Karun Nair's coaches, team-mates and selectors have come to recognise him as a batting talisman who will save the side each time it finds itself in trouble.
In March this year, on the last day of the Irani Cup, against Mumbai, Rest of India needed 380 runs. Given the pitch was still good for batting, Mumbai resorted to bowling down leg. Faiz Fazal and Sudip Chatterjee were solid for the Rest in the morning session, but the run rate did not ever go above three. When Chatterjee was dismissed, Nair came on and changed the tempo almost immediately, unleashing the reverse- and paddle sweeps to counter Mumbai's negative bowling.
By the time he was out, having made 92, RoI were joint favourites: 144 runs adrift with 31 overs remaining. Fiery cameos by Stuart Binny and Sheldon Jackson ensured the efforts of Nair and Fazal, who scored a century, did not go in vain. Mumbai were denied the Irani Cup.
Nair, who had also made 94 in the first innings, took the Man-of-the-Match award. Both his batting efforts in the game were match-turning. In the first innings, responding to Mumbai's gigantic 603, RoI were reeling at 128 for 5. Nair restored respect, stitching together a 91-run partnership with tailender Jaydev Unadkat for the eighth wicket. RoI finished with 306 and Nair was last man out.
That match was Nair's first big game of the new season. After Karnataka's Ranji campaign had fallen apart in the league phase in January, he decided to switch off from cricket for the better part of the next two months.
"I just see it as an opportunity for myself to use that situation. Because the bowlers are attacking at that point and if I am calm and I stay positive, I can get runs"
Nair on batting in difficult situations
No rust accumulated, he found. "I was myself surprised the way I was batting," Nair said in April, while on the road with Delhi Daredevils during the IPL. "There was no pressure on me [in the Irani game]. I wasn't thinking about the score. I just wanted to go out there and play as much I can and as long as possible. We lost wickets at regular intervals. I was telling myself I should just stay there and we should get a partnership."
It was not the first time Nair had transformed a match with his presence of mind and strokeplay. After a miserable start in his debut Ranji season, in 2013-14, he picked himself up swiftly to score centuries in the quarter-final and semi-final, which played a role in Karnataka winning the title eventually. In the Vijay Hazare final that season, Karnataka were 47 for 5 against Railways in a chase of 158. Nair, batting at No. 7, returned undefeated on 53 with the match and title in the bag.
The following year he wiped out a bad start to the season once again with a triple-century in the Ranji final, having come in at 31 for 4 against Tamil Nadu. It remains the highest score in a final in the tournament's history.
Going into the match he had just one fifty for the season, but that did no damage to his confidence. "That was completely different to the Irani Cup. Tamil Nadu were all out for 134 on the first day and we were 45 for 4 at the end of the first day. So I knew I had four days left to do whatever I wanted," Nair recalls.
Once Karnataka were in the lead, he focused on "building on that advantage and taking [Tamil Nadu] out of the game". During the course of that innings Nair batted a full day - a first in his career. He would do it again the next day, finishing with his first triple-century.
During each day of the match, Nair received a message from Rahul Dravid. "Make it a big one," one said. It motivated Nair to keep going. His 328 is the second highest score by a Karnataka batsman. On the way to the record, he went past Gundappa Viswanath's 247. The former India batsman and captain rang Nair. "I was surprised, such a legend calling you up and congratulating you for having crossed his record. It was a nice feeling."
That innings told Nair he was ready for international cricket. The realisation came to the national selectors too, a few months after the bravura performance in the Ranji final, courtesy a 114 that Nair compiled against South Africa A at the picturesque ground in Wayanad in August. Nair had failed in the first innings. "When I went in the next time, it was the last day of the match. The pitch was turning. What I told myself was, I would not allow them to dictate terms. I played positive right from word go. Whenever I felt a particular bowler settled, I put him off guard by stepping out. I just did not block."
The next day the selectors announced Nair as a replacement for Murali Vijay in the squad for the third Test in Sri Lanka.
Saba Karim, part of that selection panel, says Nair's CV was becoming too compelling to ignore. "We felt that he is extremely compact, very organised in his approach to the game. His work ethics are from the same school as Rahul Dravid. And these are quite impressive characteristics from the selector's perspective. It is always good to see a cricketer evolve."
Evolve, Nair has done. His technique is solid; he can play all the shots and they are easy on the eye. The fluency of his strokeplay, his decision-making, and his ability to read length quickly help make him an attractive batsman.
At the IPL auction this year, Delhi Daredevils bought Nair for Rs 4 crore (approximately US$600,000), after he had been listed at a base price of Rs 10 lakhs (about $15,000). Other than Delhi, Rising Pune Super Giants, Gujarat Lions, and this year's winners, Sunrisers Hyderabad, contested to secure Nair's services. From being paid Rs 75 lakhs at Rajasthan Royals, Nair ended up as the third most expensive buy in the uncapped category. The money was no doubt exciting, but more so was the prospect of being in the company of Dravid, Delhi's mentor and coach.
Nair says he has "blindly" followed Dravid's advice from his days with Royals. "Trust your own ability" is one such that Nair holds close.
"We felt that he is extremely compact, very organised in his approach to the game. His work ethics are from the same school as Rahul Dravid"
Saba Karim, former India national selector
Dravid has said that it is his temperament and qualities like the ability to pick length early that make Nair a good prospect. Robin Uthappa, a senior Karnataka team-mate, says another of Nair's strengths is that he sizes up field placements quickly, which helps him find the gaps once he is settled. "He is very shrewd and clever. He is very driven to be successful," Uthappa says. "Even in warm-up soccer matches he is competitive and wants to win. He works very hard, very quietly. Very disciplined. He is clear about what he wants to achieve and he is working towards that."
Nair's mettle is likely to be tested over the next month and a half. He made his international debut in Zimbabwe earlier this year in the ODI series, and he is now part of the Test squad for the first two Test matches of England's tour. He is favoured to take the spot of the sixth batsman, which has fallen vacant after Rohit Sharma was ruled out due to a leg injury. KL Rahul and Shikar Dhawan are recovering from injuries as well, which means the selectors will probably retain Nair for the whole series. At some point he is likely to make his debut.
Nair is no stranger to adversity, and it has contributed to his focus and steel as a batsman. "As a ten-year-old I was facing 20-plus-year-olds," he says. "I did not know how to wear a thigh pad, so I did not wear one. Every day I would get hit. That strengthened my mind and resolve. It moulded my inner mental strength. Being a youngster, you are free, and I was playing with freedom."
A coach called Shiva was responsible for getting Nair to face men more than twice his age. GK Anil Kumar, who has coached junior teams in Karanataka and has been a batting coach for Karnataka A, credits Shiva with playing an important role in Nair's career. "Shiva might not have been big on technique, but he instilled the mental steel in Karun even as a nine-year-old."
Anil Kumar, who has coached Nair since he was 13, says his biggest strength is the hunger for runs, a characteristic he has seen from the days of age-group cricket. Nair has made a habit of standing up and delivering in difficult circumstances. "On vicious turners he has bailed the teams out many times," Anil Kumar says. "His specialty is, if it is a fourth-day pitch which favours bowlers, he approaches the challenge with an aggressive mindset. If it is a spinning pitch, he will sweep on length, rotate strike.
"It is about adapting to the situation and that is where Karun has done well."
Does Nair have any insights into why he seems to find himself in his element in these difficult situations where he is the last man standing and largely manages to come home safe? "I just see it as an opportunity for myself to use that situation to my advantage," he says. "Because the bowlers are attacking at that point and if I am calm and I stay positive, I can get runs and try and make a difference to the team. I can try and pull the team out of a difficult situation."