When an all-time great retires finding an adequate replacement can be a difficult exercise. But given the rich tradition of Indian spin bowling there was really nothing to worry about when Anil Kumble called it a day. In the long established procedure there were ready replacements in Amit Mishra, Pragyan Ojha and Piyush Chawla all of whom had already played for India and exhibited their budding skills.
But, amidst the trio of young talent, one bowler who should have been in the forefront has become a largely forgotten man. Whatever has happened to Murali Kartik? For long in the shadow of the Kumble – Harbhajan duo he only got a place in the squad when one of them was injured or indisposed – or on one famous occasion when all three played on the minefield of a pitch at the Wankhede stadium against Australia in November 2004.
Kartik did better than either of the two senior men and ended up with a match haul of seven for 76 enough to earn him the man of the match award. This performance earned him plaudits aplenty but somehow he just played one more Test against South Africa later the same month and since then his appearances for India have been restricted to ODI’s the last of his 37 such matches being against Pakistan a year ago.
Has the younger brigade past him by? That would seem to be the case though Kartik at 32 is still fit, hungry for success and as competitive as ever. He is still determined to play for the country and is only eager to be given an opportunity. His overall figures are not bad – 24 wickets from eight Tests at just over 34 apiece. Moreover, he is a bowler in the classical mould. He is not afraid of throwing the ball up in the air but can be deceptive at the same time. He can make the ball dip and has admirable control. He is also a highly competitive cricketer and has as much aggression as any fast bowler while not allowing that aggression to get out of hand. He has to channel it in the right ways and Kartik does that perfectly.
Kartik's performances for Lancashire and Middlesex in the county championship have boosted his confidence. In fact, Kartik played a major role in Middlesex's improved outing in 2007. He was the most successful bowler taking 51 county championship wickets at just 25 apiece. Wisden noted that "in Murali Kartik Middlesex had one of their best overseas signings for some years. They had a world class left arm spinner. It was not just that he took 51 wickets it was when he took them claiming nine victims in each of the victories over Glamorgan and Leicestershire."
Indeed, in recent interviews former England off-spinners Shaun Udal and John Emburey have expressed surprise at how their Middlesex associate continues to be overlooked by Indian selectors. While, it was Emburey who brought Kartik to Middlesex in English county cricket in 2007 after he had been impressed by his performances for Lancashire, Udal now captains the left-arm spinner at the Lord's-based club. Despite continually impressing for Middlesex, Kartik is struggling for recognition from Indian selectors who picked three frontline spinners for the first Test against England at Chennai with Harbhajan Singh supported by leg-spinner Amit Mishra and Kartik’s more direct rival for a place, left-arm twirler Pragyan Ojha.
Kumble's retirement it was some thought in some circles would open up a greater chance for Kartik’s recall but that has not been the case. For Udal it is amazing that Kartik is continually overlooked by the Indian selectors. "It's very strange," says Udal, who played in the Stanford Super Series with Kartik last month. "As a character he is extremely competitive and you want your spin bowlers to have a bit of an edge and a bit of aggression and he has that in abundance. He is a player captains enjoy having on their team. I know that I can put him on at one end and that not many runs will come from there so he allows you to build up the pressure."
Emburey, England's premier spin bowler in the 80s and now a coach in the ICL is also a huge supporter of Kartik. "From my point of view, when we looked to bring a spinner to Middlesex he was the best who was available and he never let us down. The evidence of just how good he has been is in the fact the club has signed him again for next year. It is surprising he is not in the India squad and I can’t put a finger on why that is the case because he is a top quality spin bowler who has great variety, change of pace and the ability to get good players out on flat wickets, which we see at Lord's. We had problems with our spin department as Lord's isn't an easy place for spinners to take wickets. It's such a good wicket to bat on, but Murali has great patience and is prepared to wait for his opportunities, which he does create against good batsmen."
Emburey added that the main reason why Middlesex won the Twenty20 Cup this year was because of Kartik and Udal bowling together from overs 12-16, stemming the run rate at a time when the batsmen were looking to push on. Kartik was to have played in the Champions League for Middlesex this month but the terrorist attacks in Mumbai forced a postponement. Uniquely, he is the only player in the world to play in the IPL and Stanford 20/20 in the inaugural season. Now if only he could get the national recognition he so richly deserves.