June 14, 2014

'India have missed out on a match-winner'

VVS Laxman
Murali Kartik was a complete bowler for every format and should have ended up with more than 300 Test wickets

One of my favourite stories about Murali Kartik concerns his name. My wife would always address him as Murali. His response, delivered in that soft yet firm tone, would be: "Murali is my father's name. My name is Kartik."

Kartik has this knack of getting close to certain people. I do not really know when and how we became such close friends. I guess a lot has to do with the common interests we share. Both of us are spiritual and religious. Both are devotees of Satya Sai Baba; Kartik's father, in fact, does voluntary service at the Satya Sai Baba Trust in Puttaparthi. Over the years, from the time he made his Test debut in 2000, we have shared a good rapport.

One big reason for me to open up to him and like him was that Kartik is a genuine person. He speaks his mind, not only on the cricket field but off it also. When that happens, you feel comfortable with a person. This feeling was mutual, as evidenced by this lovely tribute from him when I retired.

Over the years, as we started getting closer, I saw that Kartik was a very likeable character who would do anything for his friends. He was one of the few people I would call for his opinion on various issues. He is a knowledgeable guy - not only about cricket - and that is why I always pick his brains to get inputs or a different perspective.

Considering our relationship extends to over 15 years now, it is inevitable that we have shared several ups and downs. I remember the time in 2002-03 he was dropped for the ODI series in New Zealand. I cajoled him and asked him not to get disappointed. Soon afterwards, I found myself not picked for the 2003 World Cup!

Both of us were obviously disappointed when we found ourselves on the India A tour to the Caribbean. I was the captain and we had a nightmare of a series. I told him I was never going to cajole him any more, since it was landing me in trouble too!

As a player, my first impression of Kartik was how talented and skilful he was. This was in 1997, when we played against each other in successive tournaments - the Karnataka State Cricket Association tournament in Bangalore and then the Buchi Babu Memorial tournament in Chennai, with Kartik playing for India Cements and me representing Indian Airlines.

His most outstanding characteristic is his confidence. From the first day I saw him till his last match his body language and his never-say-die attitude never changed. That is a great quality to have for any cricketer to succeed at any level. It becomes much more important for a spinner because the way the modern game has progressed, it is getting tougher for a slow bowler to leave his mark. There are not many orthodox spinners left in the game - people who are willing to flight the ball, deceive the batsmen in the air, don't mind getting hit for a boundary, are always on the prowl, looking for a wicket. Kartik always possessed those characteristics and never compromised on them.

He is an intelligent person, a quality he brought to his cricket too. He is a good student of cricket and read the game, batsmen and situations well. He is a complete bowler for every level and all formats.

His primary strength is his skill. In my book, a spinner is dangerous when he is not defensive but always attacking and eyeing wickets. Kartik always had the desire to take wickets. And even if there were occasions when the batsman was on top, Kartik would never admit it. I never saw him bowl a bad spell. He might not have got wickets but he always had control; that and his variations allowed him to stay on top.

He is a good student of cricket and read the game, batsmen and situations well. He is a complete bowler for every level and all formats

In my eyes, the best spell Kartik bowled came during the Irani Cup against Mumbai in 2000, when he grabbed nine wickets in the second innings to win us the match. I was leading Rest of India and allowed Kartik to bowl unchanged on the fourth morning from the Tata End. It was unfortunate that he did not become the fifth bowler in Indian first-class cricket to achieve the feat of taking ten wickets in an innings. Kartik was always a wicket-taking bowler, someone a captain could rely on, and to me he was always a match-winner.

While Kartik had the potential to become a match-winner, unfortunately during his heyday he underwent a lot of disappointments. In 2007 he had a very good ODI series against Australia in India. He finished as the second-best Indian bowler, including taking the Man-of-the-Match award in the final match of the series, in Mumbai. On the back of such a good performance he was looking forward to travel to Australia to play in CB Series. To his utter disappointment he was not even picked in the squad. I know for a fact that he was devastated by that experience.

On the outside Kartik can come across as a bold and aggressive man. But he is very sensitive. And so it is just brilliant the way he has handled various tough experiences throughout his career. He always put up a brave face.

Kartik has endured a lot, all through his career. Until you experience it, you cannot understand how tough it is to always carry on fighting. On the inside you are disappointed, you are frustrated, the pain is deep. And you think: Why does it always happen to me? I thought Kartik might occasionally feel bad, angry at the injustice; but he never showed it. Only to a select few did he reveal he could have been treated better. He never let the disappointments affect his game and the way he carried himself on the field. And that was the hallmark of his career.

Kartik is a philosophical man. He learned through his experience that whatever happens does so for a reason. And he always took the positives - at least he played for India, played for Railways, played in county cricket, had the respect of his team-mates and opponents.

One has to also understand that Kartik played for a team like Railways in the Indian domestic circuit where the facilities have always been sparse. But though he did not get his due at the international level, he always went back to domestic or county cricket without ever letting the disappointment discourage him from performing.

He took a lot of pride in performance, no matter who he was playing for, or whether it was a competitive match or just a net session. He never let the batsman play with freedom.

Once he realised that his chances of playing again for India had evaporated, he turned his focus to giving back what he had learned to his Railways team-mates. He fought for their rights with the authorities. He always had a soft corner for the team; last year, he took up the captaincy just so he could mentor the youngsters.

I have relied a lot on Kartik to get inputs on domestic players when picking players at Sunrisers Hyderabad in the IPL. It was he who suggested that I pick Karn Sharma and Amit Paunikar.

Despite his disappointments, Kartik has remained selfless and has been open to sharing with youngsters his inputs and insights. Recently, Akshar Patel excelled during Kings XI Punjab's run to their maiden IPL final. I am certain Kartik must have played some role in Patel doing well. It did not matter to Kartik that he was sitting on the bench despite being the more experienced spinner.

When he called me earlier this week to tell me that his time was up, it was a sad moment. But I can understand his decision. Kartik was unfortunate that he played when Anil Kumble and Bhajji [Harbhajan Singh] were in their prime. But maybe when Anil retired, Kartik could have been given more opportunities. He is a bowler who should have taken more than 300 Test wickets. Indian cricket has missed out on a match-winner.

As told to Nagraj Gollapudi

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