Murali Kartik was born on September 11, 1976. Had he been born a decade earlier or later he may have ended up playing at least 50 Tests instead of the eight he eventually played. Despite being one of the finest left-arm spinners in the world in the early 2000s, it was unfortunate he had to compete with two of the 10 highest wicket-takers in the history of the sport.
The perpetual traveller, Kartik was born in Madras (South India), was brought up and lives in Delhi-NCR (North India), played for Railways (Central India), Kolkata Knight Riders (East India), and Pune Warriors (West India). He also played for four different counties in the Championship.
Even in the eight Tests he played, he did a commendable job by picking up 24 wickets at 34.16. A master of loop and control (and, of course, the famous arm-ball) he finished with 37 wickets from 37 ODIs, conceding only 5.07 runs an over in an era where ODIs were played on the most placid of tracks. In a way he was the bridge between the classical left-arm spinners like Bishan Bedi and the modern-day spinners who rely more on relentless accuracy: he specialised in both.
Kartik was one of the reasons behind the rise of the Railways Ranji Trophy team in the early 2000s. He picked up 640 First-Class wickets at 26.55 with 36 five-fors and five ten-fors during his stints in India and England, setting quite a few records in the process.
Abhishek Mukherjee interviews Murali Kartik about the ups and downs of his career, the nuances of left-arm spin, the various controversies and misunderstandings, the ascent of Railways, and Alex Barrow.
I was a bit tense when I had called Murali Kartik for the first time. I had always loved watching him bowl but he had always come across as an arrogant man on the field. To my surprise he sounded really polite on the phone, addressing a completely unknown cricket journalist as Sir, and offering to meet at a cafe for the interview.
I met him near the cafe: he was very punctual. He greeted me with a smile, almost a grin. The ubiquitous dark shades were there, placed on the cap in the fading light. There was a notebook in his hands. There was also a mild twinkle in his eyes — something that was almost always missing on the field when you watched him on the television.
The interview passed before I knew it: the amicable personality, the infectious smile, the dry sense of humour, and the animated action every time he wanted to demonstrate a delivery showed how different a person he is off the field.
Of course, the conversation was interrupted by the fans coming up to say hello and wish him luck and get photographed with him. He, however, looked completely at place inside a cafe full of the Saturday evening crowd with his unassuming self, responding to every greeting and request with a smile.
Here are a few excerpts from the interview:
CricketCountry (CC): You had started as a Delhi Under-16 player, but shifted to the less fancied Railways Under-19 squad. What prompted you to make the change? Why did you not consider moving to another North Indian state like Punjab or Haryana?
Murali Kartik (MK): I wanted to play for Delhi Under-19, but unfortunately that didn’t happen. But I got picked in the Delhi Ranji Trophy team! Both Maninder Singh and Manoj Prabhakar [the captain] had seen something in me and I was in the squad for two games; I did not play a match, and was dropped. At that time Maninder Singh wanted to make a comeback to the Test side, so he told me to go and try somewhere else.
At that point of time Abhay Sharma of Railways asked me to join Railways. So I made the shift to the Railways Under-19 team and after two years made it to their Ranji Trophy team.
As for not moving to another North Indian state, I guess I was too young. Abhay was my senior at school; we had played at the same National Stadium, so I was comfortable joining the Railways side.
CC: You were a medium-pacer to begin with. What triggered a move to spin?
MK: I’ll tell you: Initially I used to bowl seam-up with the new ball and batted at No 4, and also bowled left-arm darts (left-arm goes up instinctively to imitate action). The reason behind this was the fact that while growing up I had always modelled myself on Sir Garfield Sobers, and like him I wanted to do everything. I have kept wickets as well; not at competitive level, but at other levels.
That was the reason why I switched to left-arm slow once the ball stopped seaming. Left-arm slow darts (smiles). I was 5’2” then, after finishing my 10th standard. Now, to be a seamer you obviously need to be strong and tall. What you see me now (he’s as tall as I am, which is 5’9”) is not what I was. I was really skinny and thin and short.
MP Singh was the coach at National Stadium at that time. He told me “if you want to go higher up in cricket you have to give up bowling your left-arm dobblers. They’re not going to take you anywhere.” So, at that time I concentrated on bowling slow spin and batting.
It also had a lot to do with being at the right place at the right time. Maninder Singh used to train at the National Stadium those days. As I said, he was trying to make a comeback into the national side, and Bishan Bedi used to be around to sort out the technical problems of his bowling. Bishan paaji and Maninder both took an interest in me: they both helped me out.
CC: What about the turn?
MK: Well, that happened because of MP Sir. He changed my grip. As I told you I used to bowl darts that didn’t spin. All the flight and guile and loop happened because of him.
CC: What about the arm-ball?
MK: Oh, that’s nothing special.
CC: It can’t be that. The first thought that comes to mind when one thinks of Murali Kartik is the arm-ball!
MK: See, spin bowling involves a lot of individual ‘feel’. Now, the ‘feel’ is not something that you can explain to everybody. These are things you understand when you bowl — trying to figure out what your strengths and weaknesses are. For me, having played with two of the best exponents of left-arm spinners made me understand the nuances of the art.
Thankfully I was very young then; I was 16, and could still be modified. That helped.
CC: What about the stamina? You’re one of those bowlers who were known for bowling throughout the day. That is usually Indian spinners have to do a lot on the placid pitches in domestic cricket — but you have thrived under such challenges.
MK: See, I had started as an empty slate, and all I had was a natural action. I had to change my style from a seamer to a spinner. I had no idea about what left-arm spin was. There is a difference between walking four steps, bowling slow, and trying to spin the ball, and actually bowling left-arm spin.
I had to work really hard to develop that instinct, which may have been a reason for me being able to bowl long spells. People have seen me on the field and off the field: on the field I am very competitive. It also helped that from an early age I was looked upon as a frontline match-winning bowler; that also fuelled my urge to go on.
CC: You were always a good student. You managed to pass your B.Com after attending only an-hour-and-a-half’s worth of class over the entire course...
MK: I come from an academic family. My father was a PhD in biophysics, and my mother’s side also has MScs in maths and chemistry. However, none of them went on to pursue academics because all of them wanted to make money (grins). Initially I had never thought that I would ever play cricket.
CC: So what triggered the switch?
MK: When I was young I originally wanted to be a genetic engineer, but my Dad kept saying that if I wanted to pursue cricket, I take it up more seriously. At that point I knew that I would not be able to pursue with genetics if I wanted to have a career in cricket.
CC: So despite the fact that you were from an academic family, nobody in your family objected to your being a cricketer?
MK: My Mom did. When I was in school I always stood first in my class till the ninth standard. When cricket took on my rank went down to five or six; my Mom wasn’t happy with that.
CC: By that time you were already in Delhi Under-16...
MK: Yes. My Mom and Dad were always at each other on this. Mom wanted me to study and improve my ranks while Dad encouraged me to play.
As for commerce, I could have done a BA, but I didn’t think I was cut out for BA. Commerce was convenient. I liked things like taxation; even now all I know is that debit is this side (shows) and credit is this side (shows again).
CC: But the academic traits remained: on the Pakistan tour you and [Rahul] Dravid took out time to visit Taxila...?
MK: Oh, it was nothing academic. I have always loved travelling and have been interested in wildlife and photography. These are matters of interest for me, just like golf.
CC: So you are not into serious golfing?
MK: Oh, I do take golf seriously, but it takes a lot of your time. When you’re much younger and don’t have a career in front of you have that kind of time. But right now, when you’ve reached this age it’s not really easy to take up something that involves that amount of time.
Cricket involves a lot of sacrifices. I have sacrificed a lot of family time for cricket. We haven’t had a proper vacation together, no holidays — we didn’t even have a honeymoon! Whatever travel has been there in the past years it has almost always been about cricket.
Now, for me to do that again, if I embark on another career, it won’t be right: it won’t be fair to my family. I do not want to play it professionally; I just want to be good at it.
CC: Coming back to your early days, Kulamani Parida was all along there with you, right from the Under-19 days. The two of you had formed a formidable pair for Railways for a long period of time. How did you work as a pair? Did you plan strategies together for the opposition batsmen?
MK: No, we did not build up strategies. However, both of us were hungry for wickets and did well together. We have shared rooms all along, and we can do anything for each other. It is that kind of a friendship: when one of us took wickets the other was the first to come up and congratulate him. Feelings like that cannot be expressed in words. We were willing to do any sacrifice for the sake of the other.
CC: The Railways players have made their ways through various levels of struggle over the years. Has that changed in the last decade?
MK: Look, there are 32 disciplines under the Railways Sports Committee. You cannot give preferential treatment to any of them. The other state boards have bodies of their own. These days we still get match fees and flights; otherwise, for a long time, we had to travel by train.
Imagine, if we had to play in Guwahati in Assam, and then had to play Kerala, we had to travel by train while the others were flying! Whatever money we earned from playing was not enough. Whatever money was required from our travelling, lodging, meals came from the Railway Budget.
CC: There have also been complaints about the facilities at the Karnail Singh Stadium...
MK: We have never got any grant from the BCCI [Board of Control for Cricket in India] for that. Railways had to pay for everything. Just imagine — all this still remained after we won the Ranji Trophy twice, beat Rest of India twice, and also won a One-Day cup!
CC: Given all that, how did the Railways side manage to pull off such amazing results last decade?
MK: I think we had a batch of very good players, but the biggest thing was that everyone considered team success to be of paramount importance. All of us were the happiest when the team achieved something. That’s what kept us going. We had excellent batsmen like Yere Goud, Sanjay Bangar, JP Yadav, a strong seam attack...
CC: Your debut came in a humdinger against Madhya Pradesh. Do you have any special memories of the match?
MK: Yes, we had almost won the match after following on [Madhya Pradesh 329 and 89 for eight, Railways 122 and 313]. I batted at three in the match and got 40-odd ; then I missed one from Rajesh Chauhan, Chandubhai [Chandrakant Pandit] appealed and the umpire gave me out.
CC: Your family shifted to Madras in 1996 but you stayed back, but you played often played Club Cricket in Madras, mostly for Vijay Cricket Club...
MK: Yes. My mother passed away in 1996; I stayed back with some family friends, but I did that [playing Club Cricket in Madras] every now and then. I have also played for India Cements.
CC: You really came into limelight after the West Indies tour with India A (18 wickets). It was a strong outfit consisting of Jimmy Adams, Chris Gayle, Ramnaresh Sarwan, Darren Ganga... at that time did you consider yourself as a potential Test player?
MK: No, I had never considered myself as a potential India player. When I started playing cricket I never thought I would ever play for India. It was always a hobby. I had been brought up on cricket stories: that’s all.
Actually, we had a big house in Madras. I was born bang opposite Chidambaram Stadium; the MCA was hardly about four to five minutes on foot from our place. That was where I was born, and had lived for the first six-seven years of my life. We had played cricket on the narrow aisle that led to the MCA.
From a very young age all I have been doing is just watch cricket. I had never, at any stage, thought that I will play for my country.
CC: Then the Test call-up happened. You bowled really well in the first innings [18-6-28-2] but in the second innings [Mark] Boucher took it away...
MK: Oh, I don’t know why people say why Boucher took it away. They were chasing 164 and by the time we came on the seamers had already given away 40. Early in his innings Boucher top-edged me, and the man that was supposed to be at 45 degrees was moved to 15 degrees.
Ajay Jadeja was at 45 degrees; Nayan Mongia had him moved to stop easy runs from being scored, and the ball flew to exactly the same spot where Jadeja was. Once that chance went amiss they took it away from us.
CC: You bowled quite well in the next Test too, bowling a marathon spell [50-11-123-3] but India conceded a big lead...
MK: Nicky Boje was sent in as night-watchman in the match; both he and Gary Kirsten were dropped off me at short-leg when they had scored nothing at all; they got a big partnership (added 161 for the second wicket). Then I found Jacques Kallis’s edge, Nayan Mongia took the catch, but Russell Tiffin ruled him not out.
Now, if two different batsmen get dropped off your bowling, and a batsman of the quality of Kallis is given not out, your figures become completely different from what they should have been.
CC: It was roughly around this period that you had started bowling round the wicket to the left-handers. This is something that we had seldom seen in Indian left-arm spinners of the 1990s. What made you start bowling that?
MK: It was another thing that Bishan Bedi, being my mentor, had helped me with. There were other aspects as well. If you have noticed, I have seldom bowled with a point [for the left-hander] even on flat wickets. A ball only goes to point only if you bowl a bad ball. If somebody reverse-sweeps a good ball and gets a four it’s fine. Of course, you can’t take a point out for the right-hander because the ball naturally goes that way.
Likewise, I had always bowled to my strengths, and had tried to get the batsmen out instead of trying to save runs. This is also a reason for me often bowling round the wicket to left-hand batsmen. If you bowl over the wicket you’d almost never get an LBW: the umpire would almost always say that it has struck outside the off-stump or has been missing the leg-stump.
But if you come round the wicket you always give yourself a fair chance to get him out LBW. Not only that, the slip, the short-leg, they all come into play.
CC: How big a role did Anil Kumble use to play in the mentoring of young spinners like you?
MK: He was my first roommate. He is a man of few words, and believed a lot in leading by example. He has been a different bowler. He was not a man who would give you technical advice like how you should keep your arm while bowling; his bits of advice were always about how to attack a batsman, about finding his weaknesses...
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