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Dinesh Karthik: 'In T20, batting at Nos. 5-7 is a specialist role'

The India batter believes there is still a specific role for him in the national team, one that his time in the IPL has helped him develop

Dinesh Karthik celebrated his 36th birthday earlier this month in the Serbian capital Belgrade, on his way to England, where he will work as a broadcaster - first for the ICC for the World Test Championship final, then with Sky for the Hundred and the England-India Tests. This will be his second stint as TV pundit after an impressive debut during England's tour of India earlier this year. While he has successfully dipped his toes into broadcasting, Karthik is confident his playing career is far from over.
In your recent stint with Sky for England's tour of India, you seemed to be enjoying the punditry. Does watching and analysing the game as an expert give you a fresh outlook on it?
I genuinely enjoyed doing it. Watching all my friends play and commenting about them can't be such a bad thing. Most of the time I speak well of them, but sometimes I have a go at them, like saying what a bad shot they have played when I've probably played [shots of that kind] a million times before! That is the beauty of it. I share a great rapport with each and every one I have played this sport with, so I am very confident that even if I have a go at them, they will know I mean no ill. I could speak my mind. I thoroughly enjoyed the little time I spent with [Nasser] Hussain, [Michael] Atherton, David Lloyd, Rob Key, [Ian] Ward.
What is the one thing you have learned from this experience that will help with your game?
As a cricketer sometimes you tend to take opinions a touch too seriously. You are not as important as you sometimes think [you are]. It is not as bad as it sounds, sometimes. You need to take a chill pill as a cricketer and focus on trying to get better at your game. As a commentator you speak about so many things, and sometimes things don't exactly come out the way they are supposed to. So I have realised that [as a player] you should never think that people are thinking about you all the time and take yourself that seriously.
You just turned 36 recently. How did you celebrate?
I had the privilege of spending some time with Mr [Sunil] Gavaskar. We had a meal, cut a cake. It was fabulous.
You are a veteran of the game now. How different is the challenge ahead of you at this point and what are you looking forward to?
You keep evolving. You are not the same person you were at 21 or 22. You look at things differently - the way you play the sport changes, the way the sport is played changes.
It is just beautiful to have been part of the journey. Right now my ambition is to be part of the next two World Cups [2021 T20 World Cup and 2023 ODI World Cup] and try and help India win at least one, if not both. That's the ultimate goal for me and I am doing everything I possibly can to be part of that team.
Otherwise I live a very simple life in Chennai. I want to be part of the 2022 Commonwealth Games, which Deepika [Pallikal, squash player and Karthik's wife] will be going to, in Birmingham. If I can be part of her journey that will be great. Other than that I have no big ambitions per se at this point of time apart from doing well for my [IPL] franchise and my country.
What role do you believe you can play in the Indian team?
I believe there is a middle-order slot right now, at Nos. 5, 6, 7. And I can slot into any of the three. For the top four slots, there are way too many players who have done phenomenally well and who keep batting in [IPL] franchises at that position. My specialty is that I can bat at five, six, seven and help India in setting up the best score possible or in winning games, which I did in the short while before the 2019 World Cup in the T20 format. The fact that I have played 150 games for my country is the experience I will look back on every time I play.
You have spoken about being a clinical finisher rather than a power hitter like Andre Russell. Do you believe there is such a role for you in the Indian team?
Look, at this point of time, we have Hardik [Pandya] and [Ravindra] Jadeja [in the lower order]. Otherwise you always try and fit somebody in who has batted in the top four in franchise cricket or for their states at five, six, seven. In an ideal world you ask a KL Rahul - he comes in at No. 5 in ODI cricket - where he likes to bat and I'm sure he will say "opener" because he has done it over and over again. It is a hard job for him [to bat lower] but he has done it with a fair amount of success in ODI cricket. I am sure he will get his opening slot very soon and he is too good to be stopped.
In the T20 format, it is a far more niche slot, something that you need to have done over and over again. And that's why you have the Pollards and the Russells or the Dhonis, who have done this over a period of time, who have helped play so many of these impact innings.
You don't want to go to a World Cup with people who have batted in the top four consistently and throw them in at five, six, seven and expect them to do well. You definitely expect a Hardik or a Jadeja to do well. Who else is there who bats at those numbers for their franchises? So when push comes to shove, and the game is on the line, they know there is a middle-order batter who has been in that situation.
In the 2020 and 2021 IPLs, your best batting position was No. 6, where you have scored 145 runs at an average of 48 average and a strike rate of 156 in seven innings. Which is a favourite innings of yours from the recent past where you played the role you spoke about?
If you take this last IPL, in the game against the Sunrisers Hyderabad, it was a slightly low-scoring game. I thought it was a key innings [22 off nine balls] in the way we won the game - we won it by ten runs. The game would have looked very different had that small impact innings not been played. That's what I pride myself on. And you don't get the opportunity to play these impact innings every game; it comes every four to five games. So every time you get an opportunity like that, as a middle-order or lower-order finisher, you should be looking to do that. That's where the skill is.
There was also the game against Mumbai Indians in 2019 in Kolkata, when you played a cameo while Russell was hitting big.
Correct. I'm happy you brought up that innings - a different type, different situation, batting first so you are trying to set up a big score there. When a [Jasprit] Bumrah is bowling or when a Mitchell Starc or a Pat Cummins is bowling, you want somebody who has consistently hit in those death overs and made an impact there. Whereas you take a No. 3 or No. 4 batter, they come in a lot of times, they play the powerplay, more often than not they get set and if they are at the back end then they will probably score runs.
For me I don't need to be in the middle or in the powerplay to do well [at the death]. I can walk in in the 16th over and find the areas to hit the boundaries. That is one of the reasons when I started [in the IPL] I used to bat at three or four, but now I am batting at five to seven consistently because they feel it is a very important place and you need to stay not out a lot, in terms of helping teams cross the line with a good strike rate while chasing totals.
It would be very silly for people who are selecting teams to only look at the numbers. I think in the 14 years the IPL has happened, the orange cap has always belonged to the top three batters of any side. It has never been given to a No. 5 or No. 6 batter, which is a big giveaway. If you bat in the lower order and play 14 games, you will score 200-230 - 300-350 if you have a great season, which is very rare. The moment you cross the top four batters, you need to stop looking at the quantum of runs and averages. It is a very archaic way of looking at batters. There are various other parameters to judge them. That is where the game is moving forward.
In the 2018 IPL, I batted at No. 5 and I got 497-500 runs. Even if you take a [Kieron] Pollard or a Hardik Pandya, what are the kind of scores that they rack up? It is not the average that matters there, because eventually you are going to get out. When you play in those slots, you are always looking to hit big shots. Strike rate and the impact innings, these are the two things that are key for a batter who bats at that [position].
You had a lean phase, in terms of runs, in the 2020 IPL as well as in the first half of the 2021 edition. You scored 292 runs in 21 innings at an average of 18 and a strike rate of 131, with one fifty. In 2021, you made 123 runs at an average of 31 and a 138 strike rate. Would you agree or disagree that you have been struggling with consistency?
See, at Nos. 6 and 7, to be consistent would mean being consistent with strike rates. What's most important is the impact your innings create. You can't look at the scores per se because the amount of balls you face is very few. If you take the scores you will see they will be around 18, 22 not out, one game will be 4, one game will be 8, and then you make a 14 not out from four balls. So if your team is doing well, that means you are playing fewer balls a lot of the time, because the bulk of the batting is done by the top order. Then you create an impact as much as possible at the back end with as many balls as you get. Not every time that you walk in you are going to score runs, especially when you bat at the back end where you are expected to play the high risk shots right at the outset.
Was it an easy decision to bat down the order at the Knight Riders?
It was a calculated gamble. I have always been a top-order batter. All my career I batted at three and four for my state. When I played for the country, I batted at [those] positions and even opened at times. So when you move to the middle order you have to change certain aspects: you start focusing more on your ability to hit boundaries, your ability to think on your feet. These are the kind of things me and Abhishek [Nayar, personal coach and assistant coach at KKR] have focused on over a period of time. We have worked on my ability to hit a boundary in the first three or four balls I face, whoever is bowling.
Until 2019 you averaged 33 against spin in the IPL. Since 2020, though, you average under 10. Since 2019 you have had the worst average against spin in the IPL among 50 players who faced at least 100 balls against spinners. In the same period, legspinners have got you out nine times. Have you worked out the reasons?
Last year we sat down and discussed the times I got out early against legspin. These days the way they [wristspinners] have started bowling googlies is a lot different to what it used to be before. Previously you used to get to watch the back of the hand - now they have changed that. As a batter I have worked on that aspect to figure out what's the best way to counter it. This year, luckily, in the seven games I have played, I got out to [Yuzvendra] Chahal once, and in between I played a lot of legspinners and it was okay.
It becomes a lot easier to play once you get set, but when you just walk in and you see a legspinner bowling, at the back of the mind you think: "I have not done really well against them at the start." But this year I went in and found ways to answer those questions, so I am a little more confident than I was last year.
Not just you, top batters like Virat Kohli have also struggled facing legspin. So you say it about reading the legspinner's hands?
In a day game it is very different. You are able to see the release a lot more clearly and it is much better facing legspinners. But in day-night games you see a lot of wristspinners being very effective because most of the guys can't pick the googly. You have someone like Rashid Khan who has brought a certain difference in the way legspin and the googly is bowled [with his wrist position]. A few of the other legspinners have seen that and copied it in terms of their wrist position and the way they deliver the ball. The disadvantage of bowling with that wrist position is you can't spin the ball much - there is very little dip - with the googly or the legspinner. When you release the ball the new ways the guys are delivering, there is more topspin on the ball.
Last IPL you stepped down from captaincy at the Knight Riders. Has it had an impact of any sort?
A little bit, initially. I don't want to delve deep into it. It was a decision I took then, but now with the way the scheduling is currently, suppose if Eoin Morgan and Pat Cummins don't come [for the second half of the IPL] - I hope they do come - and the franchise wants me to lead, I am more than happy and open to it.
For a non-contracted cricketer, the challenge is to keep active. Do you think in the long-term the BCCI could allow players who are not contracted to play at least one overseas franchise tournament?
Yeah, I think so. It would be a good thing. It would help a lot of players expand their games, get better. But it is a decision completely in the hands of the BCCI.
You will be in England broadcasting from the WTC final to the Hundred and then the Test series. Are you carrying your kit bag just in case you get a national call-up suddenly?
Yes, I am. I have already got a schedule where I am going to practise during my stay in England. I will be at 100% in case the call-up comes.

Nagraj Gollapudi is news editor at ESPNcricinfo