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Making a case for Kartik

The Rediff Team

For two years now, pretty much everyone has been suggesting that Murli Kartik should be a permanent member of the national team (the suggestion was made on this site, among others, a good half dozen times at a conservative estimate).

Everyone, that is, except the national selectors.

For most, it was in fact a mystery why the man rated, by among others team vice-captain Rahul Dravid, as "the best spinner in the country" could never seem to make the 14, let alone the playing eleven. Knee jerk selection - which sees the famous five pen down the names of Harbhajan Singh and Anil Kumble and think their work is done as far as spin options are concerned, is merely one half of the story.

The other half owes to the kind of person -– and player -- Kartik is. One of the most well-read members of the team, Kartik, off the field of play, is a mild-mannered, fun bloke with easy manners and no ‘tude to speak of.

Murali Kartik On the field, he is Frankenstein -- a hard, in your face player who is always competing, no matter where, and against who. Hemang Badani for instance told us an interesting story, once. Of batting in the nets against Kartik, once, and coming down a pace to play the bowler back.

Kartik picked up the ball and slammed it back down the pitch. Badani took evasive action, but the ball hit him on the body. Next ball, Badani was back down the track, but only managed to bat it back to Kartik -- who, yet again, grabbed the ball and blasted it back down the pitch.

When it happened a third time, Badani held up a hand and told Kartik, hey, relax, chum, this is nets. To which the reply was, ‘Just ****ing bat!’.

Kartik would be most surprised if you made much of the incident – for him, it is nothing personal you see. The nets is dress rehearsal for the real thing, right? And out there in the middle, if a batsman kept strolling out to you, you would want to stop him doing that, right? Right – so he’ll carry the same attitude into the nets.

Nothing personal, pal.

Off the field, though, he is a non-confrontational kind of bloke – despite which, he got into trouble in 2000 when then head coach of the National Cricket Academy Hanumant Singh threw him out, along with Harbhajan Singh and Nikhil Haldipur.

  Kartik's performance in the ODIs against WI
  (click to enlarge)

Fourth ODI
Murli's performance in the fourth ODI

Fifth ODI

Murli's performance in the fourth ODI

Sixth ODI

Murli's performance in the sixth ODI
Haldipur, in a sense, deserved what he got -- his crime was smuggling a girl into his dormitory. Harbhajan Singh, meanwhile, paid the price for bucking the system -- the academy mess had the kind of menu no self-respecting sportsman would permit to pass between his teeth. A frustrated Bajji tore the menu sheet down from the bulletin board and ripped it to shreds, saying something to the effect that a dog wouldn’t eat that shit – the kind of act our administrators have no tolerance for.

Kartik’s fault was merely propinquity – he was with Bajji when the latter did his number on the menu, is all. But that was enough to tar him with the same rebellious brush.

Bajji was lucky – the Australians were due on Indian soil, the think tank knew the team needed a match winner, and collectively, the senior players and coach John Wright pushed the off-spinner’s case, taking the battle to the selection committee. Kartik, however, missed out.

Two factors made it worse. One was the fact that Rahul Sanghvi enjoys considerable clout with a member of India’s famed spin quartet of yesteryears, and with a prominent member of the selection panel of the time. The result was that Kartik found himself sidelined, even in the Delhi team.

The other factor was that he did not enjoy the confidence of his captain – and it is moot if his bowling alone was the reason for it. In his Test debut in Mumbai against South Africa in 2000, he was asked to play second fiddle to Anil Kumble, with defensive fields set for him.

"I am an attacking bowler," he told us, at the time. "I like to take wickets, not bowl a negative line to defensive fields."

Comments, however, were made in sections of the media about his lack of ability and application, and his attitude. Around this time, Kartik found himself bowling against Bengal in a Ranji Trophy game, took Sourav Ganguly’s wicket, and promptly pointed to the press box – an act that ensured that his captain wouldn’t fight too hard for his inclusion in the side.

Murali Kartik Interestingly, when Kartik’s name came up in course of an informal dinner with John Wright shortly before the third Test against the Windies, the coach was very clear that at least in his mind, the orthodox left arm spinner was a very valuable cog in India’s spinning wheel. "We need that boy in the team," Wright said then, labeling him an attacking, combative bowler, a good bat, and quality outfielder.

Unfortunately Kartik – who, where his game is concerned, is a very no-nonsense person not given to undue deference – has not received any support from either the national selectors, or indeed the spinning legends of the past. It is a mark of his character and quality that despite it all, when he got a chance to come back into the side following Kumble’s non-performance in the first two ODIs of the current season, he allowed his attacking instincts full rein where most bowlers in his position would have looked to bowl tight and try to make sure he had decent bowling figures.

It will be difficult for even the famous five to drop him after this.

Which brings up the question – how useful will he be in South Africa, during the World Cup? Accepted thinking seems to be that on SA wickets, seam bowlers are the only viable option – but ‘accepted’ and ‘knee jerk’ can often be synonymous.

Wouldn’t you, for instance, say that by the same logic, it is seam bowlers who would work in Australia? And yet, less than a year after winning the World Cup in 1983 with an attack largely comprising dibbly-dobbly seamers, India went into the far more challenging Benson & Hedges World Series tournament in Australia, and won on the back of the attacking leg spin of L Sivaramakrishnan and the containing line and accuracy of Ravi Shastri.

So much for accepted thinking -- the fact is that India's seam bowling cupboard is not particularly well-stocked. Rather than lust after what does not exist, therefore, it makes sense to evolve a gameplan around what does -- and that is two quality spinners, backed by the likes of Viru Sehwag, Yuvraj Singh and company.

A more detailed analysis of the spin versus pace option follows on this site next week – in the interim, however, here is a quick stat to go with. Check out the Murli Kartik fact-file in our Player Watch section:

That he has only appeared in four ODIs despite being picked for the Academy, as an outstanding talent, as far back as 2002 (keep in mind that academy-mate Harbhajan Singh has appeared in 26) is a comment on our selection policy. The fact that he has done uniformly well in the games that he has got to play in is a tribute to skill, and to a strength of character that has allowed him to sustain his craft through the prolonged exile.

But the most intriguing stat comes towards the end of that player page – in March-April this year, Kartik was part of the India A side that played their Protean counterparts in South Africa. Check out his figures, in both the four-day and one-day versions of the game: they tell an interesting tale in context of the upcoming World Cup.

Also see: Player Watch



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