Karun Nair: Back amongst the big boys
"I think something’s happening with the openers. For some reason they are getting injured. (Murali) Vijay got injured in the West Indies and now Rahul."
This was Anil Kumble ruminating ahead of the Test at Kolkata against the visiting Kiwis. Little did he know at the time that there was more to come. With Shikhar Dhawan fracturing a finger, India lost two of their designated openers going into the third Test.
While the recall of Gautam Gambhir was cheered on by those loyal to the Delhi opener, the selection committee's decision to call up Karun Nair was as tad unexpected. He finally got his Test cap from Sunil Gavaskar, when regular opener KL Rahul was ruled out of the third Test against England at Mohali.
With just a solitary half-century and a string of starts to his credit on the recent India-A tour to Australia, Nair didn't exactly set the turf on fire. That said, with 2,519 first-class runs at an average of 49.30, there's no denying the quality on offer. And in a brief career, his rise has been meteoric.
As I made my way through the lunch halls of the KSCA Stadium in Hubballi, I spotted Nair chatting away with his colleagues after a meal. The Karbonn Karnataka Premier League 2016 was well into its second week and the Karnataka batsman had just returned from Australia.
"I just flew in straight and played the game the next day," he said. "We're all professionals and we're supposed to play this game and it’s our job to play, so we cannot be giving reasons," he added, while brushing aside acclimatisation worries that normally accompany a 14-hour flight.
Assured and steadfast in his speech, the 24-year-old oozes confidence. Just three seasons ago, Nair had burst on to the scene in spectacular fashion.
As he struck a six to bring the curtains down on the 2013-14 first-class season, the enormity of his accomplishment probably hadn't struck him. Karnataka had won the coveted Ranji Trophy to end a 15-year title drought, and on a personal note, the young right-hander had breezed through his debut season with tons in three consecutive matches.
A rather sedate second season raised eyebrows, but just when he was about to be branded a "one-season wonder", Nair let his willow do the talking. His 328 in the 2014-15 Ranji Trophy final against Tamil Nadu was only the second instance of a player scoring a triple-century in a Ranji Trophy final.
With the big score in his kitty, Nair became hard to ignore when Murali Vijay picked up an injury during the 2015 Sri Lanka tour. Rubbing shoulders with the senior pros on that tour augured well for the Karnataka lad, whose clout only grew the following season.
With seven hundreds and 10 fifties, Nair has an impressive conversion rate in first-class cricket. And success as an opener with Rajasthan Royals in the IPL has only provided a new dimension to his game. That he was picked as an opener for the Quadrangular A-Team One-Day Series in Australia despite limited success in his international debut against Zimbabwe, shows the amount of faith the selectors have in his ability.
"Personally, I didn't do very well. (But) it was a really good experience for me. I really learnt a lot," he said. "There were very good teams, it wasn't easy for us, so I think that experience kind of holds me in good stead for the season."
A technically sound batsman with a penchant for big runs, Nair is, however, prone to throwing away a start. This was evident in Australia as well, as he was dismissed on four instances after looking good while opening the innings in the limited overs tournament.
Do frequent failures after a start warrant drastic changes in a batsman's approach? Nair doesn't think so. "I wouldn't change anything. It's not that I've been playing really badly, I've been playing well. It's just that I've not been able to convert those starts. It’s just one knock around the corner and I think it should be fine."
It's hard for a young batsman knocking on the doors of national section to not think about low scores. Nair, however, has this sorted out as well. "You just try to not get too frustrated because you are playing well but you're not getting runs. I think I am in that stage where I try to keep myself calm and not worry about it too much."
Nair has played enough cricket in his young career to realise that every outing counts. And as the present day player backpacks across cities and continents, adaptation becomes key – more so when a batsman pads up for different formats every second month.
So when a batsmen returning from an international tour has to turn out for a local franchise in a state T20 tournament, you wonder if the mindset changes. Needless to say, Nair has a method to combat the madness.
"I think at the end of the day it’s a game, you have to have fun while playing the game. We play the game because we love it and we want to have fun. That doesn't change (in) any format or any level you play. And you play to win. It stays the same and you need to adjust to the conditions."
Just before we parted ways, I had to pop the often overused question of national team ambitions. For someone that's constantly on the selector's radar, it’s hard to not think about the India Test cap.
Nair has a rather simplistic approach here as well. "I just want to do well next season. Do my work and let the others make the decisions."
Those words would prove prophetic. For, a week later, Nair is back in the Test side and amongst the big boys. While it's highly unlikely that he'd get a game just yet, being in the thick of things in the top-tier is certainly where he'd rather be.