Dinesh Karthik leads comeback as India level series 2-2

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After teetering on the edge of the cliff, India crawled to breathe again and lead the series to the final game in Bangalore. Major credit for the 82-point series win at Rajkot goes to the unflinching brilliance of Dinesh Karthik and Hardik Pandya, whose 65 runs in 5.3 overs took India to 169 runs on a sticky surface, as well as his bowling company’s synchronized utility.

Give these bowlers conditions that remotely encourage their craft, they make life incredibly difficult for foreign batsmen to live, let alone thrive. The surface was not as conducive to stroke play as other venues in this series. Some balls came to rest, some skidded, some just jumped good length areas. The bounce was squishy rather than a trampoline. Setters and spinners skillfully mixed their pace, hammering even just a foot from the advantage South Africa were trying to gain. Indian bowlers just tied them with knots.

No heroes emerged for South Africa. Quinton de Kock worked before running out, Temba Bavuma injured his shoulder and retired injured; Harshal Patel threw David Miller with a slippery ball; Yuzvendra Chahal took revenge on her tormentor, Heinrich Klaasen, with a straighter shot; Avesh Khan had his best night in international cricket with a four-wicket run. They were consolidated for 87, just half of what India had put in (169/7).

For India, there were several heroes. The first of these was Dinesh Karthik, whose 27 55s made it look like he was the only one hitting different ground. He certainly hit on a different plane, hitting fluently on a surface where most hitters consistently struggled to time the ball and find the boundary.

The context was perfect for him to flourish – team in shock, series in play, last of the specialist batsmen, it was the moment not only to play a winning hand but also to make him an indispensable player in the crew. In his prime he had passed up golden opportunities, but at 36, probably in the latter part of his career, he is desperately making even half an opportunity count.

He scored, with a touch of impenetrable composure and a sparkling strokes game.

Amid draws and reverse sweeps, Karthik’s destructive power surged, a straight drive stood out. South African left-handed spinner Keshav Maharaj, after being swept hard by the midwicket, burned one to his pads. Karthik could have ducked down and twirled his wrists over the ball and spun it long. His design seemed just that, before at the last moment he changed his mind, as if suddenly grabbed by the classic drummer. He just pressed down on his front foot and drove the ball between the bowler and the longtime defender, airy but a pure and immaculate stroke of timing. For this one shot, he kept the pose, his front elbow winking at the inky sky, the bat-maker’s name staring proudly at the audience after drawing a delightful arc.

He hit eight more boundaries and a pair of sixes to complete his first T20 international half and propel India to a competent scoreline, but a photograph of that shot is most likely to adorn his living room walls. This blow held the breath; most of the others rushed blood. Karthik was in full swing, the currents whipping furiously like a monsoon river. There was a sweep-six from Dwaine Pretorius, in which he simply walked outside the stump and hit the ball over deep midwicket. Fast feet, faster hands and even faster brains. The ball wasn’t too full for the slog, but he hypertensed his bat, got under the ball and lifted it over the drops.

In such a mood for carnage, he could be unstoppable. His range of shots – and equally important his eye for boundaries – is staggering. Everything that is filmed even marginally, it recoils with the rapidity of an electric wave, and cuts, often in front of the square. All full, he has the whole canvas to find a border. The ball could disappear in any corner of the field. The length balls might disappear on the deep square leg; he could reverse pull, reverse sweep, and, if necessary, ramp and scoop (there was no need for such improvisation). He makes the lengths that suit him, like sashay on the track and smash Andre Nortje on the floor. The shot, his second limit, shook the burly South African designer. Maybe the whole team too, as they suddenly seemed deflated, and let the game slip away from them in the next 30 minutes or so.

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It was the exact moment South Africa would miss, after the penetration and planning they showed in the early exchanges. Until then, they had bottled up hosts and munched wickets, the latest being Rishabh Pant. India were, at this stage, 81 for 4 from 13 overs, having already lost Ishan Kishan, Ruturaj Gaikwad and Shreyas Iyer. Compounding their woes, Hardik Pandya had also hit the straps with some vigorous kicks, the characteristic back-cuts and flick-slogs, where he stabbed the ball at the last moment of contact, sending the crowd into a frenzy. This smashing of boundaries made all the difference, from teetering on the edge of the cliff to leading the series to the final game in Bangalore.

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