Asia Cup games. Presumably due to his left-handedness.
The injury to Jadeja strengthened Pant’s case (on paper) even more, but the southpaw blew chance after chance. He eventually ran out of lives and ultimately lost his spot to Karthik.
Across the six T20Is against Australia and South Africa, the 36-year-old, in the limited chances he got, made sure he made the spot his own.
The management preferred DK because when it came to the veteran, they knew exactly what he brought to the table; exactly what they were going to get. That simply wasn’t the case with the southpaw.
What made them realize DK was indispensable, however, were the Super Four games against Pakistan and Sri Lanka in the Asia Cup, where it became evident that the burden of finishing was too much for one person (Hardik Pandya) to handle.
Having Karthik in the XI was no longer a choice. It turned into a need.
For once, DK is the right man at the right time
In sport, as is in life, timing is everything. And all through his career, Dinesh Karthik has been the right man at the wrong time.
A gifted wicket-keeper batter like him would probably have made tons of appearances in each format had he played for a different country.
But more than 70% of Karthik’s career coinciding with MS Dhoni, a generational cricketer, meant that his chances were few and far between. He was sentenced to spending his time in the shadows.
His rotten luck made sure that, immediately after Dhoni, he encountered another generational talent in Rishabh Pant, but the stars have finally aligned in such a way that the stage has been set-up for Karthik to shine.
14 months ago, Karthik believed in himself when no one else did. And now he is here, all set to embark on a World Cup journey that could potentially be legacy-sealing.
For once, DK is the right man at the right time.