Akshay Karnewar: Vidarbha's ambidextrous trump card
A week ago, Himachal Pradesh captain and allrounder Bipul Sharma was trying to chase down Vidarbha's 183 in a crucial league match of the Syed Mushtaq Ali Twenty20. The winner would earn a ticket to enter the Super League.
Bipul, a left-hander, was facing Akshay Karnewar, the 23-year-old Vidarbha left-arm spinner, who he dealt with effortlessly. Then Karnewar told the umpire he was switching to right-arm offspin. "Yeh kaise kya ho sakta hain? [How can this be possible?] He [Bipul] was absolutely shocked," Ravi Thakur, Karnewar's room-mate, says.
"Sorry, what?" is an expression frequent among those who have faced the nearly six-foot tall Karnewar. Ever since his first coach, seeing him bat left-handed, instructed him to bowl left-arm spin, Karnewar has posed doubts in the minds of batsmen and umpires with his double act.
Ambidextrous spinners are a rarity in cricket, and bowling with both arms is something that has only been tried in international cricket for a bit of light relief. But despite his freakish ability, Karnewar remains modest.
He is a quiet individual. His room-mate Thakur, the Vidarbha fast bowler, pitches in and prompts Karnewar to point out how much of an "important" player he is. "Tell them why you are a player a team should pick. Even if there is a left-right combination, it is an advantage for you with your skills to move the ball out to both. The opposition might think you are a left-arm spinner, so let us send in a left-hander, but you can move to bowling right-arm offspin and spin the ball away from the left-hander," Thakur points out. Karnewar smiles modestly.
Karnewar originally started as a right-arm offspinner when he took up cricket seriously as a 13-year-old. His coach then, Balu Navghare, having noticed that Karnewar was doing everything else with his left hand - batting, throwing, everything except writing - encouraged him to try bowling left-arm spin, too. It took Karnewar about two years to feel comfortable bowling left-arm, since when he has bowled with both arms.
Another turning point came around 2008, when Karnewar, who comes from Pandharkawda village in Maharashtra's Yavatmal district, attended the Vidarbha Cricket Academy selection trials conducted by the former Mumbai wicketkeeper Sulakshan Kulkarni. Kulkarni motivated Karnewar to bowl in BCCI-organised tournaments, boosting his confidence and providing support.
Soon he would play the DY Patil Twenty20, a tournament that features a number of Indian players. This was followed by trials for Rajasthan Royals, about five years ago - Karnewar does not recollect the exact year, but he was not picked.
Karnewar is a good batsman as well, and again Thakur says he gets far less credit than he deserves. Thakur recollects the Vijay Hazare Trophy match against Odisha in Delhi where Vidarbha fell short by four runs chasing 227 for victory. Karnewar made 72. "Chance hi nahin milta batting karne ka [I don't get much of a chance to bat]," Karnewar says with a smile.
Although he is nearly six feet tall, Karnewar delivers the ball with a flattish arm action, without imparting much turn. "My aim always is to maintain a wicket-to-wicket line, bowl dot balls, increase the pressure on the batsman, and I feel that will get me the wickets," he says.
Karnewar reckons his ambidexterity gives him the psychological edge. "There is the doubt in the batsman's mind where he might think, 'If he bowls offspin the ball will come in, and if I pad up to him, I could get bowled.' Also in limited-overs cricket, I can wrap up the overs quickly."
Karnewar has for the first time registered himself for the IPL auction, but he is not disappointed that no IPL franchise has come forward to recruit him so far. "This is the first time I am playing [for Vidarbha] at the senior level [in Vijay Hazare and Syed Mushtaq Ali]. No one knows about my talent. The more I play, the more it will be reflected, and I would imagine people would take notice."
Former Mumbai and India fast bowler Paras Mhambrey, who is Vidarbha's coach, says he would like to see Karnewar grow. According to Mhambrey, Karnewar is "not a big turner" of the ball and pitch conditions play a key role in his success.
"It is a very different craft that he possesses," Mhambrey says. "Somewhere down the line it would be interesting to see him bowl against the top guys. Maybe a couple of years down the line, after he plays a lot more cricket, matures, then we could see him out there. It is a little too early to push him at a level like the IPL."
Mhambrey wants Karnewar to focus on becoming more lethal with his offbreaks, and plans to bowl him more in the Ranji nets to make him sharper.
Thakur prompts Karnewar to go back to the close defeat against Baroda in the first match of the Super League two days previously. Hard-hitting allrounder Hardik Pandya snatched the match from Vidarbha's grip with a 20-run blast against medium-pacer Ravi Jangid in the 15th over.
Asked what he would have bowled to Pandya, Karnewar says: "I would give him a single by pitching short of length outside the off stump. He was ready to step out and hit. But I would have my cover back, giving him no chance to hit over the inner circle."
Two overs before Pandya cut loose, Karnewar had kept Yusuf Pathan in check. Yusuf had hit Jangid for a six when Karnewar came on to bowl. "My plan was to vary my speed, because if I pitched on one length, he would easily hit me." Yusuf wanted the big hit, but Karnewar did not offer him width or length. Trying to hit over midwicket, Yusuf was beaten by the slow pace of the delivery in flight and bowled.
If Yusuf faced left-arm spin, his brother Irfan had to deal with offspin. "He said, 'Arrey, offspin,'" Karnewar says. After the match Yusuf praised Karnewar, and asked: "Dono haath se sahin dalta kya tu? [You bowl well with both hands or what?]"
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo