India v Sri Lanka, Champions Trophy, semi-final, Cardiff June 19, 2013

Kulasekara - the man who stole a nation's heart

Nuwan Kulasekara is the not the most gifted cricketer, but it is on consistent performers like him that the Sri Lankan team's success is built

Sri Lanka fans may not often feel they are the most fortunate cricket lovers in the world, but in some ways they have it good. The team is some way from being the best, but it is rarely unsatisfactory, at least in limited-overs cricket. The administration can be a shambles but despite the poor domestic structure, genuine talent still finds its way to the top level. Best of all their players are more accessible than most and a pleasant bunch in general.

In a team that features Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene, though, the best-loved cricketer in Sri Lanka at the minute is not quite so big a star. In the past eighteen months, there has been a resurgence in Nuwan Kulasekara's game, and in two matches in the Champions Trophy, he has shown the world how he stole a nation's hearts.

Kulasekara has been a regular in Sri Lanka's ODI team for the past five years, but he was dropped for the first match against New Zealand, largely because of his poor form in the warm-up matches. He did not commend his selection with the ball against England, but although not many would have suspected his batting prowess, he played one of the finest pinch-hitting innings in recent years to seal Sri Lanka's victory. Confidence clearly buoyed, he was then Sri Lanka's most effective weapon in the field against Australia, not only taking three big wickets for 42, but also dismissing a ponderous George Bailey with a brilliant direct hit from short fine-leg. As Sri Lanka prepare for a semi-final under dark skies, Kulasekara's swing might again be key to reining in India's powerful batsmen.

It is not difficult to see Kulasekara as a cult hero, simply because his cricket is so likeable. Fans see a little of themselves in Kulasekara. Rarely hitting 130kph, he is not the most gifted player in the world, someone you might have played with on the street, or at a nearby ground.

Until he was 17, Kulasekara's cricket consisted of running in rhythmically with a tennis ball and pitching it consistently on the spot, under the coconut trees in the village of Ranpokunagama. There are probably still men there who cannot quite believe their friend bowled Michael Clarke with a delivery that hooped about a metre at the Gabba this year, because they have never seen him move a cricket ball. It wasn't until Kulasekara moved to a school with a competitive cricket team that he realised he had a gift for inswing. 

"I guess I knew I was quite good when I was playing with friends, but I never thought I would be able to take my cricket this far," he said in February. "At first, I thought playing cricket might help me to get a good job. What's happened since then is beyond a dream."

When Kulasekara is hit for four, he responds no differently to how he might have done all those years ago. There is a hint of a smile, on occasion, but then a swift swivel on his toes and a subdued trek back to his mark. He can sometimes get batsmen to duck - maybe often in surprise that he is even attempting to bounce them - but there is never the volley of words that usually follows from the bowler. Showing verbal aggression does not make sense to Kulasekara. He is there to take wickets and keep the runs down, and every ounce of his effort is directed at those pursuits. Class and results under pressure are nice, but there is no better way to endear yourself to the Sri Lankan public than through humility and good nature. Kulasekara is the kind of cricketer people hope they would be.

At first, I thought playing cricket might help me to get a good job. What's happened since then is beyond a dream
Nuwan Kulasekara

There is perhaps more ecstasy in his celebration now, because the stakes are so much higher. His old friends might find his success hard to fathom, but when Kulasekara sprints towards fine leg grinning and leaping, it seems as if he doesn't quite believe what he has just achieved either. It is difficult not to share his joy. Almost ten years after his ODI debut, he still approaches the game with the same wonder a million Sri Lankan kids might feel when they play for their country in their imagination.

If the Cardiff weather allows it, Sri Lanka will embark on their sixth semi-final in global events in as many years on Thursday. Their consistency in big tournaments has been in part due to their versatility, which allows them to overcome the diverse challenges in a short period, but it has also been because lesser lights like Kulasekara have repeatedly chipped in, in big moments, to drive the side forward.

"I've seen a big difference in our team in this tournament," captain Angelo Mathews said. "Everyone wants to contribute with bat and ball, or if not they'll come and contribute with their thoughts. As a captain you need that because a small idea can change a game, can win a game. Seniors, juniors, whoever plays, all the reserves, all the support staff - they all contribute because we are trying to achieve one goal in this tournament."

Kulasekara only has one five-wicket haul to his name in 183 internationals. Lasith Malinga, Sangakkara and Jayawardene have been the protagonists in Sri Lanka's campaign so far, but nothing will quite warm the heart like another big haul, or furious cameo to the man they call 'Kule'.

Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. He tweets here