Varun Shetty in Kolkata (May 24, 2018)


Dinesh Karthik thinks of himself as a restless person. Kolkata Knight Riders coaches Simon Katich and Heath Streak talk of him as a calming influence on the many youngsters in the team. Vijay Shankar, his partner during that famous win in the Nidahas Trophy final in March speaks of how grateful he was for Karthik’s words as he tried to overcome his feeling of culpability in a near-loss. On Wednesday night, Shane Warne found him annoying. By the end of the week, Karthik could well be lifting an IPL trophy.

That is the summary of Karthik’s whirlwind recent past, which has been full of success – some would say delayed success – as a batsman, as a long-term national team aspirant, and now, as a leader.

Knight Riders have won four matches in a row going into the second qualifier and are now showing glimpses of a new brand of cricket as opposed to the Gautam Gambhir era. To borrow Karthik’s own words – even if he meant it in a batting context – it looks distinctly like there is a Dinesh Karthik Way.

Under Gambhir, Knight Riders were efficient and regimented, with a team built around their most experienced players and barely any floater spots available. For Karthik, that pool of franchise stalwarts was a limited one. And, in their stead, he was handed an inexperienced squad that also happened to be the smallest one of the tournament, a reality that meant the old model was not viable anymore.

“We had a good, long discussion, me and Venky [Mysore, CEO of KKR]. More than me bringing a certain way of what and how I do things, I thought it was important to hear him out in terms of what the culture at Knight Riders is. Gautam Gambhir led the franchise for seven years and he left a big legacy,” Karthik had said in an interview with ESPNcricinfo about what his demands were when the job was offered. A lot of Gambhir’s legacy is still alive – the use of three spinners in the attack, batting power concentrated at the top of the order, and the predisposition for all-round cricketers.

What Karthik has brought, however, is a decentralisation of power. The players have been trusted to make decisions for themselves and the overall effect of this is that Knight Riders have invariably been an aggressive team throughout. In contrast to teams like Rajasthan Royals, who looked to accommodate for their frailties through caution, or Royal Challengers Bangalore, who realised too late that attack was the way to get the best out of their middle order, Knight Riders were clear in establishing that attacking the middle overs was non-negotiable. They made totals greater than 160 more than anyone else this season – 12 times – and only Chennai Super Kings (9) have more 170-plus scores. Only one of Knight Riders’ regular batsmen has a season strike rate of under 130: oddly enough, that man is Chris Lynn.

“Youngsters like [Shubman] Gill and [Shivam] Mavi have a free-flowing spirit. It is important for me to show them the path while letting them take the right decisions. I feel they have a beautiful journey ahead of them and [it shouldn’t be a case of them] trying to do things that I tell them, what I feel is better. You give them the knowledge and insight, but always allow them to take the decision. I believe in empowering people rather than advising them and forcing them in a direction which I feel is right,” Karthik said.

With that approach, Karthik has ensured that the best of his batting form has not been wasted. He’s Knight Riders’ leading run-getter with 490 runs at a strike rate of 148.03 and an average – 54.44 – that reflects how often he has steered his team to a win without compromising on the scoring rate.

All of this was embodied in Knight Riders’ win against Royals on Wednesday. On a sticky pitch, Knight Riders were 24 for 3 and then 51 for 4. From there, they went at nine runs per over for the rest of the innings as Karthik hit a breezy 52 that didn’t take away any momentum. Around him, Gill (28 off 17) and Andre Russell (49 off 25) flourished.

The closest Karthik has come to micromanagement is with Mavi, who heard from his captain almost every ball as he bowled through the death overs against Royal Challengers. On occasion, he has let lazy fielders know exactly what they were up to. And there was that press conference of defensiveness after a loss by DLS method where he wrongly stated the VJD rain rule might have helped.

“Look it’s always difficult when you come to a new franchise and have to learn on your feet in terms of how to go about it. Our game style is probably a bit different to what he’s used to, given the way we match up with our batting and the structure of our team with potentially three spinners all the time. So, he’s certainly learnt a lot in the last seven weeks about the group and the way we play,” assistant coach Simon Katich had said on the eve of the eliminator.

And there is evidence of that. From relying on the familiarity of Vinay Kumar and Mitchell Johnson at the start of the season, Karthik has evolved to opening up opportunities for his younger fast bowlers and even, on one occasion, defied norms to bowl the last three overs of an innings with spinners while MS Dhoni and Ravindra Jadeja were at the crease.

At the domestic level, Karthik has won the Vijay Hazare Trophy with Tamil Nadu and the Tamil Nadu Premier League with Albert TUTI Patriots. But the radical moves of backing unknown teenagers at this level and making most of his moves on the fly are suggestive of Karthik’s mind-space at the moment. Like he is with his batting right now, he is fully in control as captain.

Ahead of the second qualifier, Knight Riders bowling coach Heath Streak suggested it was because of Karthik’s hunger to make an impression.

“You’ve seen how professional he is,” Streak said, “he demands a fight and that never-give-up attitude, which has been really good. And he’s passionate. You can see by every boundary, every run we concede, you can see him thinking. The passion that he brings and the support that he gives to the bowlers – the energy – he’s been really good for us. It’s his first stint in the IPL as captain, so he also wants to make an impression. He has been fantastic and hopefully he can continue that for another two games and take the boys through.”

Source: Captain Karthik, and the new KKR | ESPNcricinfo.com

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