Imagine ordering a pizza online. Then, when you get the delivery, you realize that the restaurant has messed up. It makes for a frustrating moment when you lift the pizza box lid, realizing that this is not what you ordered.
0, 20, 1, 0 – when you look at the sum total (21 runs) of Dinesh Karthik’s four innings in England thus far, you realize that it is the same ‘wrong pizza’ feeling. Or, to paraphrase coach Ravi Shastri, it isn’t what the doctor ordered.
For Karthik, quite a few moments stand out from the past five months. That six in Colombo against Bangladesh, reminding everyone that he was still about and had more in him than just playing domestic cricket. Able leadership of the Kolkata Knight Riders in the 2018 Indian Premier League, highlighting that his star was once again on the rise. And then, one man’s poor luck became his comeback card for Test cricket.
It has been a hell-of-a-ride for Karthik, who wouldn’t have surmised in his wildest dreams that he would be back playing Test cricket in England one day. Well, not after 2007 at least, when he was part of the Rahul Dravid-led side that won a first Test series on English soil since 1986.
Things were different back then. India had an array of master batsmen who were well versed in swinging conditions here, and could comprehend how to counter English bowlers. Sachin Tendulkar’s battle against Ryan Sidebottom’s left-arm swing still comes to mind – he played inside the line at all times because the outswinger was surprisingly dangerous.
Then, there was the consistency factor. Even in the times of Greg Chappell, Dravid didn’t chop and change his playing eleven, and that 2007 tour was no different. In fact, no Indian captain – prior to Virat Kohli – has shown such a knack for making umpteen changes, for whatever reason.
You might wonder why these two points have been illustrated herein. Well, simply put, both have had a strong bearing on Karthik’s fortunes on this English tour. First, the inability of the Indian top-order to counter swing has left the middle and lower order exposed. And second, the chopping-changing selection has directly contributed to top-order instability, which takes you back again to the first point.
In fact, the practice game against Essex at Chelmsford was a good marker of things to come. In that game, India had experimented with different top-order permutations, and they ought to have settled on KL Rahul-Murali Vijay, followed by Cheteshwar Pujara. They didn’t, and the result is in front of us.
More pertinently, it has had a direct impact on how Karthik has batted in all four innings so far. Against Essex, he came lower down the order, when the green-top had lost its nature and the ball had stopped swinging. He smacked 82 runs off 95 balls, almost in reflection of his white-ball form. Sitting there in the beaming sun, you felt confident about Wriddhiman Saha’s replacement.
And why not – Karthik had a prior proven record against swing in 2007, and his form a decade later has been impressive. There was no reason why he couldn’t do well in this Indian set-up. Even so, as we stare at the scorecards from two astounding defeats for India, the truth is Karthik has failed miserably.
In Birmingham, he was too fidgety, both behind and in front of the wicket. You could just see it in the manner he improvised in the second innings there – not moving as much when he went out to bat the next time. When India took stumps on day three, everyone favoured them to win the Test on day four morning. Instead, Karthik was out in the first over and India’s hopes were dashed.
A school of thought was that he should have attacked in that second innings. But, watching Karthik working in the nets with coach Sanjay Bangar, you just get the impression he is trying hard to cut down extravagant shots. Is that hindering this thinking at the crease? In the second Test at Lord’s, Karthik simply couldn’t cope with the ball movement, period.
Put these pointers together, and suddenly the image of a confident batsman, who returned to the Indian Test fold after a decade, is washed over. Instead, we are left with a batsman who cannot counter swing and is too double-minded whether to attack or defend. So much so, that now there is talk that Kohli might pull out a last-gasp effort to salvage the series and hand Rishabh Pant his maiden Test cap at Nottingham.
It does seem like something India would do, doesn’t it? After all 37 different teams in as many matches, wherein batsmen like Cheteshwar Pujara have been dropped for form, certainly sets a precedent. For once though, there is a need for Kohli to break this predictable pattern and start afresh, with consistency and faith.
There will be a lot of temptation to play Pant, who has been impressive, both in the IPL and the A-tour as well. But two Tests is too short a turnaround for Karthik’s comeback, especially given the entire batting line-up had failed too. It is too easy to ask questions off the lower-order batsmen when they haven’t been shielded from the new ball enough.
Karthik will be the first one to put up his hand and say that he hasn’t performed well enough, and so will the rest of this Indian line-up. Yet, there is a case for longer rope herein – at least one more Test. If he doesn’t perform and the series is lost 3-0 at Trent Bridge, then India have every right to look to the future in Pant.
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