DINESH KARTHIK is an enigma in the Indian cricket context. He’s been around so long, even if more so as the best amongst the rest when it comes to the fringes of the Indian team, you often end up ignoring his numbers like they don’t matter. Considering nearly five separate selection committees have shown faith in him, it’s understandable to feel that perhaps he really is the real deal. That if it wasn’t for MS Dhoni, Karthik would have been the next big thing that Indian cricket had sought.

When you do pore into his numbers though and cerebrally dissect his lengthy international career, especially in the limited over formats, what shows up is a lack of match-winning or impactful displays with the bat. He has of course produced enough testaments of his innate talent to keep him in the reckoning, but not often enough has he headlined a crucial victory for his team.

Monday provided the perfect opportunity for the 32-year-old to do just that. He’d walked into a scenario where the target wasn’t totally out of reach, even if India had lost four wickets. KL Rahul had just departed for 18 after Suresh Raina had powered his way to a 15-ball 27 with two sixes. India basically needed to go at less than 7 an over. And Karthik grabbed the opportunity gleefully scoring an unbeaten 39 from 25 balls to guide India home.. Manish Pandey played his part too with 42 off 31 as India inched one step closer to the final of the Nidahas Trophy.

It was a typical Karthik knock laced with delectable strokes and a number of judicious singles and twos as Pandey played the perfect accomplice, finding the boundary whenever it was required. The two have been desperately vying to cement themselves in the middle-order for India in the shorter formats.

Here, even though in a way they were up against each other as well as the opposition, they showed just why the selectors could look at both of them as the leading candidates to fill the gap now and the MS Dhoni-sized hole that’ll be left behind once the former captain decides to step away.

Speaking of stepping in and stepping up, the Indian seamers had to do a lot of that after their disappointing performance in the opening match against the hosts. Shardul Thakur in particular had a record to set straight. He had been taken for 27 runs in one over by Kusal Perera last week. Here he went for 27 runs again, but in his full quota of four overs, and also had 4 wickets to show for it. He also came close to snaring a hat-trick in that spell.

He wasn’t solely responsible for the Sri Lankans not getting their act together later in their innings, once the outfield dried out and the match began with each team sanctioned a quota of 19 overs each. The first 12 overs of the Lankan innings had gone totally the hosts’ way. They had gone at 10-an-over throughout and looked set for a biggish score.

Famous, familiar collapse

But then came the famous Sri Lankan collapse. At 10.4: Upal Tharanga was bowled as he tried to play a big shot of Vijay Shankar but missed his line completely. 11.6: Shardul Thakur got Thisara Perera out with a knuckle ball which he sliced up in the air while trying to clear long-off. 13.2: Sundar got Jeevan Mendis bowled as the left-hander tried to play over cover but missed the line. 14.1: A well-set Kusal Mendis, who scored an attacking 55, then got caught at extra cover while trying to find the gap between long off and covers.

Just like that Sri Lanka had lost their way and their grip over the match. They never recovered. They also scored just 24 runs in that four-over period and never got their innings going with Thakur chipping in with late wickets while conceding only 9 runs in his final two overs. The Indian innings didn’t start off too well with the openers falling early to the wiles of Akila Dananjaya. The Indian captain started well by welcoming Suranga Lakmal with a trademark effortless front foot six followed by a four to fine leg. The Mumbai boy who has had a dry run so far in the series provided hope of getting going finally.

Just then he stepped out and handed a catch to mid-wicket off Dananjaya. Dhawan, who looked in tremendous touch, stepped out to get past the cover fielder but only to scoop it in the air to see Perera taking the simplest of catches.

Raina, like he seems to, came out all guns blazing and hit two fours and a six off consecutive deliveries of Dushmantha Chameera. Nuwan Pradeep tried to get him with a short ball but Raina dealt with that challenge with ease.

He was even quick enough to get into position to guide a short of length delivery for a six over fine leg. But like has been the case with him of late, he couldn’t build on that gung-ho start, leaving Karthik and Pandey to save the day.