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Dinesh Karthik leads comeback as India Level Series 2-2

After teetering on the edge of the cliff, India have crawled back to catch their breath and lead the series to the final game in Bangalore. Considerable credit for the straight 82-run win at Rajkot goes to the undeterred big-hit brilliance of Dinesh Karthik and Hardik Pandya, whose 65 runs in 5.3 overs propelled India to 169 runs on a sticky surface, and the synchronized utility of his bowling company.

Give this group of bowlers conditions that support their craft from afar, they make life for overseas batsmen impossible, let alone thrive. The surface wasn’t as conducive to stroke play as the other locations in this series. Some balls stopped, some kept sliding, some just bounced off long surfaces. The jump was more spongy than a trampoline. Both the sailors and the spinners deftly mixed their pace and even hammered out some of the advantage South Africa was trying to gain. The Indian bowlers simply knotted them.

No hero emerged for South Africa. Quinton de Kock kept working before retiring, Temba Bavuma suffered a shoulder injury and retired injured; Harshal Patel sent David Miller out with a smooth ball; Yuzvendra Chahal took revenge on his tormentor Heinrich Klaasen with a straighter ball; Avesh Khan enjoyed his best night in international cricket with a four-wicket haul. They were bundled for 87, half what India had launched (169/7).

There were several heroes for India. First and foremost Dinesh Karthik, who with his 27-ball 55 gave the impression that he was hitting alone on another field. He was certainly hitting on another level, hitting fluidly on a surface where most hitters were constantly struggling to time the ball and find the boundary.

The background was perfect for him to thrive on – team sway, streak at stake, last of the specialist batsmen, it was time not only to play a winning hand but to make him an indispensable player on the squad. He’d let golden opportunities slip in his prime, but at 36, probably near the end of his career, he’s desperate to count even half an opportunity.

Counting he did, with a swipe of unfathomable coolness and sparkling counting games.

Amidst the reverse pulls and sweeps, the sheer wattage of destruction Karthik was racing up, a straight drive stood out. South Africa’s left-handed spinner Keshav Maharaj, after being swept violently through the midwicket, burned one to his pads. Karthik could have bent low and swung his wrists over the ball and spun it around for a long time. His design seemed to be just that, before changing his mind at the last moment, as if he’d suddenly been caught up in classic punching art. He simply pushed his front foot forward and drove the ball between the bowler and the long-on fielder, airy but a shot of pure, flawless timing. For that punch alone, he maintained the pose, front elbow squinting at the inky sky, the bat-maker’s name proudly staring at the audience after drawing a delightful bow.

He struck eight more boundaries and two sixes to complete his first half-century in the T20 national team and guide India to a competent result, but a photo of that strike is most likely to adorn the walls of his drawing room. That blow caught his breath; most others rushed the blood. Karthik was in full swing, the currents raging like a monsoon river. There was a swept six from Dwaine Pretorius where he just walked out of the off stump and hit the ball down the deep midwicket. Fast feet, faster hands and even faster brains. The ball wasn’t too full for the slog, but he hyperextended his racquet, got under the ball and heaved 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 amazing. Anything even slightly shot, it moves back with the swiftness of an electric wave and cuts, often before the square. All full, he’s got the whole canvas to find a border. The ball could disappear in any corner of the field. Long balls might disappear over a deep square leg; he could pull backwards, sweep backwards and, if necessary, ram and shovel (there was no need for such improvisation). He makes the lengths that suit him like zipping down the track and beating Andre Nortje across the floor. The shot, his second limit, shook the strapping South African sailor. Maybe the whole squad too, suddenly looking discouraged and letting the game drift away for the next 30 minutes.

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That was precisely the moment South Africa would regret, after the penetration and planning they showed in the early exchanges. By then they had narrowed the hosts down and chipped away with wickets, most recently Rishabh Pant. India was 81 for 4 in 13 overs at this point, having already lost Ishan Kishan, Ruturaj Gaikwad and Shreyas Iyer. Hardik Pandya escalated their worries, hitting the ligaments with a few lusty smacks, the trademark back-cuts and flick slogs, where he wrist-slams the ball at the last moment of contact, causing the crowd to erupt with delight. That pushing of the limits made all the difference – from wobbling on the edge of the cliff to leading the series to the final game in Bangalore.

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