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Feature

Dinesh Karthik, the survivor who never stood still

Even at 38, he found new ways to worry bowlers and fielding captains in IPL. Who knows what heights his India career might have reached had Dhoni not happened to it?

Dinesh Karthik soaks in the applause after RCB's win against CSK, Royal Challengers Bengaluru vs Chennai Super Kings, IPL 2024, Bengaluru, May 18, 2024

Dinesh Karthik soaks in the applause after RCB's win against CSK  •  BCCI

It could have been the most poignant of endings: the last ball faced by Dinesh Karthik as a top-level cricketer, edged into MS Dhoni's gloves. One last tangle of intertwined fates.
Who knows what heights Karthik's international career might have reached had Dhoni not happened to it, and by what factor he may have multiplied his 26 Tests, 94 ODIs and 60 T20Is? Add all that up, however, and you get a measure of the cricketer Karthik has been: a wicketkeeper-batter capped 180 times by India even though he played the bulk of his career in Dhoni's all-encompassing shadow, and a batter good enough to be capped 94 times as a specialist in matches involving Dhoni.
Karthik is younger than Dhoni by nearly four years, but he jumped the queue and made his India debuts first: a month and a half before Dhoni in ODIs, and more than a year before him in Tests. Both were part of India's first T20I XI, and Karthik the Player of the Match.
Karthik's India career outlasted Dhoni's too: his last Test, in 2018, and his last T20I, in 2022, coming three-and-a-half years after Dhoni's respective farewells. Both, of course, went out of ODIs together, on that fateful day in Manchester in July 2019.
It would have been poignant, but the edge to Dhoni wasn't the end for Karthik, with Royal Challengers Bengaluru making the playoffs at Chennai Super Kings' expense on the day. It would seem, then, that Karthik - though we can never be entirely certain until Dhoni actually tells us - outlasted his great rival in the IPL too, by one match.
It's fitting, because Karthik has been one of the IPL's great survivors. He's featured in every season, and played more matches than anyone other than Dhoni and Rohit Sharma, and while he hasn't become a figurehead at one franchise like those two, he's been a vital member of six different dressing rooms. He's always had elite T20 skills, and he's always kept adding to them, evolving with the format and staying relevant, season after season.
It's as true of his career as it is of his manner on the field that Dinesh Karthik has never stood still.

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An example of this came one ball before Karthik edged Tushar Deshpande to Dhoni.
Karthik had stepped across to the off side, shaping for the scoop over short fine leg, and Deshpande had responded by shifting his line wider, so wide that the ball was nearly in line with the return crease when it reached the batter. Karthik reacted like he'd expected this all along, manipulating his hands expertly to reverse-scoop the ball past the right glove of a leaping Dhoni and out of reach of the short third fielder throwing himself to his left.
Over the course of IPL 2024, Karthik played a total of nine reverse-scoops, including one off a wide. We'll come to the reverse-scoops he nailed, but let's first spend some time with the one he missed against that wide.
It came on day one of the season, and the bowler, once again, was Deshpande.
This was a contest with a bit of history. Deshpande had dismissed Karthik in their teams' only meeting of IPL 2023, getting him caught at deep midwicket. Fine leg had been inside the 30-yard circle on that occasion too, and Karthik had stepped across his stumps, no doubt eyeing the vast spaces either side of and beyond that fielder. Then too, Deshpande had shifted his line wider.
On that occasion, Karthik's response had been a low-percentage one. He went for the slog-sweep, a difficult shot to nail since he was fetching the ball from well outside his eyeline, and one that didn't give him too much margin for error since long-on and deep midwicket were out on the boundary.
By the time IPL 2024 rolled around, Karthik had worked on a different response to the same situation. He didn't connect with the reverse-scoop the first time round, and his second attempt, against the same bowler in the same game, didn't quite come off either, producing an inside-edged single to fine leg. But Karthik had clearly worked on this shot in the lead-up to the tournament, and he clearly believed it would give him an edge in these death-overs battles of wits.
It's safe to say now that the reverse-scoop has worked brilliantly for Karthik over the season. He's played the shot more often than anyone else this season, and it's brought him 21 runs off eight non-wide balls, including five fours, at a strike rate of 262.50.
The shot has helped Karthik score 45 runs through the fine third region off the fast bowlers, off just 15 balls. Of this season's top ten run-getters against pace in that sector of the field, only Suryakumar Yadav and Sunil Narine have (marginally) better strike rates than Karthik.