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He's not sure whether this his 12th or 13th comeback to the Indian team, but for the moment Murali Kartik does not really care. He's more than happy to be giving up the dark blue blazer and microphone, accessories he's needed as a television analyst commentating on the India-Australia series. There's sure to be more chat, but Kartik can now tell the Australians all he wants at their faces when he reaches Chandigarh for the fourth ODI.
"It was a massive surprise," Kartik told Cricinfo soon after hearing the news of his recall. "After finishing my stint with Middlesex I knew that there was a break between two seasons and since I wasn't picked in the Irani Trophy squad I didn't have any cricket till the start of the Ranji season. That's why I took up the chance to work in the media. But yes, this is a very pleasant surprise."
But it's surprising only because Kartik has been ignored in the past even after doing well in domestic cricket. When he went out of the Indian team in early 2006, through a shoulder injury that required surgery, the doors seemed to gradually shut on him. A good stint with Lancashire and promising performances in the Challenger Series and in the Deodhar Trophy did not result in a recall, something that normally happens when a player misses out due to injury rather than lack of performances.
This time around, there was no denying him. A county season where he picked up 51 wickets in 11 matches at an average of 24 - bowling Middlesex to victory almost single-handedly in four matches - left Kartik seventh in the bowling charts. On top of this he had 20 wickets from 13 limited-overs matches and 9 from four Twenty20 games.
He did so well that Middlesex retained him as the overseas pro for the coming season, choosing him over Chaminda Vaas. "He is a world-class bowler who has fitted in well with the team," said John Emburey, the Middlesex coach. "With the regulations reducing the number of overseas players to one per county next year, it is crucial to sign a proven match-winner and we have done that with Kartik."
But for now Kartik is thinking of India, not Middlesex. "The two are different things. I am going back to Middlesex anyway," he said. "Playing for the country is what you play for and strive for. That's what you want to do till the time you hang up your boots. As and when you get it, grasp it with both hands."
While no player will look down on a chance to make a comeback to national honours, few would willingly choose to do so against Australia, who are already 2-0 up in the seven-match series with one game rained out. A batting side that attacked spinners less robustly might have been preferable. "That's the way they've always played and there is a challenge there. International sport is always about challenge," said Kartik. "You just have to enjoy it. For me it's a question of going out there and enjoying my cricket and the challenges that come with it. I'm not going to put too much pressure on myself."
I've mellowed with age. That white-line fever is always there but I know how to channelise it better now. Against Australia it's always going to be there. Harbhajan has had a few exchanges with them in the past, he relishes that and it fires him up
Besides just attacking with bat and ball, the Australians come pretty hard at opposition with the verbals. But Kartik, who's built up a reputation as a pretty fiery character, doesn't think that will be a big factor. "I've mellowed with age. That white-line fever is always there but I know how to channelise it better now," he said. "Against Australia it's always going to be there. Harbhajan has had a few exchanges with them in the past, he relishes that and it fires him up. Sreesanth has been treading a thin line ... It is going to be interesting."
Kartik also doesn't think it's going to be difficult to slip back into the Indian team. "I'm no stranger to comebacks. I've been in and out of the team since 2000 and this was probably my longest stint out of the team. I'm going back into the dressing-room after a while," he said, but hoped that the things he had learnt playing cricket day-in and day-out would help him cement a place. "I've been playing back-to-back seasons for three years. It is hard work. In England you play 104 overs a day and then you travel 150-200 miles to the next venue to play your next game. The rigour teaches you a lot of things. The conditions are different, the weather is different. London is supposed to be sunny but it was wet, wet, wet all season. It teaches you to continuously adapt every day."
Another mild oddity is that despite having played only eight Tests and 30 ODIs over eight years, Kartik is the elder statesman in this spin-bowling set-up. Harbhajan, a good four years younger than Kartik, has achieved much more but is himself making a comeback. "There comes a time in life when, if you've played a lot of cricket, you become one of the elder statesmen in the team. You can't run away from it. Experience teaches you a lot of things and you become more mature in handling success and failure."
The Indian team have only met with failure in the series so far, and the going won't be easy for Kartik, but he's hoping that his experience will make things easier. "Spin bowling is a lot about feel. Experience does make a big difference. One thing that I've had in my favour is that I've always understood my bowling and what I'm capable of. Half the time I feel the bowlers I'm competing with for places in the Indian team are better than me, so that keeps me level-headed." The way Matthew Hayden and Andrew Symonds are going after India's bowlers it might not be that easy to keep a level head when Kartik gets a bowl. How he handles it could make the difference.