June 20, 2013

The Karthik-Dhoni dynamic

Every time Dinesh Karthik looked set to cement his spot in the India side, MS Dhoni seemed to emerge as an obstacle. Until now

Dinesh Karthik: finally tasting a period of success as a specialist batsman © Getty Images

India had lost the first two matches of the three-match ODI series against England in 2004. The third one was a dead rubber, and India chose to relieve Rahul Dravid of his wicketkeeping duties.

Dravid began playing as a regular wicketkeeper in the West Indies in 2002, in an experiment to lend the team a greater balance and the luxury to play seven batsmen. He kept the gloves in the 2003 World Cup, in which India finished as runners-up, and the decision seemed a worthwhile gamble. Just as they prepared to move on to find a more sustainable solution, a few setbacks forced India to go back to Dravid as keeper to beef up the batting again.

Dinesh Karthik made his debut for India in the NatWest dead rubber in 2004 and scored 1 off 12 balls. India were all out for 204 and had run through the England top order from one end, while Michael Vaughan was rock solid at the other. With Ashley Giles for company, Vaughan resurrected the innings from 62 for 6, before losing his partner at 154.

With the match hanging in the balance, Vaughan stepped out to a Harbhajan Singh delivery, bowled way down the leg side. The 19-year-old debutant keeper moved across swiftly, gathered the ball, and when he realised he was too far away to stump, dived full length to flick the bails off, with Vaughan stranded. Match sealed. So was the debate around playing a specialist keeper instead of Dravid, who kept in only two matches after that.

Except that MS Dhoni, not Karthik, took the gloves from Dravid eventually. Karthik made his debut on September 5, 2004 and played two ODIs that year, not batting in one. Dravid last played as a keeper on November 13, 2004. Dhoni made his one-day debut on December 23, 2004. If there was any noise about Karthik getting a raw deal, it was muted when Dhoni launched Shahid Afridi over extra cover on his way to a brilliant 148 in Visakhapatnam. The rest is history.


India's players had a horrendous schedule in 2007-08. A three-Test series against Pakistan at home in November 2007, an Australia tour from December to March, followed immediately by a three-Test series against South Africa at home, a 44-day IPL, a tri-series in Bangladesh, and the Asia Cup in Pakistan. The schedule was so punishing that Dhoni vented his frustration in press conferences. The BCCI suggested tired players could opt for rest if they couldn't cope with the schedule. Dhoni chose to sit out the Test series in Sri Lanka in August 2008. At that point, he had one fifty in his last seven Tests and a solitary hundred from 29 Tests overall. Quite a bizarre and bold decision.

The selectors went back to Karthik. While Dhoni was a smashing success in ODIs, he wasn't quite indispensable in Tests yet. Also, Karthik was widely believed to be the better wicketkeeper. He also gave the team the option of a back-up opener. If he had paved the way for Dhoni to come into the ODI team earlier than Dhoni would otherwise have, this seemed like a kind of reversal of fortune.

But Muttiah Muralitharan and Ajantha Mendis demolished the Indian batting line-up, Karthik included, in the Tests. As if that wasn't bad enough, he had his worst series as keeper. India's captain, Anil Kumble, replaced Karthik with Parthiv Patel for the final Test, in Colombo, but Parthiv couldn't survive the Mendis magic either.

Dhoni came back for the ODIs that followed, took back his Test place against Australia at home and captained the team in Kumble's absence in the two matches that India won in that series. He took over the captaincy full-time when Kumble retired at the end of the series. The rest is history.


It's another comeback for Karthik in the Champions Trophy, this time as a specialist batsman. Against Australia in the warm-up match, Karthik, who had made a century in the previous game, came in at 39 for 4, and was joined by Dhoni at 55 for 5. They put on a mammoth 211-run partnership in about 30 overs, with Karthik scoring a brilliant century.

For someone whose career slowed down every time he competed for Dhoni's spot, not chasing that spot may just be his best bet yet.

When he's not watching / talking / tweeting / reading cricket, Mahesh Sethuraman works in a bank in India to pay his bills. He tweets here