Standing around Dinesh Karthik, you can feel a distinct sense of restlessness. He never stands still - with bat in hand, with wicketkeeping gloves on and even when doing nothing. He is constantly shuffling at something or moving around like a rabbit in the woods. But do not be fooled into misreading his attitude only because Karthik wants to be involved in the game at all times. Being an alert glovesman over the years has taught him never to take his eyes off the ball. Hence the itch to be heard.
On Wednesday, in Cardiff, he did not bat in the nets. He was the first Indian player to step down the dressing room stairs for the training with wicketkeeping gear tucked under his hand. Having scored two centuries in India's warm-up matches, probably he and the team management felt he should relax. With the rest of the team busy in the main nets, he asked the team's analyst to accompany him to the side nets outside the main ground to take part in some keeping drills. Later, India coach Duncan Fletcher helped him with few hits before Karthik was put through the paces by the team trainer. With nothing else to do Karthik was happy to watch his team-mates and share some suggestions.
A meritorious student during his young days, Karthik had the brains and the marks to finish an engineering degree. But he decided to make use of his intelligence in cricket. It was one reason the national selectors put their faith in him, giving him a debut even before he had turned 20. However, Karthik was never able to gain a strong foothold in the Indian squad, despite his talent and brains. He last played for India in 2010 and his comeback now comes on the back of a strong performance in the IPL where he was one of the pillars of Mumbai Indians' title victory.
In 19 matches, Karthik, who batted in the top order, scored 510 runs, 407 of them coming in Mumbai's wins. That was almost double the runs he scored in any of the earlier IPL seasons; his previous highest was 288 runs from 13 innings in the 2009 edition. When he moved to Mumbai in 2012 from Kings XI Punjab, he scored just 238 runs from 14 innings at a strike-rate of 111.73 and an average of 18.30.
But this year, Karthik returned with a renewed sense of vigour. He had also made a few important technical changes in his batting, having worked closely with the South African performance analyst Prasanna Agoram. Observe Karthik's batting stance now and you will see he has got more time to play his shots. Having shot him extensively in the nets, Agoram worked out that Karthik had all the strokes, but the one key element missing was balance. Having ironed out a few other technical creases, Karthik has become more consistent. During the domestic season he finished as Tamil Nadu's best batsman in both the Ranji Trophy and Vijay Hazare Trophy (50 overs), which preceded the IPL.
With the selectors not entirely convinced about the fitness of Yuvraj Singh, India have been looking for a stable head in the middle order. If you look at the Indian middle order's performance (batting position 3 to 7) overseas, you can observe the pressure has been on the trio of Virat Kohli, Suresh Raina and MS Dhoni. The sketchy form of Rohit Sharma, the inability of Irfan Pathan to live up to the batting allrounder billing and the absence of Yuvraj only meant that India have been looking for a batsman who can be the pivot in the middle order, by being watchful initially before switching gears late into the innings. Karthik has shown that he has the potential.
Over the last 15 months, Karthik had experienced a metamorphosis especially in his personal life where he suffered a very big setback which took place just before the 2012 IPL
During his two match-winning partnerships with Kohli and Dhoni in the warm-up matches against Sri Lanka and Australia, Karthik has proved he is capable of being the answer. A big ask of a batsman in the long bracket of middle overs (15-40) is he needs to be a good runner between the wickets. Karthik's agility was on display in both the practice games and especially with Dhoni at Cardiff, the pair ran the Australian fielders ragged, never shy to even take on David Warner's arms.
Highlighting the big change in Karthik over years, Dhoni mentioned how he could play the key role in the Indian middle order. "He is someone who can bat really well in the middle order. He is a good runner. He reads the situation pretty well and he is someone who can look to go on and play big innings and that is what is really important in the middle order. He is technically sound and once he gets going he keeps himself busy throughout the innings," Dhoni said. Also with the World Cup approaching fast in less than 20 months, India need to identify their specialist batsmen and that was the one reason Dhoni pointed out that he would like Karthik to bat anywhere between No. 3 and not deeper than No. 5 because, then, the team would not extract the maximum out of him.
The other difference between Karthik of the past and present is his confidence. Against quality fast bowlers like Mitchell Starc and Mitchell Johnson, Karthik walked out of his crease, not a new step, but the conviction in his strokes, about placing the ball where he wanted to, was such that he could have dominated anyone.
Over the last 15 months, Karthik had experienced a metamorphosis especially in his personal life where he suffered a very big setback which took place just before the 2012 IPL. The incident, which has not been made public to respect his privacy, occurred during the Vijay Hazare Trophy in 2012. It is understood the incident coincided with Tamil Nadu's match against Karnataka in Bangalore. On the eve of the match, Karthik was at the lowest point in his life. The circumstances were such that a normal man would have never found it easy to remain mentally stable. Yet, Karthik decided to play the next day and picked Tamil Nadu out of the woods from 45 for 4 to a strong 270, enough for Tamil Nadu to win the match.
"It was so special," S Basu, one Karthik's closest friends from childhood, says. "The team required him to perform and he walked out and played like a champion. It was an amazing achievement."
Karthik showed similar resolve to recover from the personal debacle of last year. The positive influence of Basu and a good set of friends he had met recently are helping him keep things clear. Basu, previously the performance and conditioning coach at the National Cricket Academy and currently serving as a trainer with Royal Challenger Bangalore, says Karthik is now in a "great space" which has allowed him to perform consistently on the field.
"Mentally he is in a better frame of mind in the last six to seven months. He has understood life. He has understood cricket. And he has understood the direction he needs to take in life. He now knows when to relax and when to switch on," Basu says.
One big influence in this IPL was Ricky Ponting, the former Australia captain, who was part of the Mumbai Indians' leadership team. Ponting had said that he was highly impressed with Karthik's attitude and that he sought out Ponting a few times and used him as an inspiration to never give up. Also, the move to Mumbai Indians in the IPL has helped Karthik immensely. The team's quest to be nothing but No. 1 allowed him to contribute and uplift his own game.
Karthik turned 28 on June 1. On Monday, the Indian squad started their training by clapping him their best wishes during the team huddle. Such a warm embrace from his team probably strengthened Karthik's resolve further. For Basu, Karthik's best characteristic is he never gets angry. "He is not 28 as he is really matured. He is a cerebral fellow and we friends always tease him that he is the perfect package for being a family man: a husband, a father and a grandfather," Basu says.
Karthik is a perfectionist. In his one-on-one sessions with Agoram, if he played 98 out of 100 balls well but missed out on the two, he would start all over again. His intelligence, his preparation and his maturity are allowing Karthik now to believe in himself more as well as enjoy his game.
Next time you see Karthik walk out on the field, observe the number on his ODI shirt - 19 is the number Rahul Dravid wore. Apparently 1 and 9 are Karthik's favourite numbers. In fact those are the numbers he rolls the dice when he plays the roulette. At the time Dravid was playing, Karthik had 91 on the back of his shirt. After Dravid's retirement Karthik decided to take his number. It might not matter much, but Karthik would be proud to confess that he would like to imbibe all the characteristics that made Dravid a great player, a great batsman and a great man.
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo