Dinesh Karthik knows what it’s like to have had his hopes high, only for them to get dashed. In Chennai four years ago, Tamil Nadu had conceded a first-innings lead against Railways and were fighting to stay in contention for a Ranji Trophy knockouts berth when Karthik, then playing as a specialist batsman, was told of MS Dhoni’s sudden retirement from Test cricket.
In Tamil Nadu’s next match, Karthik took the gloves, which meant that designated stumper U Sushil had to be left out. While the team management explained this decision as being down to “tactical calls” and “strategy”, the move is said to have caused a hint of friction in the Tamil Nadu camp. Some even termed it “opportunistic behaviour” from a senior player who was trying to earn a Test spot. As it turned out, Wriddhiman Saha would not only keep wicket in the following Test in Sydney, but make the spot his own for the next three years.
There was another call-up in January this year when Karthik, preparing to play for Tamil Nadu in the domestic T20s, was summoned by the team management to South Africa as back-up for a back-up. Saha had pulled up injured after the first Test in Cape Town, and Parthiv Patel, the second wicketkeeper on tour, had a poor game with the gloves in Centurion.
The team management, however, persisted with Parthiv for the final game, leaving Karthik on the bench. He would then sit out of the subsequent ODI series and feature in one T20I before returning home. This was also around the time Karthik was discussed as a Kolkata Knight Riders’ captaincy candidate. Then that over happened against Bangladesh in the Nidahas Trophy final, and life hasn’t been the same since.
Karthik was on his way back from London after playing the charity game for hurricane relief at Lord’s when news of his Test comeback trickled in. Karthik’s initial thought at the time was not surprise but relief, because he had done well in limited-overs cricket and was in the middle of a purple patch.
When he was asked on Tuesday, ahead of the Afghanistan’s inaugural Test in Bengaluru, if this was a second wind in his career, Karthik laughed it off. After all, this was going to be his sixth comeback to the Test team, in an international career that is now set to enter its 15th year.
“I’ve been asked this question a lot of times. It feels good, but it’s hard for me to put it into phrases like ‘second wind’ and ‘comeback of sorts’ and all that. But I’ll say it feels good to be back in the Indian team in whites,” he said. “To be part of the Test team is something I’ve always dreamed of. I’m just thankful to the people who have stood by me over the years.”
The dynamics of Indian cricket have changed in the time since Karthik last played a Test, in 2010. The batting stalwarts who he played with in that game in Bangladesh have all called it a day. Dhoni, the man who replaced Karthik in the Test squad and became India’s first-choice for close to a decade, is now happily retired from the format. Karthik admitted to being frustrated when he lost his Test spot.
“I guess I did not perform well enough before. I wasn’t consistent enough. There was a highly competitive environment. MS Dhoni was breathing down my neck, causing a lot of stir in Test cricket at that point of time,” he said. “He has gone on to become probably one of the greatest Test cricket captains India has ever produced. So, it’s not that I lost out my place to some normal cricketer. He has been a special cricketer over a period of time and I respect him for that.
“Just the fact that I couldn’t at that stage produce enough performances to hold on to my place [frustrates me]. I think I need to be honest with myself. I think I wasn’t as good then. I have another opportunity now and I guess I will try to do my best.”
The frustration resulted in a massive dip. That Ranji season, he would make just 200 runs in nine innings. It was then that he felt the need to make peace with the challenges and “respect domestic cricket” to return to run-scoring ways. The love for the game though, had remained intact.
“I’ve always enjoyed playing the sport, so motivation has never been a problem,” he said. “I’ve enjoyed playing the Ranji Trophy. It’s a totally different challenge. There are not many out there who come and watch you play; you play because you enjoy the sport, which I’ve always done subconsciously. I’ve enjoyed being part of Team Tamil Nadu. Credit to them as well, for having put up with me through the tough years.
“As a senior player, they expect you to perform well. Along the way if I could help out young guys, great. That was my mentality. End of the day, it’s always been great to represent a team like that, for them to have put up with me and backed me Today I’m really happy where I’m sitting.”
The years with Tamil Nadu helped Karthik keep the faith, and have also meant that of India’s current Test side only Cheteshwar Pujara has played more first-class matches than Karthik (157).
Now, two days away from his 24th Test, Karthik knows he’s a certainty in the XI. There are no false alarms this time. At 33, he’s more mature and far from the fidgety player he once was. Experience, he says, has changed his outlook on cricket and, as clich d as it may sound, he is simply focusing on the “process” rather than looking long-term and worrying about what he must to do keep Saha out.
“That [looking too far ahead] puts a little bit of extra pressure than what is already there,” he said. “I’m trying to be consistent there, where even if I don’t get the opportunity, even if I don’t end up playing at the highest level, I want to be content with the fact that I’ve given it everything.
“If I now go and try to think about how I can keep my place and keep someone else out, it becomes very subjective. You end up thinking ‘I need to score here, I need to do this, I need to do that.’ I don’t want to keep it that way. I just want to make the best of the opportunities I get.”
Karthik may well go on to be part of the Test squad for the tour of England, a country where he’s had success as an opener. But, for now, he’s happy to be part of a historic occasion. Words of encouragement is all he had for his opponents, even when it was posed to him that their captain had talked up his spin attack as being better than India’s.
“At the end of the day experience has a lot of value,” he said. “We saw that with CSK in the IPL. Experience pays. I’m sure in time they will be even better bowlers than when they start off. But the point is, the kind of improvement they have shown in white-ball cricket has been phenomenal. There is no reason why they cannot do that in Test cricket, but I would definitely say our spinners have a lot of experience – and experience is not something that can be easily bought. I’m sure their players will also vouch for that. So I wouldn’t harp too much on that.”
With that statement alone, Karthik showed why he’s in his best phase of his career, a player who had matured and left the fidgety self who last played a Test more than eight years ago well behind.