Dinesh Karthik’s career has been defined by long waits.
He made his Test and ODI debut nearly two decades ago in 2004. He boasts the third longest T20I career in history trailing only Bangladesh star Shakib Al Hasan and Zimbabwe’s Sean Williams.
Yet despite his longevity, Karthik has only been a sporadic member of the Indian set-up. Between 2010 and 2018, the wicketkeeper batsman missed 87 consecutive matches, the 8th longest streak in Test cricket history.
Similarly from 2010 to 2017, Karthik didn’t play a T20I game for India either.
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Stuck behind MS Dhoni, Wriddhiman Saha and in recent years emerging star Rishabh Pant for much of his career, the 37-year-old has revived his international career from the dead.
During the 2022 IPL season, Karthik forced the hands of the selectors after he averaged 55 at a strike rate of 183.33, helping the Royal Challengers Bangalore reach the semi-final.
More importantly, Karthik reinvented himself as one of the game’s deadliest finishers, an area in which the Indian team – despite boasting a formidable top order – were severely lacking.
Since March 2022, Karthik boasts a strike rate of 205.55 in the death overs for all T20s played during this period. Only New Zealand’s Jimmy Neesham and Australia’s Tim David have higher strike rates.
Touted as India’s ‘enforcer’ by Indian coach Rahul Dravid in June, DK’s ‘dream’ came true when he was selected to the World Cup squad, joining captain Rohit Sharma as the only holdovers from the 2007 team that won India’s only T20 World Cup.
However, the incredible run of form that turned Karthik from India’s forgotten man to a potent match winner, seems to have deserted him at the worst possible moment.
Playing in India’s first four group matches, Karthik has tallied a paltry 14 runs in three innings at a strike rate of just 63. While he was unlucky to be runout against Bangladesh, the veteran keeper was nonetheless dropped for India’s final group match against Zimbabwe, making way for Pant.
One of the most exciting players in world cricket currently, Pant’s flamboyant batting style seems tailor made to the T20 format. Yet in T20Is especially, the nuggety keeper-batsman has only averaged 24.51 at a middling strike rate of 128 since September of 2019.
Unable to exploit the field to the same extent he does in the longer formats of the game, in recent years Pant has been tied down, with the opposition adopting the strategy to bowl wider and more off-pace deliveries. In 20 T20I innings this year, Pant has succumbed to the wide ball in half of them.
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Perhaps more suited as a top order batsman – where he can make full use of only two outfielders in the powerplay – unfortunately for Pant, India hardly lacks firepower in that area.
With the resurgence of Virat Kohli and Hardik Pandya’s transition from finisher to middle order stalwart in recent times, Pant has seen himself become the odd man out. Opting instead for an extra bowling option rather than more batting firepower, the likes of Axar Patel or Deepak Hooda provide more versatility for India – especially in Australian conditions.
While Pant’s recent T20 form is hardly compelling enough to replace Karthik in the side, his potential and a lack of left handers in the team does.
With Axar Patel as the only other left-handed batsman of note in the squad, India may look to try and combat the remaining six spinners in the tournament – five of which (Shadab Khan, Mohammad Nawaz, Mitchell Santner, Ish Sodhi and Adil Rashid) spin the ball away from the right hander.
Following the Zimbabwe match, despite the shuffling of keepers, coach Rahul Dravid explained it wasn’t an indication of how their team would look for the semi-final.
“I think everyone is available for selections; just because somebody missed out on this game doesn’t mean that we can’t go back to him,” he said.
As if to echo this sentiment, in India’s optional Tuesday net session, only Karthik and Pandya spent a prolonged period batting in the nets.
Heading to the Adelaide Oval to face England, India are just two wins away from lifting their first ICC trophy in nearly a decade, having last won the Champions Trophy against the same opponent in 2013.
While there’s no doubt Indian fans have had plenty to celebrate in all three formats over the last nine years, there’s a growing restlessness over the lack of trophies in their cabinet.
At a World Cup where every team has looked fallible and experienced defeat, the margin between success and failure seems to be razor thin. For India, the choice of a resurgent veteran specialist or the budding superstar going through a lull in form, may very well be a tournament defining decision.