And the problem is not a recent one but with the appointment of Eoin Morgan as the vice-captain, Karthik’s race against time is pretty much equivalent to a sand-clock. How did it all start and where do I begin with what all went possibly wrong in his tenure?
Prior to 2018, Dinesh Karthik was a no-one, at least in the realm of the Indian Premier League, where he had become a franchise-trotter, going from one ship to another, without one sinking. But when Kolkata Knight Riders purchased him in the 2018 IPL auction for Rs 7.4 crore, the hearts sunk and a new era was at dawn for the franchise, who were still recovering from a hangover caused by Gautam Gambhir’s mystical and pragmatic captaincy. Somewhere, deep down in their hearts, the Kolkata fans knew that they had something on the line, a legacy to rebuild without their adopted son Gambhir.
At the age of 33, Karthik was finally appointed the successor to the throne of the mighty Gambhir in a kingdom that refused anything beyond success. They were so absorbed and soaked in their past glories that they failed to realise that the pieces were missing from their original puzzle, the ones that had kept them intact. It wasn’t just the Delhiites strong demeanour as a captain but in equal measures, the ministers in his apex council, who kept his kingdom running, the likes of Shakib-al-Hassan, Jacques Kallis, Brett Lee and Sunil Narine, circa 2014.
This was no more the force that they had but an opportunity to build towards the future, with all-rounder Andre Russell becoming the focal point in the setup. The fans had seen Russell as the perfect future of the franchise but on his best day, he wasn’t as close as Kallis with the bat and as impactful as Sunil Narine was with the ball. Russell is the perfect prototype of a player that you might pay and spray, winning you games from terrible situations but can’t be banked when the score reads 13/3.
That was Kolkata’s problem last season and it wouldn’t have been solved either with the promotion of Russell or the demotion of their skipper Karthik. It is a problem that every franchise has had but in an effective way, have looked beyond it in building a setup, which they failed. But why is all getting focused now? After KRR's opening game against Mumbai Indians earlier this week, Karthik’s captaincy has come under the scanner but not for the first time.
The pyramidic downfall kicked off in the public when Jamaican all-rounder and MVP Russell went out and criticised the management and the captain for batting him low in the order. He wanted to bat at No.4, a position which none of the franchises would give to the West Indian. But that put aside, it created a massive rift in the dressing room, which had to be addressed multiple times ever since. It didn’t stop there, the incapability of Karthik to seize-on-the-go had ultimately cost them the season. It wasn’t a one-event thing, Russell alongside Kuldeep Yadav’s poor show and of-course, the Shubman Gill-sized problem all led to excruciating criticism. Mind you, this was the captain who had led Tamil Nadu to victories across different seasons in the white-ball format with a team that was nowhere close to being the best in the country.
For a miracle worker like the Tamil Nadu man, why did it all not work? Well truth to be told, it’s a combination of several things that went the other way for him. As rightly and truly proclaimed, luck only favours the brave and Karthik with his team wasn’t brave enough to be lucky or lucky enough to be brave! Constantly though, he was trying it all out. But as easy as it sounds, social media has really turned the way the game has been looked at, with criticism coming in from all corners of the web. The 35-year-old’s positives from his tenure as Tamil Nadu’s captain has twisted his fate around in the Purple and gold jersey and the team wasn’t getting any younger.
Back home, he had similar pressure from the group to get success in the white-ball format and they went to lose twice against Karnataka, arguably one of India’s best domestic sides in the shorter formats. In both occasions, Karthik absolutely gobsmacked and trusted his spinners to come up with the goods, with the absence of Vijay Shankar and Ravichandran Ashwin for most parts of the competition. Despite that, with a relatively younger squad, they came out on top against several top sides on the back of him knowing that they still had faith in him as a leader. Does this group have the same amount of faith, or are they showing enough faith for the Tamil Nadu man to lead them to glory?
Everything has gone against Karthik in this tide, which has twisted the fate of the side, that even someone as special as Pat Cummins looks ordinary. It’s not Cummins' mistake that he was bought for Rs 15.5 crore and certainly not the franchise’s for shelling out such a sum for the pacer, who they desperately needed. How the Australian was and is going to be utilised in this format which was always going to be the question. If they didn’t pick him, it would have caused a roar and once they did, that too caused a roar, which shows how tricky cricket can get.
However, for Karthik, criticism and time are exactly on the different curves. While the criticism is growing bigger and mightier by the day, the time he has on his hand is getting slimmer and slippier by the moment. If he has to stand by the franchise’s historical success and pathos and ethos, he has to start being himself from the first place. He has to start making those decisions and from now, with Kuldeep Yadav, Andre Russell and, more so, the batting order.
A Shubman Gill-Sunil Narine partnership at the top of the order isn’t sufficient to win the league, it needs someone who has naturally inhabited the position, someone of a mould of Rahul Tripathi, who can knock the ball as well play it sanely. Below the same batting order, someone like Nikhil Naik isn’t going to win you matches but someone like Siddhesh Lad, who has proved himself with Mumbai, at least domestically, and someone with potential like Rinku Singh, might! In terms of bowling options, he has been limited and crippled in the past, with injuries to Mitchell Starc, Kamlesh Nagarkkoti and Shivam Mavi. This season, he has two of those trio fit and raring; in case of Mavi, we have already witnessed a glimpse of his roar.
For a resurgence, he has to start playing the cricket he does for Tamil Nadu - make the team more uber-aggressive from the ball go and start trusting his players. Karthik also needs to understand how well he can use some of the bowlers, including Kuldeep Yadav. It’s a case of talent vs right use. If you have watched any portion of European football, you would understand that a talent wrongly used in a system could only end up as a divorce. It is better to get one of the two out of the way and luckily or fortunately for him, he has options in the spin department.
Two bowlers, who have been picked by the franchise, on Karthik’s instructions - Manimaran Siddarth and Varun Chakravarthy - are there in the squad. If there is someone who can utilise spinners to the best use in the country apart from MS Dhoni, it is the Tamil Nadu man, who has boomed using the spinners’ trade on the domestic circuit. He knows how to handle Siddarth in the powerplay and definitely can get the mystery spinner in Varun talking. But all he now needs is that push, the backing from the fans and the management to go out and put the ball out of the ballpark.
For the fans, they should understand that Russell winning them games isn’t enough, they need the entire team talking, just like how Gambhir had created a dynasty, all out of nowhere. And it all comes with patience and support. Otherwise Gambhir, too, wouldn’t have excelled at the franchise.