Five years ago, Karun Nair found himself in the cold at the end of a long England tour. Having been named in the Test squad as a middle-order reserve, he watched on helplessly as Hanuma Vihari made his debut straight off a flight, for the fifth Test at The Oval.
The condensed nature of that tour meant Nair, India’s second Test triple-centurion no less, didn’t have any side games between the series to strengthen his case. Vihari impressed with a fighting half-century, and Nair, all of six Tests old, soon found himself in the cold.
On Wednesday, Nair will return to The Oval for the first time since that forgettable September morning in 2018. This time, though, he’ll sit in the away dressing room knowing he is a key middle-order batter for his side, Northamptonshire, who have signed him for three County Championship games.
Last week, straight off a flight, Nair impressed on county debut, hitting 78 in his team’s first-innings score of 250. He now comes to The Oval with renewed hunger and fire that seemed to have gone missing for much of the 2022-23 domestic season, when he was dropped from Karnataka’s squads across formats.
Only a year prior to being dropped, Nair was their captain. He had been a central figure during their domination of the domestic scene between 2013 and 2016. But when there was a growing chorus that he was being given a longer rope than he deserved, Nair found himself on a sticky wicket.
The numbers in that period pale in comparison to his overall first-class stats that read a very credible 6000 first-class runs in 137 innings at an average of 49.18. However, it’s the lack of hundreds; he didn’t score one in the Ranji Trophy across 25 innings in 2018-19 and 2019-20, that seemed to have attracted much scrutiny.
Nair calls that time around when he was first dropped as a “really dark phase.” Personally, he was on cloud nine, having just become a father. Professionally, however, he found his career at the crossroads.
Before the 2022-23 Ranji season, in an uncharacteristic show of vulnerability in a cut-throat world, Nair wrote on X: “Dear cricket, give me one more chance.” Only six years prior, the world was at his feet. He had just become India’s second Test triple-centurion. But Nair knows a thing or two about hard landings. In the next Test India played, he couldn’t make the XI because Ajinkya Rahane, whom Nair had replaced, was fit again.
Here he was now, released by his IPL franchise (Rajasthan Royals) too. From training and playing at some of the best grounds, he was consigned to playing at nondescript venues in search of game time.
In March 2023, after having nearly spent seven months at home, Nair reached out to a few state seniors – Bharat Chipli, Mansur Ali Khan and Srinivasa Murthy – for opportunities to play in the DY Patil Invitational T20s in Navi Mumbai. That tournament, where he played for Canara Bank, was a turning point. A 60-ball 95 in one of his first outings helped him get noticed again, but that hardly meant much as he had gone unsold at the IPL auction.
In May, when KL Rahul was out with a hamstring injury, Nair received a pleasant surprise when he was called in by Lucknow Super Giants as a replacement. The cricket drought was set to end, except it didn’t. Nair didn’t get a chance given his call-up had come at the business end of the competition. But by then, he had already been carefully considering his options.
“I’d decided to move as soon as I didn’t get the opportunity [with Karnataka], but I couldn’t since it was too late in the season,” Nair tells ESPNcricinfo from England. “From my side, I knew I had to find a different team if I had to keep playing. I’m grateful to Canara Bank for giving me a chance despite having not played for them earlier.
“I just wanted to play because you never know when a new door can open. During the tournament, I met Abey Kuruvilla [former India fast bowler], who was the India Under-19 selector around the time I played age-groups.
“I told him openly that I was looking out for an opportunity and if he could help me. He was extremely nice in facilitating a discussion with Vidarbha, which has worked out well. It sets me up nicely for this domestic season, but before that, I want to contribute and score runs in my remaining games here in England.”
Nair’s shot at a maiden county stint materialised by chance, when a friend and former manager reached out asking if he would be keen. “I jumped at the opportunity,” Nair says. “Honestly, I was quite surprised. It just came out of the blue. I was asked if I was ready and in a week’s time, I was in England playing.”
That he managed to jump on the next available flight was because he already had an existing UK visa through his stint in June in the minor counties for Burbage & ER Cricket Club in East Wiltshire, for whom he made two hundreds and a half-century in eight innings. While it was a climbdown from the level he had been playing at for over a decade, it was an outlet for Nair to rediscover his hunger.
“For me, honestly, it was to get away from everything that was happening in Bangalore,” Nair says. “I needed a change of scene, I wanted to do something different. I wanted to work on my own and just be away from everyday life. I’d been at home for seven months and I just wanted to go. It didn’t matter what level I was playing; I just wanted to go and work on myself. That was my thought process which when I look back now, I think it has helped me, even though at the time, I was playing at a level below.
“I didn’t let that affect me. I was still practising the way I would, doing the things I needed to do, clearing my mind, and seeing what works and what doesn’t work for me. I had a lot of downtime to sit and think about what I should be doing. Maybe those couple of months helped me. The time that I was not playing kind of ignited a spark in me that may have been missing earlier.
“Those two-month stints also taught me a lot. When you’re on tour with a Test team, it’s a hotel life. Everything’s sorted. Whereas here, I had to run a small apartment by myself. Do all the errands you do while also training and playing – washing clothes, cooking, cleaning, laundry, everything. We have so much help back in India, but this helped me learn a lot about myself. There are things I can do now which I couldn’t do earlier. I’m willing to do more now than I used to do before.”
Nair’s steady climb up the charts again began with an outstanding run for Mysuru Warriors, the team he led to the final at the Maharaja Trophy, Karnataka’s T20 competition. Nair topped the run charts with 532 runs in 12 innings at a strike rate of 162.69, with one hundred and three half-centuries. It’s this form he is carried into his Northants stint and one that he hopes will last the entire season with Vidarbha, too.
“It will be light at the end of a very dark tunnel,” Nair says. “I was just joking with a few guys, how from playing no games for seven months, I had to play 12 games in 16 days at the Maharaja, it became a bit of an overload I guess, but in a good way. Now I just want to keep playing games and make the most of every opportunity that comes my way. Even here, when I went out to bat at Edgbaston last week, I realised how much ever you train and practice and do your fitness, batting in a match is totally different. I’m looking at using this stint as a kickstart to the season coming up.”
No conversation is ever possible with Nair without a mention of his historic 303*, a number very dear to him, so dear that the number is found on the plate of his Ford Mustang. Nair wishes his luck turns as swiftly as his fortunes did in the aftermath of that knock, but also knows deep down it’s a slow climb back up.
“Any new person I meet talks about it, probably that’s how they know me,” Nair says with a chuckle. “It’s good to be remembered that way. No one can take that achievement away from me. It’s there but I also realise it’s in the past. I’m looking forward now and hopefully, I can get another one.”
You mean in Tests?
“Yep, I still believe I can come back if I keep doing well.”
It’s that belief that kept Nair’s hopes burning bright during those “dark times”. Now when things are looking up, it’s the same belief he hopes can help him fly high, like he did on that humid Chennai evening six Decembers ago.
Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo