Dinesh Karthik: boy with a sense of occasion

This piece, on Dinesh Karthik, appeared during the course of the Ranji Trophy final at Chennai in March. Karthik's unbeaten 109 in the first innings of 294 had thrilled his home crowd before he spent two days in the field, as Mumbai seized the initiative:

To play cricket at this time of the year, under the blazing Chennai sun, can be a completely exhausting experience. After being on the field for almost three days, Dinesh Karthik is totally drained. "This is definitely the longest time I have been on the field," he says, "but that's how it will be. No point complaining."

One immediately recalls Robin Singh's comments about Karthik's fitness. Robin coached him in the recent Under-19 World Cup, and has seen him progress through the grind of cricket at the lower grades. "Dinesh is probably the fittest guy in the whole Tamil Nadu team. He works tremendously hard. That helps him stay focused for long periods."

Behind Karthik's growth as a cricketer is Krishna Kumar, his father, who watches his every move. Kumar, who himself played first-division cricket in Chennai, has been in the stadium every day. It's his unfulfilled ambition that is being realised through his son, and he concedes: "I was always made to put my studies ahead of my cricket. I didn't want my son to suffer the same way."

Kumar remembers taking the young Dinesh to Kuwait for two years, where he taught the 10-year-old a few cricket basics. "It was a great boon that they showed English county cricket on television those days. We used watch every game and simultaneously simulate those match situations in the back yard. I used to throw the leather ball at a very high speed so that he developed his reflexes early. He used to get hit on the head sometimes and cry for a while. But those evenings helped him face the hard ball without fear."

Fearlessness is what many people associate with Karthik's batting. "He has the sense of occasion," says Robin, "and is unfazed by the pressure of the situation. This innings [his hundred on the first day here] is an ideal example. And even his fantastic 70 off 39 balls in the Under-19 World Cup [against Sri Lanka in Dhaka]. It came in front of a packed house when the team just had to win."

Robin, however, feels that Karthik has a long way to go behind the stumps. "His batting talent is special, but he definitely has to improve his wicketkeeping. He has the basics right, but he needs to definitely sharpen his technique."

Syed Kirmani, the former Indian keeper who is now the chairman of India's selectors, agrees: "He is one among several candidates who are in the cradle of wicketkeeping. They all have a long way to go." Though Karthik played in the league phase of the Ranji Trophy last season, his first, he was left out in the knockout stages because his keeping wasn't up to scratch. He explains: "I am not trying to give excuses but my poor wicketkeeping form coincided with my height shooting up. I didn't realise that I was growing taller really fast, and I totally lost my timing and positioning."

This season, though, many who have seen him play mention his improvement behind the stumps. "There was a wicketkeeping camp in Bangalore, and Kiran More's insights were very useful. He helped me out with my hand, eye and head positioning, and it has definitely had an effect on my keeping this season. Though I dropped two catches in the Under-19 World Cup, I had some really good games behind the stumps and was satisfied with my overall performance. Of course, everyone will remember only the dropped catches, and I have to eliminate them completely."

His father has also spotted a crucial change in attitude after Karthik attended an "Art of Living" camp a few months back. "I was really surprised when he returned. There was a new fire burning in him, and he is now enjoying every moment of his cricket."

Playing in the Chennai league, which is one of the toughest in the country, has had a salutary effect as well. "It is extremely competitive and several top players take part," says Karthik. "There is also a lot of verbal stuff that one has to face. It made me tougher. Also, keeping in the hot sun in Chennai is a blessing in disguise."

The spectators of Chennai, who watched his fighting hundred in the first innings, fondly refer to him as "KKD" (his initials). When he smacked Avishkar Salvi for four fours in an over, he becomes everyone's paiyan (that's the Tamil for "son"). Will he play for India one day? After his recent exploits, it could be just a matter of time.

Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is on the staff of Wisden Cricinfo in India.