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Match Analysis

Dinesh Karthik the finisher unlocks the best version of himself

On Tuesday night, the veteran served a reminder that he could still do the job at the top level

Deivarayan Muthu
In January 2019, R Ashwin had tweeted: "Just going through some batting numbers of Dinesh Karthik over the last 18 months and it's not surprising to see that he has become one of the best finishers in the world right now. This version of DK is all that he ever wanted to be, I am very happy for him."
Karthik made it to India's 50-over World Cup squad that year, largely on the back of his finishing skills in the shortest format. However, after he managed only 14 runs in two innings, including a 25-ball six in the semi-final that India lost to New Zealand, he was axed from the set-up altogether.
However, that didn't stop him from unlocking his best version: the finisher. During the 2019-20 Vijay Hazare Trophy, where Karthik captained Tamil Nadu to final, he told ESPNcricinfo that he's targeting an MS Dhoni-like finishing role. After having closed out multiple white-ball games for Tamil Nadu over the past few seasons, Karthik served a reminder that he could still do the job at the top level.
He did it against Punjab Kings in Royal Challengers Bangalore's opening game in IPL 2022. He did it again in Royal Challengers' second, helping them survive a scare against his former franchise Kolkata Knight Riders. On Tuesday, against Rajasthan Royals, Karthik unveiled his best version once again, and Ashwin, who has seen his evolution from close quarters, was at the receiving end.
When Karthik had walked out to bat, Royals Challengers were 87 for 5 in the ninth over, chasing 171 on an atypical Wankhede track where the ball gripped and turned. Yuzvendra Chahal was running riot against his former franchise, with Ashwin ably backing him up until he ran into a red-hot Karthik in the 14th over.
The pair go back a long way: Karthik was Ashwin's captain in the Tamil Nadu side that won the inaugural Syed Mushtaq Ali title in 2007. Fifteen years later, they were facing each other in a high-pressure IPL scenario.
After giving up just singles off the first two balls of the 14th over, Ashwin darted a carrom ball - a front-foot no-ball - down the leg side. Karthik picked it up and swept it over short fine leg for four. Ashwin hiked his pace to 103kph and shifted his line to outside off for the free-hit delivery, but dropped it too full, as Karthik pumped him into the sightscreen with the stillest of heads and smoothest of bat-swings.
Ashwin slowed it up third ball and found some grip, but Karthik was up to it, cleverly checking his drive and chipping it over Ashwin's head once again. The next ball was a faster carrom ball from Ashwin, which swerved past Karthik's outside edge. Karthik ultimately closed out a 21-run over with a trademark reverse-swept four from a fairly wide line outside off.
Karthik turned the tables on Royals in a space of five balls. In the next over, he picked off Navdeep Saini for back-to-back fours to bring the target well within Royal Challengers' radar. Matching up Chahal with Karthik in the 17th over was Royals' last throw of the dice, but he coolly saw him off and saw Royal Challengers home with four wickets and five balls to spare.
Karthik's unbeaten 23-ball 44 at the strike-rate of 191.30 proved that the finisher isn't finished yet. Karthik's overall death-overs strike-rate of 188.01 since 2018 in all T20 cricket is the third best among Indian batters who have scored a minimum of 500 runs during this period. Only Virat Kohli (206.47) and Hardik Pandya (193.56) have a better strike rate than Karthik among Indians in the slog overs. His Royal Challengers captain Faf du Plessis is so impressed by Karthik's finishing skills that he believes he needs to "put his name back into international cricket".
"It feels nice (laughs). I think I made a conscious effort to do justice to myself because I felt last year I could've done a little better," Karthik told host broadcaster Star Sports after winning the Player-of-the-Match award. "The way I trained was a little different - hats off to the person I trained with. He put me through some things which was very important for me in life as well. I say that only because I was making a conscious effort to tell myself that I'm not done yet. I have a goal and I want to achieve something and I tried my best in terms of preparation.
"I made a lot of conscious effort to play white-ball cricket, I don't play four-day cricket anymore. The quantity of matches has reduced. I have to play that much more matches as practice matches and scenarios. So, I try and do a lot more of that... going to grounds and a lot of people have been with me in this journey when I practice. Those are the hours that you put in with nobody is seeing and those are the most important hours. Because when it comes here, it's great. The set-up is beautiful, you have a lot of people and they're helping me a lot, but the real work is done in the lead-up to the tournament, which is what I'll give a lot of credit to. "
Karthik's preparation in the lead-up to the IPL involved playing in the middle order for India Cements in a T20 tournament at Theni, located about 500 kilometres from Chennai, in Tamil Nadu. This, after he had counter-punched his way to a century in the 50-overs Vijay Hazare Trophy final in December 2021 in Jaipur. And the goal is to return to India's T20I side and help them win the World Cup although there is fierce competition for various spots.

Deivarayan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo