“HOUSE OF Pain”. It sounds like one of those outrageous and over-the-top gimmick matches from the world of WWE. Imagine a room filled with paraphernelia for two brawny wrestlers to use against each other in what will be repeatedly hyped up as the most “painful” match of them all. The house that Abhishek Nayar would make Dinesh Karthik stay in before the 2016 edition of the IPL fortunately wasn’t designed to provide “pain” in the real sense of the word. Nayar’s “House of Pain” was instead designed to knock India’s wicket-keeper batsman out of his comfort zone. To start with, the room—which was a part of Nayar’s home in the suburbs of Mumbai—was so small you could hardly say where it began from where it ended. The shower worked only rarely. The mug and bucket were broken in places. And it was Karthik’s responsibility to keep it clean.
“It was a torture room for Karthik. He is used to the good life. He stays in a bungalow back home in Chennai. But when he came to me, I wanted to take him to a zone where he’d never been before. It was tough and he would get angry on occasions. One time he begged me to let him go spend a night at a hotel. But I didn’t relent,” recalls Nayar. It was a phase in his career where Karthik feared his time had finally come and gone. He was still raking in fat contracts at IPL auction after IPL auction. But now the generally self-confident Karthik had begun doubting himself, in terms of his international cricket future anyway. “He hadn’t had a good Ranji season back then and he’d seen his stocks drop from Rs 9 crore the previous season to Rs 2 crore in the IPL auction, being picked by Gujarat Lions. It was a moment he (Karthik) felt that if he fails this time than no team will show him interest again,” Nayar recalls. Nayar and Karthik had known each other a long time. But their mentor-pupil relationship began in 2016 when Karthik had come to Mumbai to train with Pravin Amre. It was Karthik who asked Nayar to help him find his feet back to ensure that he get through the next two domestic seasons at least. He’d scored 355 runs in 12 innings with only one hundred at an average of 32 that previous season. He’d only managed 272 runs in eight games for Tamil Nadu in the one-dayers. “Nobody was talking about an India recall back then. It seemed really far-fetched,” Nayar says.
Nayar roped in Apoorv Desai, a local coach in Mumbai, and planned out a daily schedule for Karthik. Amit Pagnis, the former Mumbai opener, was also requested to provide a session on playing the slog-sweep which he’d been renowned for during his heyday in the Mumbai cricket circles. Nayar also hired an additional expert, who he isn’t keen on naming yet, to scrutinize and improve Karthik’s initial feet movement. The House of Pain by the way wasn’t the only pain-filled experience he put Karthik through.
“In the afternoons, we used to train twice. We used to gym, then do batting, sometimes even meditation. Then we’d work on batting visualization techniques, which he still follows in international cricket, and as it turned out he did well for Gujarat Lions that season,” the Mumbai all-rounder points out. This wasn’t the first time that Nayar had taken it upon himself to push a fellow cricketer to the limit in a bid to provide his career with a much-needed second wind. He’d done the same with Mumbai teammate Rohit Sharma following the 2011 World Cup, which the India opener had to miss.
Karthik wanted Nayar to replicate the same fitness program he’d had in place for Sharma four years ago. But it wasn’t to be. Nayar had a different plan in mind, especially to deal with Karthik’s innate restlessness. “He was used to getting up early morning and doing his training and then just think bus aaj ka din nikal gaya. But I intentionally kept his training session for the evening. He becomes restless like a kid, and the whole day he would keep saying ‘when will we train’, ‘when will we train’,” Nayar reveals.
The next domestic season was a good one for Karthik. He slammed 704 runs in 14 innings with a average of 50 plus. He followed that up with 607 runs in nine games at an average of 118 in the one-dayers. They included two centuries and a fifty. By the time the 2017 IPL got over, Karthik was back in the mix. He was in the squad for the Champions Trophy in England.
By now, the relationship had grown very strong. To the extent that Nayar would receive at least two calls a day from Karthik daily. “I’d become his personal secretary,” Nayar quips, “or perhaps even my second wife over the last three years.”
Karthik came back again to Nayar. This time, the venue of practice was changed and Karthik spent from his own pocket to fly 15 boys from Mumbai to Bangalore and then to Chennai for personalized practice in the nets.
“We booked their flights, we booked their hotels, we gave them expenses, we booked a ground and even bought them balls. We practiced in seaming conditions. Cricketers should spent on cricket,” Nayar says. Karthik didn’t get a chance in the playing XI despite hitting centuries in the warm-up games. But he wasn’t disheartened. Perhaps in the past it would have been enough to knock back his confidence and evoke self-doubt. But not anymore. Not with Nayar always available at the other end of the phone line.
“There was no one to discuss his thoughts with. Those thoughts would mount up and they would get to him. He has less baggage now. He is also very superstitious at the crease. And we’ve worked on cutting down on that. Now he focuses on taking a deep breath before every delivery and getting his mind together,” says Nayar. There’s no guru-dakshina involved here though, reveals the all-rounder, who played 2 ODIs for India in 2009. Karthik’s success on the field ends up being Nayar’s biggest joy. Except the one time that Karthik ended up tricking his mentor.
“I and my wife were traveling to the USA and he found out. DK called me and said my mother-in-law runs a travel agency, and I will get your tickets booked cheaply. I said ok but later I found out he had booked them himself. He had lied to us basically.”