It was a first-round fixture of the Ranji Trophy 2016-17 season, the Tamil Nadu v Mumbai match in Lahli, and it was precariously poised.
Tamil Nadu had conceded a sizeable first-innings lead on a tough pitch, but their openers had fought back well to wipe out the deficit in the second innings with a century stand. Soon, the baton was passed to the most experienced player in the Tamil Nadu squad – Dinesh Karthik. They had collapsed to 87 all out in the first innings, and it was up to him to prevent an encore.
To borrow from a now-popular meme template, experts would have expected him to bat through, playing ‘authentic’ shots. Karthik, though, had other ideas; he unleashed a cheeky paddle-scoop, only to see the ball land in short fine-leg’s hands. It sparked a massive Tamil Nadu collapse that led to Mumbai prevailing in the low-scoring game, and Karthik’s ‘ill-advised’ shot was singled out by local media.
“Hrishikesh the coach and Hrishikesh the player are two very detached people. I don’t think they mix and mingle much. I’ve seen that trait a lot in Rahul Dravid and even Matthew Hayden, from whatever interactions I’ve had with him. They don’t talk about their cricketing days a lot, which I admire. Because if you still keep talking about your days, it’s very hard to understand current-day players’ mindset. I really like that about Hrishi. He is very calm and quiet.” – Karthik
Something happened in the four-day gap before the next game that triggered a major turnaround.
Barely days later, Tamil Nadu were in an eerily similar situation against Railways in Bilaspur, with Karthik under the spotlight again. This time, he smashed 163 off 145 balls, setting up a comfortable victory for his team.
Karthik didn’t look back and went on to finish the Ranji Trophy with 704 runs at an average of 54.15. He then went even better it in the limited-overs competitions, making 854 runs from 12 innings, including centuries in the Vijay Hazare and Deodhar Trophy finals that led Tamil Nadu to twin titles. It was the fourth highest tally ever in a List A season in Indian cricket.
The ‘event’ that led to the remarkable upswing in Karthik’s fortunes was a brief conversation with Hrishikesh Kanitkar, Tamil Nadu’s coach.
A dressing down for a rash, game-changing shot wouldn’t have been misplaced, but Kanitkar dealt with it differently.
“It was probably the first time he saw me (play). A lot of people might not have expected it and in fact there were a lot of harsh things written,” Karthik tells Wisden India. “But all he told me was ‘instead of playing the paddle sweep, I think you should have hit over the top’. It was pretty refreshing. He didn’t give me an option saying the situation wasn’t good, you should have probably defended. He knew defending was not a great option on that wicket for long periods of time and that it was important to take the attack to the opposition. He told me I could have gone over the top or played a shot different to this.
“If a coach yells and says this is not the way a senior player should play, these are the shots you should play or you should play more authentic cricket, I would have been under pressure the next time I wanted to execute that shot. But now I knew that he would back me even if I played that shot and got it wrong, because you can get out cover-driving a ball or even defending. It’s not how you get out, it’s the amount of runs you score before you get out that matters. I’m a believer of that.
“Credit to him for giving me a lot of space. He has never shown any sort of reaction that is negative in any way. He has been very calm throughout. I failed in the first three innings in the Ranji Trophy. He never asked a word, he didn’t speak to me and allowed me to be. A lot of times, players go through their own pressures and it’s important for a coach to be non-interfering at times. He did that.”
Remind Kanitkar of that conversation, and you can see that there’s mutual respect between the coach and player.
“For experienced cricketers, I like to give them a lot of space because they have been successful for a reason and I respect that,” says Kanitkar. “What I would have done in that situation would be completely different to what Dinesh would do. That was an instinctive shot he played. Basically, I told him that his choice to hit that ball for a four or six was fine with me because that’s how his instincts work. So that’s okay, that’s no problem. But I felt the choice of where to hit that ball could have been better.
“Having played at the first-class level for 19 years, I’ve also made those mistakes at some point. What usually happens is people forget that they’ve also made mistakes when they were playing, and after they retire they suddenly become great players. I don’t want to be like that. I’ve accepted what all bad shots I’ve played in my career and I shouldn’t forget that, and there was no intention to go after any player, not only Dinesh.” – Kanitkar
“You have to remember that the player wants to do his best. There’s no point curbing natural talent. The moment you say something that’s offensive or puts fear in a player, it means you’re taking away his own ability to think, plan and execute. If the coach himself is taking away confidence from the player, what’s left for the opposition to do? Nothing.
“Having played at the first-class level for 19 years, I’ve also made those mistakes at some point. What usually happens is people forget that they’ve also made mistakes when they were playing, and after they retire they suddenly become great players. I don’t want to be like that. I’ve accepted what all bad shots I’ve played in my career and I shouldn’t forget that, and there was no intention to go after any player, not only Dinesh.”
It’s these qualities of Kanitkar that Karthik not only admires, but also aspires to imbibe, especially beyond the cricket field.
“A very key word I associate with him is –he’s a very satisfied human being,” explains Karthik. “I don’t think he has any regret on his career or frustrated about things that probably could have happened. He comes across as a very good human being who is very content with whatever he has achieved. I think that’s a very important aspect of a sportsperson.
“Sometimes you can still constantly live in those years when you were playing, even after finishing. He has moved on in a very graceful manner. I genuinely feel I’ll be a person who’ll be like that when I finish my career, because I feel playing and coaching are different things. I think he has identified that to a large extent.
“Hrishikesh the coach and Hrishikesh the player are two very detached people. I don’t think they mix and mingle much. I’ve seen that trait a lot in Rahul Dravid and even Matthew Hayden, from whatever interactions I’ve had with him. They don’t talk about their cricketing days a lot, which I admire. Because if you still keep talking about your days, it’s very hard to understand current-day players’ mindset. I really like that about Hrishi. He is very calm and quiet.”
‘Calm’ and ‘quiet’ are two words that are hard to associate with Karthik. He is restless in whatever he does and he is happy to be the way he is.
“Being restless is something that’s very me,” he says. “I have all my set of restless rituals before the bowler starts his run up but once he does, I think I’m in decent space. All those nervy things that look very restless from outside is very Dinesh Karthik. I don’t think I can change it, and I don’t want to change it as well.”
But one word that can be used to describe Karthik, according to Kanitkar, is ‘responsible’. The coach believes that the responsibility Karthik accepted led to another aspect of batting that was generally not associated with him – consistency.
“He took responsibility for everything he did and the team benefited as well,” points out Kanitkar. “He was looking at a bigger cause than himself. He was looking at how the team can reach the knockouts and such things rather than I should get a 100 or a 50. His cause was much higher than personal gains and that really, really brought the best out of him.
“In the limited-overs tournaments especially, he was very helpful for Vijay Shankar (the captain). Dinesh’s performance should be viewed in a very all-round way, and not just the runs.”
According to Karthik, the consistency is a result of working with multiple people, including Abhishek Nayar, over the last few years.
More importantly, he says it’s a consequence of calmness in the mind, although it doesn’t necessarily show on the exterior.
“Being restless is something that’s very me. I have all my set of restless rituals before the bowler starts his run up but once he does, I think I’m in decent space. All those nervy things that look very restless from outside is very Dinesh Karthik. I don’t think I can change it, and I don’t want to change it as well.” – Karthik
“I went to Prasanna Aghoram (video analyst) in 2013 to improve on my technique, I went to (Pravin) Amre sir a year ago to work on my back lift,” he says. “These are small things I’ve changed in my batting and the fruits of all those hard works are showing now. They all played their roles in my life and helped me become the batsman I am today.
“What I’ve realised is that for the next level, what’s most important is the mental make-up. How you approach your innings, how you plan it. I had this conversation with Virat (Kohli) the last time I was in the Indian team in the Asia Cup (2014).
“He opened up on a few things that I hadn’t been doing, which he does personally. That was great insight, actually. I remember I had a heartfelt conversation with him. He gave me a few tips on what he was doing in terms of preparation and all that. At that stage, I found it hard to relate to that. But over a period of time, having Abhishek Nayar by my side, I was able to put things more in context and those things have been of tremendous help of late.”
In every way, the season that went by – or is going on, if you include the Indian Premier League – has been a successful one for Karthik. At 31, it remains to be seen if it will lead to a second wind in his international career.