Ben Jones looks at the extraordinary campaign of the Indian veteran.
Throw your imagination at us for a moment and use it to imagine yourself as an IPL bowler. You are at the peak of your sport, you dominate your field. Imagine flying so high that your captain throws the ball to your death ball, to squeeze out the last verification. Imagine nailing your plans, the pressure rising and approaching. Imagine taking a door, a swollen knocker leaving, a man fresh to the end replacing him.
Now imagine Dinesh Karthik coming for you.
In the Royal Challengers Bangalore season, which was defined by the interruption of the playoffs, the changing performance of the strikers and the fights of their talisman former captain, Dinesh Karthik was constant and constantly well. Over and over again, while other parts of the RCB machine were kneeling and making mistakes, ‘DK’ arrived with his tool and started things up.
Against the Rajasthan Royals, Karthik came 87-5 in the 13th, before 44 * (23) saw the RCB chase 169. Facing the Delhi Capitals, he made another unprecedented recovery, reaching 92-5 in the 12th. before breaking 66 * (34), while RCB found its way to 189 winning games. Perhaps the most impressive in the series was Sunday’s 30 * (8), which dragged the RCB from an even distance into the distance and out of reach of fellow Sunrisers playoff candidates Hyderabad. Add a significant contribution against CSK, LSG and KKR and you will watch an outstanding series of performances.
274 runs, with exactly two ball runs. Only one man in the history of the IPL – Andre Russell 2019, which is almost a mythical highlight for one of the greats of the game – achieved as much running as Karthik 2022, at a higher rate.
There was much to admire about Karthik’s golden summer, but on a tactical level, the way he ruined his matches was extremely impressive. Against the spinner he did perfectly well, beating at 7.3rpo, and only two suspensions in 50 balls. He survives, keeping his head above water, and from time to time there were even individual bowlers that he knocked down with gusto. But the true genius of this campaign was its destruction of pace; Karthik’s score rate of 14.7 rpo relative to the tempo in the 2022 IPL is the highest for all players with more than 200 runs in any major T20 season.
What stood out even more was the relentlessly aggressive nature of his starts and his ability to turn that selflessness into running, fast running and consistent running. Karthik’s first 10 balls in the fold average 19 rounds, the most of all hitters appearing in any IPL season (min 12 innings). More than any other player, he managed to get out in the middle, scratch his guard, look towards the referee and the bowler running and reap the hell from the first ball.
Appropriately, many of Karthik’s best efforts this season have been part of his comeback, reflecting his recent trip during the game. After a few lean years for Kolkata Knight Riders, DK was released before the 2022 mega auction and no one was surprised. The extraordinary start of the last auction cycle (751 running in the 2018 and 2019 seasons, achieving 8.8 rpo and an average of 44) gave way to a worrying loss of form and influence, the 2020 campaign in which Eoin Morgan took over captaincy and Karthik’s individual contributions are declining. In the last two seasons in KKR he had an average of only 17 and achieved a relatively pedestrian 7.7 rpo. In 2020, he averaged just 5.50 against a spinner, six shots in 31 balls.
His rhythm was not at the highest level, but he was still strong. The problem was that his weakness was becoming more and more exaggerated. Emphasizing this further, in KKR he often hit in the same periods as Andre Russell, a much better player, but with similar preferences for bowling in tempo. If the teams refrained from turning for Dre after his death, they had the added bonus of being able to target Karthik and Pat Cummins as well. Combine that with many other KKR players (Morgan, Sunil Narine, Nitish Rana) who have a weakness for high tempo and actually prefer turning, the decision to fill their spins was often easier than you would expect. Karthik was not a good enough player, nor in good enough form, to require a change in hitting order or approach.
Yet, in retrospect, insuring Karthik for just 5.5 Cr was one of the most influential deals at the 2022 auction. At RCB, a longer and more diverse strike order went in Karthik’s favor. At the top of the standings, Virat Kohli and Faf du Plessis are both far better players at a pace than spin, encouraging the sides to burn their turns early. In this regard, while Wanindu Hasaranga has not been particularly effective in this campaign, he is a striker lurking in 8th or 9th place, located alongside stopper Harshal Patel. If you keep a spinner against RCB to use it against Karthik, they have the option to counter it with the quality of the Sri Lankan pincher, protecting their star finisher. Karthik has had to do too much restoration and rescue work this season for the team to get too much credit for his excellence, but there is a structure that – accidentally or by design – has given him a good environment in which to thrive.
The teams tried to counter that. The Chennai Super Kings have restrained their revealing mysterious spinner Mahesh Theekshan, to target Karthik in the final overs. In the tense orchestration of RCB’s implementation, it was nonsense – their best player in rhythm against an under-exposed, wonderfully talented spinner. But their finisher was too smart, too aware of the situation, noticing the reflection of the hook in the middle of the meat. Seven balls, six runs, no passes. He survived and won 20th place at Dwaine Pretorious in 16 runs. RCB won.
Instead of the modern migration of starting strikers being used lower, having a fully trained and rooted finisher at the end of the inning brings special rewards. The range of challenges Karthik faces is wider than perhaps any other player in the tournament. There were games in which he was perfectly distributed, held until the tempo attack began. There were games where he was thrown in halfway to cope with the collapse, and he was just as successful. He was sent too early, and he was sent too late; success as a product of intelligent use and success as a firefighter.
Moreover, there is something magical in the finisher at the peak of his powers. The openers arrive after a break for commercials, the front of the frame and the center, an attractive star. Bowlers hover over the outer field, constantly under attack, always there. The final elements are invisible. They are lurking on the bench. Behind weapons, others, far in the nets. They hover around the spectacle, out of the frame, until the director gets a call, and suddenly they are struck in the shadows, padded, with a bullet in the chamber.
There’s a recording of Joan Baez’s song ‘Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright’ that comes to mind. It is a superb version of the perfect melody, which is pleasantly sumptuous in its production. That, devoid of context, is beautiful. Then, when the song is coming to an end, you are met by a sharp wall of applause, cracking of instruments and suddenly you are in a room with the mortality of the song and the singer. You suddenly realize it was live. All that beauty and all that rich production, all that precision, was more fragile and instantaneous than you could have imagined.
Everything we watch, from Dinesha Karthika, is live. It is alive. This is a man who not only walks the ropes to the end of shifts, to the end of his time as a player, but a man who runs over them, pirouettes, juggles, cheers. This aggression is so fraught with risk, not in terms of the situation of the match, but your personal contribution to it, that you have to expect it to end at any moment, with a second notice. Perhaps, given the stage of his career Karthik is in, it’s a feeling he’s gotten used to and learned to accept. Hold on for another three weeks, and a decade after his first, second IPL title is at his fingertips.