'One of my best' - Karthik
The demons on the pitch were working overtime - Sourav Ganguly fell pushing too early, Sachin Tendulkar perished driving loosely, India limping at 35 for 3 - when Dinesh Karthik entered the fray. Though he sparkled in the Tests in South Africa, his previous ODI high was just 17. With the World Cup around the bend, and the possible challengers to his place showing signs of recovery - Yuvraj Singh with his knee, Virender Sehwag with the bat and Irfan Pathan with the ball - he couldn't have timed this knock more perfectly.
It helped that Rahul Dravid was batting when he walked in. Although they added only 20 runs, Dravid's calmness and confidence rubbed off on him. "Dravid stressed the importance of settling down before you played your shots," Kartik told reporters at the end of the game. "It was important for me to make a partnership with other batsmen and I tried to do that and it came off."
He looked to come forward, played close to the body and shunned the on-the-up drives. However, things were never going to be easy on this track when you had to curb your instincts and suppress the natural batsman's reaction. Mahendra Singh Dhoni perished trying to flick, as most batsmen would, to a delivery down the leg side. The ball stopped and he got a leading edge back to the bowler. "It was tough initially," Kartik admitted. "But if you stayed there and settled down and got used to the pace of the wicket you could get runs, though the odd ball was coming a bit slow on to the bat and doing a bit."
Karthik rated this as one of his better knocks and stressed the importance of being consistent. "If you do well in a couple of games that helps your confidence, and that confidence is always in me. This is one of my better knocks for the country [but] I did not do anything special, just a normal nets session and I batted according to the situation."
With Dhoni's place in the side fairly secure, Karthik has, over the past few months, sought to reinvent himself as a specialist batsman. "Dhoni is keeping and I am a batsman. Hopefully we both can continue with our roles successfully, ultimately what's important is what works for the team. It is important to do well with the bat and contribute in the field as well. I am trying to do that."
Dravid, too, said he saw no reason why India can't play both in the same team. "I think it is great, he sees this as a great opportunity. Dhoni is doing well behind the stumps, Karthik is fielding brilliantly and I don't see why we can't play two keepers."
Dravid was effusive in praising Karthik's knock. "It was quite a tough wicket and he played a special knock. I think he has understated how difficult batting on this track was. His partnership with Ajit Agarkar was very crucial. Certainly if he can keep playing this way, he'll find a place in the team. He won us a 20-20 game in South Africa and it is great that he is carrying it off here."
Was there any pressure on him, considering the selectors are meeting on Thursday to decide the team for the next two games? "When you go out to bat, if you think too much about selection, pitch and all that stuff it can only hamper your batting," Karthik said. "You go there to give the best and rest is up to God."
God and a few mortals, of course, one of whom is Dravid. Asked about the possible changes, Dravid reverted to type and kept his cards close to his chest. With Pathan, Yuvraj and Sehwag out of the team, India are limited in bowling options and need a bowling allrounder. "We are trying a few options," Dravid said."Tendulkar is bowling superbly, bowling his quota. Irfan Pathan did a great job when he was bowling well and the results speak for themselves. Obviously if we have that kind of cricketer in your team, it makes a difference. Sehwag, also, has done a good job with the ball. We shall sit down with the selectors and look at all possible options."
One would think, from India's display today, that batting would be a concern but Dravid refused to blame his top-order batsmen and felt that the wicket had a lot to do with India slipping to 90 for 7. "The ball was stopping and coming. I don't blame the top order. Gambhir was caught down the leg side, Ganguly just pushed a bit early, Tendulkar was out playing a normal drive to an overpitched delivery and I played around a slower ball. I don't think the top order played rashly."
He also had kind words for Ramesh Powar, who picked up three key wickets today. "He's been doing a good job for us. He's competing with two very good spinners in Kumble and Harbhajan and that's always going to be tough but he does well whenever given a opportunity".
Sriram Veera is editorial assistant of Cricinfo