DECEMBER 2014: Karn Sharma is picked ahead of R Ashwin, to make his Test debut at the Adelaide Oval. It’s a move that is met with a tinge of shock and bemusement, considering this is the opening Test of a four-match series and the Indians have left out their premier spinner. This was the game in which Virat Kohli stood in for the injured MS Dhoni for the first-time ever as Test skipper.
Karn, whose first-class statistics aren’t the most impressive, doesn’t do too badly, considering it’s a high-scoring match on a fascinating pitch, but is duly replaced by Ashwin and even then looks likely to remain a one-Test wonder.
May 2017: Karn Sharma is picked ahead of Harbhajan Singh in Mumbai Indians’ playoff encounter against Kolkata Knight Riders at Bangalore. It’s a move that is met with some surprise, considering that this is a knockout match and the Indians have left out their premier spinner. Earlier in the week Sharma had played the Qualifier against Rising Pune Supergiant in place of Harbhajan. But not many can begrudge his inclusion at the Chinnaswamy Stadium. He’s clearly been the more penetrative of the two.
But it’s been a running theme in Karn Sharma’s career on the bigger stages, where he has had to concede the spotlight to the man he’s replaced despite him being the man in the middle. In fact, many eyebrows were raised a couple of years ago when he was retained by Sunrisers Hyderabad as their solitary spinner at the expense of veteran Amit Mishra.
That wasn’t the case though while he was running amok through the KKR batting line-up, snaring three wickets in two overs, however. Karn was the man of the moment, and he drilled another fatal nail into KKR’s IPL X campaign by removing the well-set Ishank Jaggi when he returned for his fourth over to finish with figures of 4/16.
In an era where it’s difficult for a cricketer to remain inconspicuous when off the field, Karn is an exception. Perhaps it has to do with his unassuming disposition. He doesn’t quite fit the body type of a modern-day cricketer, despite having worked very hard to get rid of the early-career podginess.
But even his facial hair, a crucial feature of the T20 era cricketer’s appearance, doesn’t seem striking enough to stand out. So it wasn’t surprising to find Karn ambling nonchalantly, without turning a single head, on Marine Drive towards the Wankhede Stadium a couple of months ago when he was here for the Vijay Hazare Trophy.
Astonishingly then, even a seasoned cricket journalist didn’t seem too bothered by Karn’s presence near the main gate of the stadium, preferring to acknowledge two fellow members of his ilk who stood having a chat with the Railways leg-spinner.
Not being a major turner of the ball despite being a leg-spinner and not possessing any mystery skills have made Karn look inconspicuous even with ball in hand. And in the past, he’s had to fight a battle against perception while also suffering an identity crisis internally-a battle against his weight being a prime example.
But that hasn’t made him change his bowling approach too much. Karn is a rather simple operator, who focuses on keeping the ball within the stumps, and working more with angles and changes of trajectory. He doesn’t have a big-turning googly, but it turns enough as Sunil Narine found out.
And his flipper is rather deceptive like Colin de Grandhomme found out. A couple of years ago, Karn came to the fore for Sunrisers with his economy rate and the ability to keep even some of the biggest hitters in the league quiet. But what does stick out with his bowling is the last few seconds in his delivery stride-where it looks like someone clicks the fast-forward button. The last-second quirk though has proved to be an advantage, like he’d admitted in an interview to this paper in November 2014.
“The biggest advantage with my action is, since it’s so quick-arm, often the batsman’s judgement gets affected by it. It takes him quite some time to get used to it and isn’t always sure about what delivery is coming at him. Or for that matter, the pace at which it’s arriving. For starters, he expects the ball to be flat and not be flighted to any extent. That is where he gets deceived,” he had said.
The KKR batsmen will agree with his self-assessment.
Not many expected Karn to end up as the costliest Indian buy in this year’s auction-he was bought for Rs 3.2 crore-considering Sunrisers had released him after purchasing for a whopping Rs 3.75 crore in 2014, his watershed year. But with 13 wickets at 15.07-third-most for Mumbai so far-in just 8 matches and an economy of 7.35, he’s proved his worth. He’s likely to not just retain his place for the big final against Pune, but also play a vital role as Mumbai’s lead spinner as they look for their third IPL title. For a change, he’s made sure that all the talk will squarely revolve around him.