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Sanjay Manjrekar

Why Dinesh Karthik shouldn't be batting higher up the order

After his stunning innings in the Nidahas final, there has been talk about how he has been wronged. Here's why those saying so aren't quite justified

Sanjay Manjrekar
Sanjay Manjrekar
After 13 years at the international level, Dinesh Karthik is finally getting the kind of attention every cricketer craves, and he deserves every bit of it.
His innings in the Nidahas final was a truly great T20 innings, even if it was only eight balls long.
That he played a proper cover drive to hit a six and finish the game made the innings even more admirable and unique. Ninety per cent of the time in a situation like that, batsmen will look for that typical slog over midwicket, so Soumya Sarkar did nothing wrong when he went by the track record of the game and bowled the final ball wide of the off stump.
With five needed to win, a lofted cover drive for a six to win a tournament is the kind of thing I don't see happening again. It was a rare event indeed.
Each of Karthik's hits was beautifully connected, coming right out of the middle of the bat - the sweet spot. In the ultra slow-motion replays, you could see that the bat didn't wobble one bit, that's how perfectly he connected; and every time, his balance at the crease was spot on. Balance is the first thing that goes for a toss when a batsman is in a desperate situation. You see this every time there is a free-hit ball and batsmen are trying to get the most out of it.
It is this particular aspect of Karthik's batting that should excite Indian cricket and be the biggest takeaway from that innings. With MS Dhoni's batting powers waning, there is too much expectation from Hardik Pandya down the order to get 20 off ten and make a winning difference in a T20 game.
But there have been largely two reactions to Karthik's innings. Suddenly there are a lot of sympathisers for him, talking of how Indian cricket has given him a raw deal. The second point of view is that he should be moved up the order. I don't buy into either.
Karthik averages 27.77 in Tests, and his ODI average of 29.92 and strike rate of 72.79 tell you something about him as an international batsman over the years. To hold various team managements and selectors guilty for the way his career has panned out until now would not be right.
Yes, he may not have had a settled place in the Indian teams, but the person mainly responsible for this is the player himself. I don't think anyone in this game sits down with a long-term commitment to try and stunt a career or plot someone's downfall. At best, they look for excuses to pick or drop players, and even there, it's performance that's used.
Let's take the Champions Trophy in England in 2013 as an example of this point with regard to Karthik. In the two warm-up games before the tournament, he played two terrific innings, and I for one thought India had found a wonderful batsman.
Why didn't Karthik get the long rope that Rohit tends to get, some might ask. Well, it's because of what Rohit does when he succeeds
But come the real thing, the official leg of the tournament, Karthik was a shadow of his earlier self. This was the tournament where Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan grabbed the opportunity to forge a successful partnership at the top.
Both Rohit and Dhawan by nature are players who are able to brush off a couple of failures and carry on as if nothing has happened, and yes, they do get big, match-defining scores when they are well set. In that tournament it was Dhawan's big chance, early in his career, to make a name in 50-overs cricket, and he got 114, 102 not out, 48, 68 and 31 in his five innings.
Why didn't Karthik get the long rope that Rohit tends to get, some might ask. Well, it's because of what Rohit does when he succeeds. He has three double-hundreds in ODIs! It's hard to drop such a player after a few failures. In Tests, of course, he is far more vulnerable to being dropped, but there too, let's not forget, he started with two hundreds in his first two Tests.
This is what good players do: they play innings of the kind that leave selectors and team managements with no choice but to play them.
Karthik has never quite been able to do this in his career. After those warm-up games in the Champions Trophy, he managed an average of 25.14 runs in his next ten ODI innings, with no great defining performance. His career was bound to be a struggle after that.
He had had another big break before that, on the India tour of Sri Lanka in 2008, (the first DRS series), when Dhoni rested himself. There, his keeping was lacklustre and his batting - well, his scores in the four innings of the series were 9, 0, 7, 20. Boom! Opportunity gone.
That is why I have not been a big supporter of the idea of bringing Karthik back as an option in the middle order. What new has he got to offer at the age of 32, was my thinking.
Also, having watched him over the years, I have had doubts about his temperament (sports terminology for one's "nature"). No doubt he comes across as a very likeable, simple guy, with a ready smile, who will always give 100% for his team, but at the same time, he also appears to me to be a man with low self-confidence.
Manish Pandey is another player who gives me the same impression. It was only after a string of good scores in Sri Lanka earlier this month that Pandey has looked a bit settled at the crease.
Karthik also seems to have a somewhat unsettled mind. You see this come through when he is batting and keeping, and also now when he is fielding in the outfield. He appears a bit anxious and excitable in all his activities on the field. Like a cat on a hot tin roof. Why, he had a little stumble when he had to go up the stage to get his prize after the final.
Karthik, Pandey, and to an extent Ajinkya Rahane, are players who by nature will underperform when they feel they are not established members of the side. This is true for all players actually, but more for these.
Now you have to ask the pertinent question: Who has got these players in this position, where they feel insecure in the team? Again, the answer is the players themselves.
Pandey got a brilliant hundred in Australia in a match-winning chase and we were all filled with hope. He managed only 169 runs in his next ten innings at an average of 24.
Look at Rahane's white-ball batting numbers and they will reveal the reasons for his status in the current team. The one thing that separates players like him, Pandey and Karthik from the more established cricketers in the team is not so much skills but temperament - call it nature if you like.
Karthik does possess exceptional batting skills and a real gift in the way he gets the ball to take off after it makes contact with the bat. He works very hard at his fitness, I am told, whether he is playing for India or not, and this is praiseworthy. He is fit and strong; temperament is his constraint.
Many didn't like the fact that he batted so low down the order in that Nidahas final, but for all you know, that could have been the main reason why he was able to eventually play a great innings, making him a player who it is now inconvenient to drop - rather than the other way round, which has been the story of his life.
At the Premadasa, he didn't have to think too much. When he took guard he was left with no choice but to belt every ball for a boundary. So it was mostly about his batting skills, his hitting ability, and not so much about planning.
After that all-time-great 18th over from Mustafizur Rahman, it must have been a nice feeling for a seemingly anxious guy to walk in with 34 needed in two overs, with every Indian resigned to the fact that India was losing this one. It was a "nothing to lose" kind of situation - body over mind.
If Karthik continues to bat down the order he will find himself in such situations more often. "See ball, hit ball" situations. And that's how I think Indian cricket can extract the best value out of him and enable him to keep his current star status as batsman. It would also be a nice story in the sport, to see a graph that shows a peak at a time when you generally see a career-ending dip.

Former India batsman Sanjay Manjrekar is a cricket commentator and presenter on TV. @sanjaymanjrekar