By Nishad Pai Vaidya
"The Holdings and the Athertons say I am one of the top three left-arm spinners in the world. People say I am the best left-arm spinner in India, but I am not playing for India." – Murali Kartik expressing his disappointment at being repeatedly ignored by the Indian think-tank.
In the era of Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh, the classy left-arm spinner Murali Kartik’s predicament remained an enigma. It is one of Indian cricket’s biggest tragedies that a player of his calibre didn’t get his rightful due at the highest level. In the past, fantastic left-arm spinners such as Rajinder Goel and Padmakar Shivalkar never tasted higher honours as the great Bishan Singh Bedi dominated the international arena. In contrast, Kartik got a chance to don the Test cap and gave ample evidence of his craft.
As Dileep V wrote on this site sometime back, Kartik wasn’t the luckiest and had to bear the brunt of the shabby treatment by the selectors. Despite having better figures (in Kartik’s final Test) than Harbhajan Singh, the selectors persisted with the off-spinner and discarded Kartik. Having been a fantastic player at the domestic level, chances were limited at the highest level. Even when he made an impact with a few performances, the axe wasn’t far away.
Kartik made his Test debut against South Africa in the 2000 and did decently well in a forgettable series for India. He continued to make sporadic appearances over the years until the fateful Mumbai Test against Australia in 2004. On the infamous turner, Kartik bowled a tremendous spell to bowl Australia out for 93 (target was 107). It was a brilliant performance as he bowled a disciplined line and length and used the pitch to good effect. Interestingly, both Kumble and Harbhajan featured in that Test and scalped five-wicket hauls (Kumble in the first essay and Harbhajan in the second).
Sadly, Karthik played only one more Test after that match-winning performance. He continued to feature in India’s One-Day International (ODI) plans with games coming few and far in between. In his last three Tests, Kartik had scalped a total of 14 wickets. His career tally in eight Tests is 24, thus he was more prolific in his final appearances. It is clear that the selectors didn’t handle him well and he should have been given more Test caps to build on the good performances. Keeping him in the frame of things would have helped spice up things. His left-armers would have given more variety to go with Kumble’s leg-spinners and Harbhajan’s offies.
In 2006, Kartik found himself out of India’s one-day set-up. However, he scripted a remarkable comeback in 2007 against Australia. It was the most unexpected return as he was is the studio analysing the games. The call-up came following an impressive season for Middlesex in county cricket. In his comeback game, Kartik made an instant impact as he dented Australia’s run-chase by dismissing the in-form Mathew Hayden with a well disguised flighted delivery. At the death, he bowled an over conceding only two runs to turn the equation in India’s favour.
A few games down the line came another memorable moment. It was sense of déjà vu as Kartik bowled the spell of his life against Australia at the Wankhede Stadium. Using the turning surface to good effect, he scalped six for 27 against a formidable batting line-up. If that wasn’t enough, he followed it up with a gritty knock down the order to seal the deal for India. One may have felt that he had finally arrived on the stage. But destiny had other plans.
Similar to his fate of his Test career, Kartik played only three more ODIs after that performance against Australia. He performed well and had bowled another crucial spell in his penultimate ODI against Pakistan at Kanpur.
India’s loss has been county cricket’s gain as Middlesex, Somerset and Surrey have used Kartik’s expertise to their advantage. He has been consistent on the county circuit and should have been considered by the Indian selectors. The tracks in England aren’t the very spinner-friendly, but here was a man who would wield his art and strike consistency.
It is clear that the selectors have missed the trick as they opted for younger alternatives such as Amit Mishra and Pragyan Ojha. Ojha is gradually cementing his place in the side, but the selectors could have given Kartik a look in after Anil Kumble’s retirement. Even through his poor run of form, Harbhajan got good support and was persisted with. It was the exact opposite with Kartik. If cerebral former cricketers such as Michael Holding and Michael Atherton rate him highly, they certainly would have seen something special – which the Indian selectors failed to spot.
Harbhajan’s reputation kept him in the team even when he bowled flat and did away with his doosra’s and other variations. On the other hand, the classical left-armer, Kartik, continued to turn the ball and give it good loop yet found little or no support. Kartik is now 35 years old and chances of an international comeback are bleak. The Indian cricket fans may always wonder what might have been.
(Nishad Pai Vaidya is a club-level cricketer with an analytic mind and a sharp eye. It was this sharpness which spotted a wrong replay in IPL4 resulting in Sachin Tendulkar’s dismissal. Some of his analytical pieces have come in for high praise from cerebral former cricketers. Nishad can also be followed on Twitter)