903 days ago, the Punjab Kings picked Varun Chakravarthy in the 2019 Indian Premier League (IPL) auction. The Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR), captained by Dinesh Karthik, fought tooth and nail for the mystery spinner before finally pulling out at the INR 8.4 crore-mark.
One year later, KKR would get their man for INR 4 crores. Chakravarthy's Punjab stint had yielded only one wicket across three unimpressive overs - and as fate would have it, those overs came against Karthik's side.
But KKR and Dinesh Karthik retained their faith in Chakravarthy. Under the watchful eye of his state captain, the 29-year-old has become his franchise's leading wicket-taking threat and even earned two call-ups to the Indian T20I team.
In an exclusive interview with Sportskeeda, Dinesh Karthik opened up about the rise of Tamil Nadu cricket under his leadership. He heaped praise on Chakravarthy and batted for his inclusion in the Indian squad for the upcoming T20 World Cup.
"We have Varun Chakravarthy, a fabulous bowler who's going up the ranks very well. He hasn't played much domestic cricket, but in the few IPL games he's played, he's shown how good he is. I'm very confident he'll make it to the World Cup team, and they need a bowler like that who can surprise opponents," Dinesh Karthik said.
"In my eyes, he should be a certainty for the T20 World Cup. And that's only because he's able to bamboozle the foreigners; they still don't know which way the ball turns. As a keeper, I can see that they find it really hard to score runs against him. If the right amount of pressure is created, I think he'll be able to provide breakthroughs as well," he added.
Shockingly, the IPL 2019 match Chakravarthy played against KKR was his T20 debut. He has still not played a domestic T20, with only 10 games across the first-class and List A formats as well. But Dinesh Karthik has complete faith in the spinner, whom he believes is mentally immensely tough.
"Varun Chakravarthy is one of the strongest minds going around. He hasn't played any cricket at the age-group or state level. He has just played a lot of tennis ball. From there to be picked in the IPL auction for a fairly reasonable price and the pressure that comes with it, despite that, he's performed in every game he has played," Karthik stated.
Chakravarthy's performances have meant that KKR's trusted spinners Sunil Narine and Kuldeep Yadav have seen their game-time reduced. While the West Indian has played only 14 games across the last two IPL seasons, Kuldeep has featured in even fewer (5) and can probably name every shade of paint on the KKR bench.
Dinesh Karthik pointed out the same, saying Chakravarthy has taken up the responsibility of bowling in the most important phases of the innings.
"Having a person like Sunil Narine who's been a shining star in the team, outperforming him. Having a player like Kuldeep Yadav, who's been part of the Indian circuit for a long time, who doesn't end up in the XI because Varun has been bowling so well. Two in the powerplay; two at the death - against the best of batsmen," Dinesh Karthik gushed.
Varun Chakravarthy hasn't had a smooth start to life as an international cricketer, though. Yet to receive a national cap, he has seen an injury controversy and a failed fitness test slam the brakes on his budding India career. But Dinesh Karthik believes the Men in Blue should thank their lucky stars for having a unique cricketer like Chakravarthy in the mix.
"Varun is a tough cookie mentally, somebody who's constantly thinking about his bowling and wants to improve. He also wants to bring more variations to the front, and India is blessed to have someone like him," Karthik claimed.
Strength, character and fight: Dinesh Karthik outlines the hallmarks of the Tamil Nadu domestic side
In the 2006-07 season, the first year which incorporated the new format of the tournament, Tamil Nadu won the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy under Dinesh Karthik. 14 years later, in 2021, they collected their second title with a fighting win against Baroda in the final at Ahmedabad. Karthik looked back on his inspirational journey with fondness.
"That's my whole cricketing journey! Obviously, you learn a lot of things after traveling, being part of various teams and rubbing shoulders with the best in the business. Your growth as a cricketer is phenomenal, as a person as well. It's been a great journey. I'm lucky to have picked up a bat and decided this is what I want to do in life," Dinesh Karthik said.
However, the 2021 Vijay Hazare Trophy didn't go to plan for Tamil Nadu. In the second game of the tournament, the youthful side was bowled out for just 176 by Andhra Pradesh before they plummeted to a seven-wicket defeat. Dinesh Karthik admitted that his team failed to cope with the absence of their List A stalwarts.
"We missed out on a lot of key players. In the one-day format, Abhinav Mukund has been a massive player, the biggest run-getter. It was very hard without him, because he's a fabulous one-day player. Our one-day cricket revolves a lot around him and Baba Aparajith, because of the way they play," Dinesh Karthik conceded.
"So youngsters got a chance. We got caught on a slightly damp wicket against Andhra, who made use of the conditions well. It was your typical domestic game where the 120-125 bowlers had a massive role to play before the wicket completely flattened out," he continued.
Unfortunately for Tamil Nadu, the next match against Madhya Pradesh also ended in a disappointing defeat. After being comfortably placed at 93/2 in a chase of 226, Tamil Nadu collapsed to 211 all out, with Shahrukh Khan the lone saving grace with a fighting 77-ball 67*.
"Against Madhya Pradesh, we were in the game but we had a batting collapse. That was bound to happen, as we hadn't had a batting collapse in a long time and we had a group of young boys. I thought we did play well in that game but it just wasn't enough to cross the line. Even then, we had a fabulous performance from Shahrukh Khan who took the game down to the wire when we had nowhere to go," Karthik reminisced.
Their final two games of the competition saw Tamil Nadu return to their dominant white-ball best, with 67-run and five-wicket wins over Jharkhand and Vidarbha respectively. And while it wasn't enough to clear the group-stage hurdle, Dinesh Karthik outlined the virtues that have made the side a formidable one in domestic cricket.
"It just shows the character of the team, and we came back and recorded a thumping win against Jharkhand. We then played well against Vidarbha, and we were proud of the fight we showed with our backs to the wall despite not qualifying. We didn't have our main bowlers, for example Sandeep Warrier didn't play, but I don't want to use that as an excuse. The strength of Tamil Nadu cricket means that we find ways to win even without the senior players, but it didn't happen in that tournament," Dinesh Karthik proclaimed.
"I genuinely hope Sai Kishore plays for the country very very soon" - Dinesh Karthik
Ravichandran Ashwin, Varun Chakravarthy, Washington Sundar, Murugan Ashwin, Manimaran Siddharth, Sai Kishore - Dinesh Karthik's Tamil Nadu have an army of spinners who have been part of the IPL over the last few seasons.
Dinesh Karthik lavished praise on the spin riches in the state while speaking to Sportskeeda.
"Spin-bowling has been one of our strengths, even with [Ravichandran] Ashwin and Washington [Sundar] on national duty. We have a lot of spin talent, and we try to make the best use of it whenever possible in the games that we play," Karthik said.
The 36-year-old threw his weight behind Chennai Super Kings bowler R Sai Kishore, who had earlier commended Dinesh Karthik's leadership in an exclusive interview with Sportskeeda. Karthik said that the left-arm spinner has all the attributes to play for India.
"One bowler who is very underrated and I genuinely hope he plays for the country very very soon is Sai Kishore. The amount of skill that he has, especially in the white-ball format, is very underrated. In the coming auction, he will be picked up by a team in which he can play and he will do a very good job. I'm confident about him - he's tall, he turns the ball, he has control, and most of all he has a great attitude," Dinesh Karthik explained.
Dinesh Karthik made it a point to mention M Ashwin and M Siddharth as well. While the leg-spinner has been an understated and consistent performer for both state and IPL franchise, Siddharth won the Player of the Match award in the final of the 2021 Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy.
"M Ashwin has also been a superb performer for Tamil Nadu. He's been part of IPL teams; he's a confident guy. He's someone who's done well in the T20 format. M Siddharth is someone who's very close to me and he too has a bright future. He has an outstanding attitude; he keeps at it; he has good variations," he said.
Dinesh Karthik's take on how to lift Tamil Nadu's red-ball profile
Despite their recent white-ball success, Tamil Nadu have struggled in the longest format of the domestic game. The state has two Ranji Trophy titles but the most recent one came in 1987-88, which itself was a season that saw a 33-year wait for silverware come to an end.
When asked about what Tamil Nadu can do to raise their red-ball profile, Dinesh Karthik explained that cricket at the age-group level needs to be streamlined and improved.
"That needs a deep-rooted answer. Tamil Nadu hasn't done well in the junior age-group formats, U-16 and U-19, for a long time now. So what that shows is that we don't throw in new players. We're recycling the same old players and hoping for new results, which won't come," Dinesh Karthik illustrated.
"If you see the teams that have done well over time in the Ranji Trophy, they have a huge talent pool coming from the age-group levels. And people in the XI will always have pressure that there's someone else doing well. But in Tamil Nadu, there's no pressure often," he continued.
Karthik believes that several players in the Tamil Nadu domestic side aren't worried about losing their spot, with little to no talent filtering in through the ranks.
"The only guy who's done well for us in the last few years in the age-group category is a guy called Pradosh Ranjan Paul. And he should be part of the Ranji team, which he still isn't but I hope he is soon. We have a lot of players who've played Ranji Trophy and haven't done enough to hold on to their place in the side. But they're still in the team because there's absolutely no talent from the younger categories coming through the pushing these people to do better," Dinesh Karthik concluded.
Despite a few shortcomings, cricket in Tamil Nadu is certainly on an upward spiral under the leadership of Dinesh Karthik. With a more advanced system at the grassroots level and smart selection decisions, the state will reach the pinnacle of Indian domestic cricket soon.