Why India should not tinker with Dinesh Karthik's IPL role

Yes, the finisher's job is that important, and it's hard to argue with Karthik's end-overs numbers since early 2019

Sidharth Monga
Sidharth Monga
Dinesh Karthik's comeback to international cricket is one of the more un-Indian T20 selections. He scored only one half-century in the IPL. With Rishabh Pant in the squad to take the gloves, Karthik becomes a specialist batter who won't - and shouldn't - bat in the top order. And, for once, here is a selection where a top-order accumulator in the IPL and/or domestic cricket is not being asked to go and take on a finisher's role in international cricket.
Karthik's role description says "wicketkeeper-batter", but he is not competing with Pant or Ishan Kishan. There is a specific role Karthik has in a T20 batting line-up, one that Kolkata Knight Riders learnt about the hard way. Ironically, when he was the captain of Knight Riders in 2020, Karthik tried to bat through innings, possibly to provide Eoin Morgan with his ideal point of entry, but through the season he managed only three innings of any impact: he entered in the 11th, 15th and 18th overs in those three innings.
When IPL 2022 started, the Star Sports broadcast presented a telling stat: in the last three IPLs, Karthik had averaged 18 and struck at 126 when he had come out to bat before the end of the 14th over. In his innings that began in the last six overs, these numbers went up to 37 and 157. At the end of this IPL, ESPNcricinfo's statsman Shiva Jayaraman expanded the filter to the last eight overs in IPL games and T20Is starting from January 1, 2019, and here are the corresponding numbers: in the last three-and-a-half years, Karthik has started 38 innings after the 12th over, averaging 47 and striking at 174 in them. In the same period, the 28 innings of his that have begun before the end of the 12th over have yielded an average of 19 and a strike rate of 129.
An intangible reason behind this is the role clarity that comes with batting when only a certain number of deliveries are left in the innings. A tangible reason is Karthik's struggles against spin and his preference for pace. In the last three IPLs, Karthik has averaged 37 and struck at 166 against pace while averaging 15 and striking at 111 against spin. And you get to face less spin when you bat only in the death overs.
Royal Challengers Bangalore used Karthik almost perfectly in this year's IPL, but the question is, are India willing to make those allowances to get the best out of Karthik? And the question arises because in the past many an IPL success has gone on to perform a different role for India without similar results.
It is as much about the willingness as it is about the resources. RCB had allrounders to promote ahead of Karthik if they lost wickets early, and the presence of Wanindu Hasaranga typically coming in behind him gave him the freedom to bat the way he did. India have the two Patels, Axar and Harshal, who should be prepared to bat three-four overs if needed to allow Karthik to bat at his preferred point of entry.
For long India have tried to refashion top-order batters to fit the lower-middle-order and finishing roles. Now, with many a top-order batter resting, is the perfect time to make every allowance for a man used to playing the finishing role for his franchise, because this role is that important. It is also important to not look at aggregates, especially when he doesn't get to bat much, as was the case in his previous stint in T20Is.
Just after his Premadasa heroics, Karthik found himself out of the team, and when he came back he got nine innings in 13 matches for a highest of 33 not out and a strike rate of 140. While India did well by not batting him before the death overs, Karthik didn't get enough balls to bat, partly because India's top orders tend to bat through and take fewer risks.
In his long career with many comebacks, Karthik has played various roles, from Test opener in England and South Africa to a sudden-collapse plug in a World Cup semi-final, but now he promises to start a stint with high levels of role clarity, something he has earned with his performances in the IPL. He has time before this year's T20 World Cup to take this to the international level too, and there is no reason for India to bat him in any other role now.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo