Replacement man gets replaced
During the Asia Cup in Dambulla in 2010, Virender Sehwag was ruled out with a hamstring injury on June 21. The same evening, Dinesh Karthik, a replacement flown in from India, was in the nets, and playing an international on June 22. One of his team-mates welcomed him thus: "Sachhi sachhi bata, tu Colombo mein hi tha na? (Tell us the truth, you were in Colombo, right?)" The joke being that Karthik had turned up at such short notice, and that he had become so accustomed to turning up as a replacement in such a manner, that it felt that he was almost shadowing the team.
Who knows he might have been? For Karthik is the specialist replacement man of Indian cricket. For whenever somebody gets injured, you call Karthik. Opener down? Go for DK. Middle-order batsman gone? Go for DK. Wicketkeeper resting? DK's there. Test opener out of form on green tracks? Worry not, there's DK. In ODIs, Karthik has replaced all sorts of people, and has batted at all positions from 1 to 7. Who knows he might have learned bowling too? Who knows he might even have been able to fill in for N Srinivasan?
Karthik is easy to like. He is energetic on the field. He doesn't mind making sacrifices as long he is part of the team. He doesn't tell the team that a certain position is his preference. He doesn't mind giving up wicketkeeping and fielding anywhere: in the deep, inside the circle, under the helmet. And he hasn't been that bad a replacement either. The problem, though, is he hasn't been able to graduate from being the specialist replacement man. He does well when called up in difficult circumstances, but then doesn't do enough to hand that band over to someone else.
And then you feel bad for him. As you do today, after he lost out to Yuvraj Singh and Ambati Rayudu in the squad for the T20 and first three ODIs against Australia. To make it worse, it isn't even the kind of selection that you can point out as obviously wrong or unfair. You can imagine even the selectors would have felt bad making this call. In the Champions Trophy in England and in the ODIs in Zimbabwe, he did well in the limited opportunities he got: 169 runs in 203 balls in 10 matches, at an average of 56.33.
It was when he got unlimited opportunities to bat, in the tri-series in the West Indies, that he failed, which is possibly why Rayudu has been preferred after both performed similarly in the Zimbabwe series. Possibly it was Karthik's poor performance on an even easier assignment, against South Africa A, that did it. Possibly Karthik has grown too used to the uncertainty that being a replacement player brings, and finds himself lost when it comes to carving out a permanent role for himself.
After he had put that ribbing - not entirely in good humour - out of the way in Dambulla, Karthik rattled off 40 in his first match and then a Man-of-the-Match 66 in the final. He has probably made bigger sacrifices in Test cricket, chipping in as a replacement opener for both injured and out-of-form stars. His best came in England in 2007 when he consistently gave India good starts along with Wasim Jaffer. It was India's first series win in England in 21 years.
Karthik averages 47 as an opener outside India, in four Tests played in England and South Africa. All those four Tests came around 2007, but then he failed to fill up his boots in the best conditions to open an innings in - the subcontinent. Then he lost out to an inspired selection, that of Virender Sehwag for the tour of Australia. The next time he replaced somebody in a Test was when MS Dhoni decided to sit out the tour of Sri Lanka in 2008. And when he failed against Muttiah Muralitharan and Ajantha Mendis, along with some of the greatest batsmen India has ever produced, his Test career was all but over.
Therein lies a lesson, especially for Test openers who think hundreds don't matter, contribution to wins does. Karthik has been making crucial contributions, but he hadn't done enough when the going was good. He had plucky thirties and fifties, but not enough big hundreds. He can look around and point to a few others who have got longer ropes with similar results, but he will also know he has himself come short.
For one, as a wicketkeeper, Karthik made too many mistakes, and lost his Test replacement duties to the more correct Wriddhiman Saha. Technically perhaps, Dhoni is not a much better wicketkeeper, and Karthik the Test batsman might be just as good, but Dhoni cuts out the glaring mistakes with the big gloves on and scores the big hundreds when he has it going for him.
The case with his ODI replacement - either Yuvraj or Rayudu - is the same. The selectors possibly see Rayudu as a purer batsman who will deliver those big innings. Karthik is not out of the picture yet. He is only 28, he is fit, and hardly goes a domestic season when he doesn't score big runs. It is entirely possible he will be called up should someone get injured in this series. It is possible he will be more at home then. And his team-mates will wonder if he was already in the city hosting the match, on the off chance someone needs to be replaced.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo