Ever since the explosive MS Dhoni became India's first-choice wicketkeeper, Dinesh Karthik has evolved into India's all-purpose back-up man. Virender Sehwag out of form three years ago? Bring in Karthik as opener for tough series in South Africa and England. Concerns over Dhoni's fitness ahead of any series? Bring in Karthik as the reserve wicketkeeper. Any batsman indisposed for one-dayers? Bring in Karthik to plug the gap.
In the first 21 innings of his one-day career, Karthik played in every position from opener to No. 7. For his state side, Tamil Nadu, he has long been a successful middle-order batsman. After four failures at the top in Dambulla, perhaps the time has come for Karthik to insist on being picked for his natural role, competing with the likes of Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli for a middle-order spot. If there is a need for an opening batsman, India should groom a specialist back-up, someone like M Vijay.Dhoni has spoken of the pressures on Rohit, since he is never sure of being in the side. The argument is more apt for Karthik: in the six years since his debut, Karthik has never been a part of the team for more than 12 matches at a stretch. His current six-game run as opener, after flying in as Sehwag's replacement during the Asia Cup, equals his longest spell at a fixed batting slot.The present, relatively long stint with the national squad is on the back of a Man-of-the-Match performance in the Asia Cup final. But playing him out of position at the top of the order is doing neither him nor the team any good. His confidence is taking a beating and the team isn't getting off to solid starts.Two poor umpiring decisions haven't helped Karthik either - he was given out lbw in the opening match against New Zealand and caught behind against Sri Lanka on Sunday. Both dismissals sparked dire batting collapses that left India facing a must-win encounter against New Zealand.When the big boys - Sachin Tendulkar and Gautam Gambhir - return to the top order, Karthik may or may not retain his spot in the squad as a reserve wicketkeeper. But before discarding him again, Karthik deserves to be given a decent run in the middle order to see whether he has what it takes. His career numbers match those of other contenders like Rohit, who at least had the opportunity of a one-year unbroken run in the middle order before being dropped.Karthik's blend-in-any-role versatility has so far helped him remain on the international scene despite being usurped as the country's No. 1 wicketkeeper. He's still only a fringe player, though, and for him to become a more integral part of the side, he should look at making a niche in the batting position he is most comfortable with. The competition might be tight for that slot, but much of the competition hasn't distinguished itself in the international arena yet.