If Dinesh Karthik had been born in any other generation, he would have had a long career as the settled Indian wicket-keeper.
But what happened in spite of this, is the story of DK.
Growing up in the age of Sharjah, of Dawood Ibrahim wearing a cap that claps, and Blofeld spotting earrings in the crowd, and Pakistan always managing to win, often through the likes of a Manzoor Elahi or a Salim Yusuf, trust me to know the significance of a last-ball match-winning six. Not only does it call for liquid nitrogen to flow through one’s arteries to pull it off, it also takes raw skill.
Now you may say: “But it was Soumya Sarkar bowling!” or “What significance is the Nidahas Trophy anyway?” but even back in the day it was Chetan Sharma, and you would be forgiven if you don’t remember the name “Australasia Cup”. And yet that six, that thappad ki goonj on the face of Indian cricket, reverberated for a decade, till Aamir Sohail pointed his bat at Venkatesh Prasad, and everything changed.
Now I’m not going to go overboard and assign such monumental significance to that swipe over extra cover, the sheer volume of international and franchise cricket played today numbing us to the fate of individual games. After all, we aren’t in 1986 any more. However, that should not take away from the magnificence of that little cameo, if not for anything else than because it prevented Vijay Shankar from displacing Auto Shankar from the list of “Most unpopular Shankars”, and saved us the sight of a group naagin dance, for which, and I say this as a Sridevi fan, I’m definitely thankful.
But this is not about that shot. Or that innings. It is about being Dinesh Karthik in the age of Mahendra Singh Dhoni. A Bengali author once said that the problem with Rabindranath (Tagore) was that, like his name, he was like the sun, and when the sun shines in all its brightness, it blots out the starglow of lesser talents. If Karthik had been born in any other generation, be it of Kirmani, More, Chandrakant Pandit, or, horror of horrors, Nayan Mongia, he would have had a long and successful marquee career. But it is his misfortune that his career ran parallel to Dhoni’s. And be it as a cricketer, a batsman, a keeper, a leader, and a finisher, there was never any comparison. With Dhoni, there never is.
Karthik is not the first cricketer to be eclipsed in this way. In his book Idols, Sunil Gavaskar spoke of his idols Rajinder Goel and Padmakar Shivalkar. They never played for India because they were competing with the Prasannas and the Bedis and the Chandrasekhars, but they would have definitely walked in to the side in any other day and age – definitely, I’m guessing, when Maninder Singh and Raghuram Bhatt were our spin spearheads.
Almost any Indian cricket fan who follows domestic cricket can give you the names of players who either never made it or did not get to stay for any appreciable period of time, because the role they would have played in the national team was occupied by a greater talent, or, as in the case of Indian cricket, by a better politically connected player.
Now, with Dhoni approaching the end of his career, there might be a season or two left of Karthik in the limited-overs format, though that seems unlikely, not just because Dhoni as of now shows no intention of quitting, but also because, even if he does, the selectors will most likely skip ahead to the next generation, to Ishan Kishans and Rishabh Pants. Which would be a tragedy for DK, as it has been for many others like him, except for one thing. Indian Premier League (IPL).
Often derided as the “bane of cricket”, IPL sure has done a lot of harm, to good taste and common sense, but it has also enabled the DKs of the Dhoni generation to have a career. And by career, I don't just mean money, and IPL, we can all agree, has given all its stakeholders a lot of that. But, more importantly, it has given “almost great” cricketers a place in the sun, the opportunity to play in front of packed stadiums and living rooms, to find that which all of us look for in the grand scheme of things – relevance – as opposed to plying their trade in front of empty stands, sleeping in second-class coaches, riding on a Bajaj to go for practice, and hoping to become, post-retirement, an umpire or a Ranji coach while contemplating, every waking second, what could have been.
So, come April, Karthik will get his place under the spotlight as the captain of Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR). He will get to decide the batting order, which means at least he won't be batting after the likes of Shankar. He will get to be at the toss, he will get to have his picture taken with Shah Rukh Khan, and if everything goes well, and that given KKR is a big IF, he might emulate the franchise glory of another person who suffered from being born in the age of Dhoni, one Mr Gautam Gambhir, who, in any other era would have had a shot at being the Indian captain, but had to be content with being the man who took KKR from the last spot to two IPL trophies.
And while a few IPL trophies or the honour of a reception from Didi or a million-dollar retention fee might not fully compensate for what was lost, at the end of the day, for missing out on a long career as India's number-one keeper-batsman, Karthik will still have that moment in time, when he, as is the fantasy of every boy and girl who has ever held a bat in hand, hit a six off the last ball and won the game for the country.
Well done, Dinesh Karthik. Well done.