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Life on a turning track

VIJAY LOKAPALLY
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Table For Two He might not have got his due from Indian cricket, but Murali Kartik doesn’t like to find fault in the recipe of life

For 20 back-to-back seasons, he has burdened his body, punished it actually, with the exacting task of performing mostly on unresponsive pitches. “Unresponsive may not be an accurate description, cruel would be,” he smiles. But Murali Kartik, left-arm spinner and a wonderfully articulate critic, is not complaining. He has never, even when sharing the dormitory with his Railways colleague at the Karnail Singh Stadium, Delhi. Remarkably grounded, he does not mind leaving his BMW in the garage, hopping on to the Metro and catching an auto to reach Paharganj for a Ranji trophy match.

In Rome, do as…

He is at home, tucking into the “fabulous” pasta at the San Gimignano, the Italian Restaurant at The Imperial where we meet for lunch. He is also at home relishing the road side tea and bread-omelette from the thela outside the Karnail Singh Stadium. Eight Tests, 37 ODIs and 197 first class matches don’t do justice to his prowess, Bishan Singh Bedi rates him the best spinner in India today, but Kartik is not complaining.

Rakesh Rana, the Chef de Cuisine, is ready to reel off his offerings. “To suit my palate,” suggests Kartik, who is a huge fan of Italian food. “Been to Rome just once but have enjoyed Italian cuisine. As a vegetarian, you don’t get a lot of variety world over and you struggle to find Indian food,” remembers the affable cricketer who had V. V. S. Laxman and J. Arun Kumar as his constant partners when hunting for “vegetarian” food.

We start with traditional Tuscan bread with extra virgin oil and balsamic vinegar. Kartik is my guide this afternoon. “You can count on me,” he assures even as he dips his bread in the olive oil and warms for the afternoon.

“I give myself a few years. I am enjoying the game and backing myself for a comeback. My love for cricket has not diminished a bit,” says the 36-year-old Kartik, who will take a break from the English county cricket circuit this year after having played for Lancashire, Middlesex, Somerset and Surrey since 2005-06.

The Australians are here and Kartik relives some fond memories. His four for 44 and three for 32 against Australia at Mumbai in 2004 fetched him the ‘Man of the Match’ but he played just one Test thereafter. “No regrets, no complains. I am the 226th Test player for the country and am proud of it. No one can take that away from me.” His six for 27, also against Australia in a One Day International, again at Mumbai, in 2007, is “fresh” in memory and Kartik can recall each dismissal. He was ‘Man of the Match’ and played just three more matches for India. “No complains. I don’t dwell on the past. There are millions who would want to be in my place and am proud to have served Indian cricket because of the skills that God gave me.” It is time for us to return to the Chef’s work. La Caprese (fresh buffalo mozzarella, tomatoes and basil pesto. “Looks good,” mumbles Kartik and digs into his plate. “Fabulous, absolutely brilliant…” he has no time for questions. His plate is empty in quick time. “That was outstanding,” he finds his voice now.

So, the Australians are here but Kartik is candid. “This Australian team is a team in transition. Not the team that Steve Waugh led. That was the team to beat. This is not the one to lose sleep over. They are struggling against spin (in warm-up games) and will struggle more in Tests. For us, good performance against Australia always meant that you could do well in international cricket. At one point India-Australia was THE cricket. The confidence and consistency that Steve Waugh’s team had was champion stuff.”

Kartik, who wants to sign off with cafe latte (coffee with fresh Illy beans), would, however, like the Indian domestic cricket to look up. “It should be result oriented, more positive. No T20 cricket till you cross 20 because we are losing the art of taking wickets and grinding the attack. If you learn the basics right you can never go wrong. I was fortunate that I learnt things the hard way. I was told to put in long hours to get better at. Sadly, domestic cricket has become a glorified one-day set up, restrict and then chase it down.”

Kartik asks for one more cafe latte, more praise for the Italian food, the San Gimignano and its great “ambience.” As we take leave, Kartik promises to return. He surely loves Italian food.

VIJAY LOKAPALLY

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