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Dinesh Karthik: The Underrated Captain in the IPL

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Dinesh_Karthik_India_CricketTill a month ago, Dinesh Karthik’s legacy was that of a batsman who had immense potential but hardly lived up to it. It had been like this ever since MS Dhoni entered the Indian team. Though Karthik had been a part of the Indian team in recent times, Rishabh Pant was the likely heir to Dhoni’s gloves. The Nidahas Trophy provided ample opportunity for the youngster to make his mark.

A month later, Karthik is the toast of the nation after a memorable knock of 29 in just eight deliveries in the final of the T20I tri-series Nidahas trophy. His finishing skills make him Dhoni’s most likely replacement. With Dhoni hardly looking his best in the shortest format of the game and Pant still needing a few seasons of polishing before he is fit for international cricket, Karthik’s journey is on the up.

His career became even more exciting after he was named the leader of Kolkata Knight Riders in the eleventh edition of the Indian Premier League (IPL), making it the first time that he will be captaining an IPL team for a whole season.

The move was met with some criticism, for on the day Karthik was appointed KKR’s captain, he was still considered a cricketer who had failed to grasp onto his opportunities. He was ridiculed – like all underachieving cricketers unfortunately are, in this part of the world. The KKR management that had already faced brickbats for their tactics in the IPL auctions received flak for not handing over the reins to their resident warhorse Robin Uthappa.

The Orange Cap winner in 2014, Uthappa has been with the KKR team since the seventh edition of the league and has been in the know of the culture and work ethic that has been followed at KKR for the last few seasons. Gautam Gambhir, who was not retained after he voiced his desire to play for his home franchise Delhi Daredevils, shared a memorable bond with his opening partner Uthappa. For his services to the club, many believed that the Karnataka player deserved the captaincy.

But Venky Mysore, CEO of KKR, has the habit of not giving in to popular sentiment – made clear when the franchise decided to drop the Prince of Kolkata, Sourav Ganguly, from their scheme of things – and his appointment of Karthik was built on astute planning, which does not seem as unconvincing as many believed it to be.

 

The wicketkeeper-batsman has led in 18 T20 games, against Uthappa’s 8, and has a win percentage of 72%. He led Tamil Nadu to the Vijay Hazare Trophy in 2009-2010 and captained the Albert TUTI Patriots to the Tamil Nadu Premier League title in 2016. Last year, he was the captain of the India Red side that won the Duleep Trophy. When his records and his reputation as a leader are combined, Karthik seems the only reliable choice to captain KKR.

 

Other than Uthappa, the other contenders are Chris Lynn, Vinay Kumar and Mitchell Johnson. Lynn’s regular shoulder injuries mean he is not a regular starter. Johnson is not guaranteed a place in the starting eleven, with three of the four overseas players automatically being Sunil Narine, Andre Russell, and Lynn, leaving Johnson to fight for a place with Tom Curran, the replacement for the injured Mitchell Starc. Vinay Kumar led Karnataka in the recently-concluded Ranji Trophy, but he was never in the reckoning for the KKR job as many believed that the speedster lacked the oomph that IPL captains are generally known for. And so, Karthik it was.

For the KKR fans accustomed to seeing an aggressive Gambhir attack the opposition verbally on the field, it will be tough to switch gears and adjust to the comparatively milder Karthik, who believes that aggression should instead be channelled into performance with the ball, bat or on the field. “By nature, I am not that aggressive outwardly. But from inside, I am very aggressive. I love to be there in tough situations and face the heat,” he has said.

Almost as testimony to the above statement, in the Nidahas Trophy final against Bangladesh the right-hander ignored childish taunts in favour of a silent beast. With 34 runs needed in 12 deliveries and a struggling Vijay Shankar at the other end when Karthik walked out to bat, the situation seemed tense and a painful loss loomed large. However, through a brilliant display of calmness and stroke-making, DK led the team to victory, his finishing skills almost reminiscent of Dhoni’s.

 

It is possible that this fearless approach is what went in Karthik’s favour in the KKR camp. Tamil Nadu coach and former Pune Supergiant assistant coach Hrishikesh Kanitkar believes the player’s energy levels and his ability to back his instincts impressed the KKR management: “He knows the IPL set up and will be a fearless captain. That's how he approaches his batting. His enthusiasm and chirpiness on the ground is critical. I think that's one quality of Karthik which would have made KKR take the decision”.

 

Backing up Kanitkar is Subramanium Badrinath, who played under Karthik at the state level. The former Chennai Super Kings player holds his former captain in high regards, stating that his tactical and strategical innovations, coupled with his quick thought processes and his ability to demand respect from his teammates work highly in his favour.

DK’s friendliness will enable the Indian Under-19 stars, Shubman Gill, Kamlesh Nagarkoti and Shivam Mavi, to settle into the team more comfortably. Karthik’s free-spirited nature will provide a useful contrast to ultra-aggressive players like Johnson and Russell. Vinay Kumar, who returns to KKR after four years, is another cricketer who vouches for Karthik’s leadership and has remained impressed with the way DK manages to handle the team in tense situations.

Karthik believes that more than getting used to the conditions, success in the IPL comes when the team gels well as a unit. By focusing on getting the boys to bond well ahead of their season opener against Royal Challengers Bangalore, Karthik has sent out his message firmly. He knows that unless the team comes together, they will be unable to face difficult situations on the field.

Even though the team doesn’t look unbeatable on paper, Karthik will be well aware that it is in these situations that a captain can make all the difference.

 

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