When Dinesh Karthik made his first statement as an international cricketer, in September 2004, Thefacebook.com was a social-networking platform known only to some college students in the United States of America. Twitter lay in the future. He turned 33 earlier this month and, on Thursday, will win just his 24th Test cap.
That first act was so memorable that anything that followed was almost destined to be a disappointment. India had already lost the first two ODIs of a three-game series when Karthik was called up for the final match at Lord’s. In a low-scoring game, it was his stumping of Michael Vaughan, off Harbhajan Singh’s bowling, that tilted the balance decisively in India’s favour. When the ball was pushed down the leg side, Karthik made good ground to gather, and with Vaughan straining to get back, he took the bails off with what was a dismissive wave of the right glove. That he was off-balance as he did so made it all the more remarkable.
A couple of months later, he was given his Test spurs, on a cabbage patch in Mumbai where the ball turned and bounced at crazy angles. But like Ajay Ratra, Parthiv Patel and other teenagers drafted into the big leagues, Karthik found Test cricket a struggle. There were glimpses of quality, but the consistency that India sought eluded him.
In his third Test, he took six catches and scored a doughty 46 against Graeme Smith’s South Africa at Eden Gardens. Later that season, there was a sparkling 93 against Pakistan at the same venue. But once a certain MS Dhoni has announced himself in the limited-overs leg of the same series, Karthik’s card was marked. He played the two Tests in Zimbabwe, but with Greg Chappell so excited by Dhoni’s raw ability, there was little surprise when he was drafted in for the home series against Sri Lanka in late 2005.
That was the end of Karthik the wicketkeeper-batsman. The next time he wore India whites, he was deputising for the injured Dhoni at Newlands (January 2007). He did so well as a makeshift opener alongside Wasim Jaffer that he was asked to front up for the task in the most challenging of conditions. The series win in England in 2007 was India’s last there, and Karthik was a key protagonist, with 60 at Lord’s, 77 at Trent Bridge and 91 at The Oval. But a poor home series against Pakistan – he did sign off with 24 and 52 in Bangalore – and it was back to the fringes.
Dhoni’s decision to skip the Sri Lanka tour in 2008 gave him another opportunity, one that he couldn’t grasp, and there have been just two caps since, the last of them in Chittagong eight and a half years ago. If anyone can relate to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ The Waiting, it’s Karthik, who has spent nearly half his life doing precisely that.
“I guess I wasn’t good enough, I didn’t perform well enough before,” he said with real candour two days before the start of the game against Afghanistan. “I wasn’t consistent enough. I was in a highly competitive environment. There was a person called MS Dhoni breathing down my neck, who was causing a stir in world cricket at that time. He’s gone on to probably become one of the greatest captains India’s ever produced.
“It’s not like I lost out my place to some normal cricketer, he’s been a special cricketer and I respect him for that. The fact is that at that stage, I couldn’t produce enough performances to hold on to my place in the side. I need to be honest with myself that I wasn’t as good then. But I have another opportunity now and I guess I’ll try and do my best.”
Others gave up and moved on. Karthik didn’t. Of the current side, only Cheteshwar Pujara has played more first-class matches than Karthik (157), and he credited those seasons with Tamil Nadu for not losing faith. “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, with my batting, with my keeping and as a player. I’m really indebted to them. It’s very easy to fade away but for Tamil Nadu to keep competing in Ranji, that was the challenge, trying to get into the knockouts. Every alternate year, we put up performances. One year we reached the final, couple of years later got there again.
“As a senior player, they expect you to perform well. Along the way, if I could help out young guys, great.”
Wriddhiman Saha, who is a few months older, has been India’s keeper of choice since Dhoni called in quits after the Boxing Day game in Melbourne in 2014. But as much as those behind the scenes rate Saha’s keeping, there is a feeling that he isn’t enough of a game-changer with the bat, especially in overseas conditions.
Karthik can draw on the memories of that outstanding tour of England 11 years ago. If he ticks the boxes both in front of and behind the stumps against Test cricket’s new boys, the spot he has craved for over a decade, one that he must have thought would never be his, could land in those big gloves this English summer.