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Dinesh Karthik, The Finisher

Ben Jones looks at a remarkable campaign from the veteran Indian batter.

For a second, throw us your imagination, and use it to picture yourself as an IPL bowler. You’re at the peak of your sport, dominating your field. Imagine you are flying so high that your captain throws you the ball to bowl at the death, to squeeze out the final overs. Imagine you nail your plans, the pressure climbing and closing in. Imagine you take a wicket, a struggling batter departing, a man fresh to the crease replacing him.

Now imagine Dinesh Karthik’s coming to get you. 

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In a Royal Challengers Bangalore season defined by a playoff scrap, by fluctuating batting performances and the struggles of their talismanic former captain, Dinesh Karthik has been a constant, and a constant good. Time and time again, while other parts of the RCB machine have clunked and erred, ‘DK’ has arrived with his toolkit, and got things moving. 

Against Rajasthan Royals, Karthik came in at 87-5 in the 13th, before 44* (23) saw RCB chase down 169. Facing Delhi Capitals, he pulled off another outrageous recovery, arriving at 92-5 in the 12th over before slamming 66* (34), as RCB found their way to a match-winning 189. Maybe the most impressive of the lot was Sunday’s 30* (8), dragging RCB from par way off into the distance, and beyond the reach of fellow playoff contenders Sunrisers Hyderabad. Add in significant contributions against CSK, LSG, and KKR, and you’re looking at a remarkable run of performances.

274 runs, at exactly two runs a ball. Only one man in the history of the IPL – Andre Russell in 2019, an almost mythical peak for one of the game’s greats – has scored as many runs as Karthik in 2022, at a higher rate. 

There has been much to admire about Karthik’s golden summer, but on a tactical level, the way in which he’s taken down his matchups has been hugely impressive. Against the spinners, he’s done perfectly well, ticking along at 7.3rpo, and just two dismissals in 50 balls. It’s surviving, keeping his head above water, and at times there have even been particular individual bowlers who he’s taken down with gusto. But the true genius of this campaign has been his destruction of pace; Karthik’s scoring rate of 14.7rpo against pace in IPL 2022 is the highest for any batter with 200+ runs in any major T20 league season. 

What has stood out even further, is the relentlessly aggressive nature of his starts, and his ability to convert that selflessness into runs, quick runs, and consistent runs. Karthik’s first 10 balls at the crease average 19 runs, the most of any batter to appear in any IPL season (min 12 innings). More than any other player, he’s been able to walk out into the middle, scratch out his guard, look up at the umpire and the bowler running in, and reap hell havoc from ball one.

It’s apt that many of Karthik’s best efforts this season have been as part of comebacks, reflecting across the course of a game his own recent journey. After a lean couple of years for Kolkata Knight Riders, DK was released ahead of the 2022 mega auction, and nobody was surprised. An outstanding start to the last auction cycle (751 runs across the 2018 and 2019 seasons, scoring at 8.8rpo and averaging 44) gave way to a troubling loss of form and influence, the 2020 campaign seeing Eoin Morgan take the captaincy reigns and Karthik’s individual contributions wane. Across his last two seasons at KKR, he averaged just 17 and scored at a relatively pedestrian 7.7rpo. In 2020, he averaged just 5.50 against spinners, dismissed six times in 31 balls.

His pace-hitting wasn’t quite at his peak levels, but it was still strong. The issue was his weakness becoming more exaggerated. Emphasising this further, at KKR he was often batting in the same periods as Andre Russell, a significantly better player but one with a similar preference for pace bowling. If teams held back spin for Dre at the death, they had the added bonus of also being able to target Karthik, and Pat Cummins to boot. Combine that with many of KKR’s other players (Morgan, Sunil Narine, Nitish Rana) having a weakness against high pace and actually preferring spin, the decision to backload your spin overs was often an easier one than you’d expect. Karthik was not a good enough player, or in good enough form, to demand a change in batting order or approach.

Yet in retrospect, securing Karthik for just 5.5Cr was one of the most influential pieces of business at the 2022 auction. At RCB, the longer and more varied batting order has worked in Karthik’s favour. At the top of the order, Virat Kohli and Faf du Plessis are both far better players of pace than spin, encouraging sides to burn their spin overs early. Relatedly, while Wanindu Hasaranga’s batting has not been particularly effective in this campaign, he is a spin hitter lurking at No.8 or No.9, nestled alongside the pace hitter Harshal Patel. If you do hold back a spinner against RCB to use against Karthik, they have the option to counter it with the Sri Lankan’s pinch-hitter qualities, shielding their star finisher. Karthik has had to do far too many rebuild and rescue jobs this season for the team to get too much credit for his excellence, but there is a structure which – by accident or by design – has given him a good environment in which to flourish.

Teams have tried to counter use this. Chennai Super Kings did hold back their revelatory mystery spinner Mahesh Theekshana, to target Karthik in the final overs. In the taut orchestration of RCB’s deployment, it was a bum note – their best player of pace up against an underexposed, wonderfully talented spinner. But their finisher was too clever, too aware of the situation, spotting the glint of a hook in the middle of the meat. Seven balls, six runs, no wicket. He survived, and took Dwaine Pretorious’ 20th over for 16 runs. RCB won. 

Rather than the modern migration of opening batters being used down the order, having a fully trained and ingrained finisher at the end of the innings does reap particular rewards. The range of challenges faced by Karthik is wider than maybe any other batter in the tournament. There have been games where he was deployed perfectly, held back until the pace onslaught began. There have been games where he’s been thrown in at the halfway mark to combat a collapse, and he’s been just as successful. He’s been sent in too early, and been sent in too late; success as the product of intelligent usage, and success as the fire-fighter.

What’s more, there is something magical about a finisher at the peak of their powers. Openers arrive after the ad-break, front of frame and centre, the bankable star attraction. Bowlers float around the outfield, constantly in shot, always there. Finishers are invisible. They lurk on the bench. Behind arms, others, away in the nets. They hover around the spectacle, out of shot, until the director gets the call, and suddenly, they’re on, shadow batting, padded up, with a bullet in the chamber. 

There’s a recording of the song ‘Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright’ by Joan Baez, which comes to mind. It’s a soaring version of a perfect tune, enjoyably lavish in its production. It is, devoid of context, beautiful. Then as the song winds to a close, you’re met with a crisp wall of applause, cracking the instrumentation and suddenly, you’re right in the room with the mortality of the song and the singer. Suddenly, you realise it was live. All that beauty and all that rich production, all that precision, was more fragile and momentary than you could have believed. 

Everything we’re watching, from Dinesh Karthik, is live. It’s alive. This is a man not just walking tightropes to the end of innings, to the end of his time as a player, but a man sprinting across them, pirouetting, juggling, cheering. This aggression is so laden with risk, not in terms of match situation but your own individual contribution to it, that you have to expect it to end at any given moment, with a second’s notice. Perhaps, given the stage of his career at which Karthik finds himself, this is a feeling that he’s grown used to, and learned to embrace. Hold onto it for three more weeks, and a decade after his first, a second IPL title is within his grasp.

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