November 26, 2002

Murali Kartik, belligerent practitioner of a difficult art

It is a skill that requires a delicate touch only a notch less gentle than brain surgery. It is a discipline that needs patience only matched by big-game hunters lying in wait for their quarry to wander into range. Both qualities that have been appplied from time to time to the bowling style that has come to be known as slow left-arm orthodox. Neither a quality that one would apply to Murali Kartik. He is just not the sort of chap who conjures up visions of gentility; he is more the angry young man than the wise practitioner of a difficult art.

Just as he was preparing to make the journey to Siliguri to play his next Ranji Trophy game, Kartik heard the news that he would soon be on a plane to New Zealand, picked to play Test matches for India once more. "In some ways I was a bit surprised. Knowing that India would take only two spinners on the tour, I kept my fingers crossed. I had to be prepared either way, whether it was to play for India in Tests or for Railways in the Ranji Trophy," Kartik told CricInfo from his residence in Delhi.

Only two days before, the young left-arm spinner had ended four successful one-dayers against the West Indies, picking three crucial wickets in one game and destroying the top order in the process. In the games that followed, the Kartik on display was buoyant, confident and unfazed by the carnage around him. On tracks where bowlers' reputations were being systematically destroyed, one-day batting records routinely smashed and fielders sent running on repetitive leather hunts, Kartik came out unscathed.

"It was difficult to even be on the field watching the others bowl. Everything was loaded in the favour of batsmen, and they were killing anything sent at them," said Kartik. He was right - more or less. Where seamers fed a rampant Chris Gayle outside the off-stump, Kartik restricted him by bowling a leg-and-middle line and cramping him for room. Where his fellow spinners were quick in the air in fear of being thrashed over the infield, Kartik was slower, almost controlling the ball, as one writer said about Bishan Singh Bedi, with the expertise of a kite-flyer.

So when Anil Kumble opted out of the New Zealand tour, Kartik became a cinch as replacement, although some would suggest that he should have gotten the nod ahead of Kumble in any case. "I've always been thought of more as a Test bowler than a one-day bowler. In the four Tests I played, I felt I bowled consistently well. I was always looking to bowl well - over after over, session after session. For some reason or the other, though, the wickets simply did not come my way," explained Kartik.

In four Tests, Kartik has taken just nine wickets at an average of almost 35, at a strike-rate that is only a touch less than Sir Don Bradman's batting average. Kartik's critics, one may be sure, will be carping about these statistics the moment he goes through one session when batsmen take a fancy to his bowling. "You know, it's strange, in domestic cricket, I've never really gotten punished for any length of time. There are three or four matches when I've gone wicketless, but there hasn't been a day when my bowling has been thrashed about. Sure, some days you bowl well and don't get results, other days you're not at your best but end up with wickets," Kartik said.

But in domestic cricket, he's never had a captain who bowled him in seven spells - with none exceeding five overs - in a single innings like Sourav Ganguly did in the inaugural Test against Bangladesh at Dhaka. He might as well have asked Kartik to not bother turning up.

Then again, domestic cricket is domestic cricket, an arena where bowlers routinely end up with piles of wickets and batsmen score centuries like it is their birthright to do so. The rites of passage are hardly as easy at the highest level. Every young cricketer, consequently, is told that he must make adjustments and rise to the occasion. "About fast bowling or even batting I might have agreed with you," said Kartik. "But for spinners, that's not quite the case. There isn't such a huge difference between a tough first-class game and an international match. In India, batsmen have always been good at playing spin on our wickets. There's this aura about them."

His domestic record aside, Kartik has also been extremely successful in 'A' tours and in side-games against touring sides. Add to that his 200 first-class wickets at an average of under 25, and the fact that he has played for India just nine times in all is rendered inexplicable. Perhaps more relevantly, how has he managed to keep the shoulders from sagging? "Maninder Singh and Bishan Bedi have been behind me from the time I started playing serious cricket. There's really no one better than that to have with you if you are learning to bowl left-arm spin," said Kartik. The Madras-born Railways cricketer was also quick to add, "Laxman and Rahul (Dravid) kept me going with their constant encouragement. At times it felt like they believed in me more than I did!"

So is Murali Kartik the left-arm spinner the world has been waiting for? A potent cocktail of Bedi's guile and control, Bapu Nadkarni's economy and stamina, Derek Underwood's unplayability on a sticky dog, Ravi Shastri's doggedness, Iqbal Qasim's wiliness...

Yeah, and England are going to win the Ashes, the sun rises in the West, and I'm the Prime Minister of India.

What Kartik is, however, is a tough-as-nails, street-smart, hard-working bowler. He's the kind of cricketer that backs himself and will not take rubbish from anyone. He's not shy to swear a bit when he's got a raw deal, and he definitely won't be quiet if an opponent has a few choice words to share.

"That's how I've played all my life. Perhaps it's because I started off as a medium-pacer who could bowl a bit of spin," chuckled Kartik. "I'm aggressive in my approach on the field and a different guy off it. Being that way has helped kindle the fire in my belly, kept me going," he adds. It's also got him where he is, and one suspects it is just the thing that will make sure Kartik slots easily into this resurgent Indian team and make a name for himself.

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