Karn Sharma is enjoying what he calls an important phase in his career. It has been three years since his Test debut in Adelaide. Except for a limited-overs tour of Zimbabwe in 2015 where he was picked in a second-string squad, only to miss out due to injury, he hasn't come close to adding to his four international appearances, all in 2014. So when he was picked in the Duleep Trophy squad after a modest 2016-17 season, where Railways scraped the bottom of their group, he was pleasantly surprised.
He picked two five-fors in three innings and was set to drive from Meerut to Lucknow for the final, when he was asked to board the next flight out to join the India A squad in Vijayawada for the two unofficial Tests against New Zealand A. He finished the series with hauls of four, four, three and five to take his season's first-class tally so far to 31 wickets in four matches at 15.29.
He extended the good form into the shorter formats, picking a five-for in the second one-dayer, thereby giving the India selectors another wristspinning option outside of Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal, if they so wish, for the limited-overs series against New Zealand beginning October 22.
The rewards are a result of focusing on cricket alone. It wasn't the case over the last three-four seasons at Railways. Karn let the fear of losing a stable Railways job come in the way of his cricket ambitions. He was a regular in their senior side, but having to deal with plenty of "internal issues" left him drained. The team didn't participate in preparatory tournaments outside of India's domestic calendar and players were apparently called in for hastily-arranged camps where they often had to make do with substandard facilities and injury management systems. On the field, players were being shunted in and out.
Karn describes how the collapse of a system that was functioning smoothly when senior players like Murali Kartik and Sanjay Bangar were around forced him to finally make a move. "Beyond a certain stage, you either make peace with how things are or look for something better," Karn tells ESPNcricinfo of his decision to quit Railways. "I didn't feel good. I should have moved a couple of years ago, but kept delaying it. I felt players weren't being treated well."
His first day at Mumbai Indians' training camp this year would convince him of the need to move out. Chats with Paras Mhambrey, the current India A coach who previously worked for two seasons with Vidarbha, helped him zero in on a new side. The Vidarbha Cricket Association's search for a wristspinner to complement offspinner Akshay Wakhare led to Karn's signing.
The season with Mumbai Indians would prove to be memorable in more ways than one. He was not only the costliest Indian signing at INR 3.2 crore, he was also their go-to man in the crucial knockout phase, after warming the bench for five weeks. He picked up 4 for 16 in the eliminator against Kolkata Knight Riders, and delivered a spell of 0 for 18 in the final that helped Mumbai clinch their third IPL crown.
"I was playing for four-five years, so I knew how an IPL environment is. It's up to you, how receptive you are, because every second day you travel to a new venue and play matches. If you are sitting on the sidelines, it can be very difficult to push yourself, but you have to do it," he says. "I set up sessions with trainers and physios wherever possible. I kept bowling a lot of overs. Since Mumbai has a wide network of support staff, there was never a time where someone couldn't work with the players who couldn't feature in the XI. That helped me prepare and be in tune so that I can do well when opportunities come."
One of the visible changes he attributes for his improved bowling is fitness, something he admits wasn't on top of his priority list until recently. These days, he loads up on boiled vegetables and oats if at the breakfast table. The chhole bature diet is long gone. "I'm lighter by eight or nine kilos now," he says. "In Mumbai, our trainers worked so hard with us that proper diet became part of my routine since."
Since June, Karn has been constantly working behind the scenes with Narendra Hirwani, BCCI's spin bowling consultant, at the National Cricket Academy in Bengaluru. He's been working on his stock ball and trying to impart more revolutions, working on getting rid of the flatter trajectory he's been used to. The googly, which he used to bowl at least "twice or thrice" in one over is now chosen selectively depending on how vulnerable a batsman is or what he's trying to do.
"Hirwani sir was trying to help me understand how better I can maximise my quick-arm action," he explains. "When I started my career at Railways, there were senior spinners like Murali Kartik and Kulamani Parida. When I came into bowl, I was expected to just hold one end up.
"When you try to experiment when your job is to keep things tight, you fear 'what if I bowl badly and not get picked again?' Since I became the lead spinner, I've tried to become more attacking. People used to say I was too flat, but I've been working on deceiving the batsmen in the air, something I did effectively against New Zealand A and in the IPL."
Every time Karn refers to his bowling, he tends to compare it against his performance on Test debut. In hindsight, Karn feels he could've done much better. Although he doesn't admit to being unprepared, he says the pressure got to him, but it's an experience he learnt from.
"I was ready but these are two sides of the coin. If you don't perform up to expectation, you feel you may have not been ready," he says. I learnt a lot from there, how to adapt, how to cash in on opportunities. I thought I was okay, but I could have done well. Maybe I had nerves; I was also bowling with a Kookabura ball, which was quite new. I didn't do well, so I had to accept I had to bide time. I felt bad for a bit, but fact is I didn't do well. Next time I get an opportunity, I can't give the same reasons because I'm a different bowler now."