Interviews InterviewsRSS FeedFeeds

Grin when you're swinging

Nuwan Kulasekara is not your stereotypical snarling fast bowler; and the best phase of his career may yet be ahead of him

Andrew Fidel Fernando

February 15, 2013

Comments: 34 | Text size: A | A

Nuwan Kulasekara ripped through the Australia line-up, Australia v Sri Lanka, 3rd ODI, Brisbane, January 18, 2013
Who needs aggro? Kulasekara during his five-for in Brisbane last month © Getty Images
Enlarge
Related Links
Features : Middling ability, maximum impact
Players/Officials: Nuwan Kulasekara
Series/Tournaments: Sri Lanka tour of Australia
Teams: Sri Lanka

Growing up, Nuwan Kulasekara's fast bowling idol was six foot seven, quick and terrifying.

"I loved watching Curtly Ambrose bowl," Kulasekara says. "I think he influenced my love for fast bowling a lot - the way he used to dominate batsmen and rip through teams." Almost 20 years after Ambrose was at his peak, Kulasekara feels he is reaching his.

The two men have found roughly the same calling on a cricket field, but Kulasekara could not have been more ambitious in his selection of a role model. Standing almost a foot shorter than Ambrose, and barely qualifying to be called medium pace, he admits he has probably never frightened a batsman out of his wicket. In his most recent Test, the opposition's wicketkeeper whipped off his pads and sent down an over significantly quicker, on average, than Kulasekara had bowled in the match.

It is a boy's love for the game that has sustained him in it for over a decade. "A lot of people said I'm too short to be a fast bowler," he says, but he paid them no heed in the early days, and continued to focus on his bowling, even when he was dropped from the national team and developing a second skill might have firmed his chances of reselection. "When I was young, even when playing softball cricket in my village, I used to bowl and bowl and bowl for big stretches at a time, just because I enjoyed it so much. Every spare moment I got, I was bowling. That was always the thing I liked."

It took some time for Kulasekara's renown to catch up with his achievements, perhaps because his cricket is largely devoid of excitement. It's difficult to steal the limelight from a partner as charismatic as Lasith Malinga, or from the clan of colourful spinners with whom Kulasekara has shared the ball. His popularity has grown of late, as his hauls have gathered heft, but he is still untouched by the indifference that often accompanies fame.

Curtly may have talked to no man, but Kulasekara happily raises conversation with anyone who approaches, thrilled, his eyes suggest, that he has been recognised. "Oh, you're from near my home town? Where exactly? How are things there? I haven't been that way in a while." 

There are none of Ambrose's scowls or grimaces in Kulasekara's fast-bowling repertoire either. In fact, often the same smile he flashes at the folks doing a double take meets batsmen who have played at and missed one.

"Some people have asked, 'Why are you always smiling when you bowl?'" he says. "They say I should go close to the batsman and show him some aggression. But I've never felt like doing something like that. When you're bowling to a batsman, it's his wicket you're trying to take, and that's the only way you are going to come out on top, whether you're sledging him or not. So I satisfy myself with trying to just get him out. It's probably a disposition I'm born with, because I've been that way since I was young." 



Kulasekara smiled at Phillip Hughes in an ODI at the Gabba last month, when he squared him up with a back-of-a-length delivery in his second over. On that occasion it might have been more apt if Kulasekara had bared his teeth with a deal more menace: in the four overs that followed, he laid waste to Australia's innings with an emphatic spell of swing bowling.

The deliveries to send Hughes and David Hussey back were masterful, but the ones that dismissed George Bailey, Michael Clarke and Moises Henriques were unplayable. Starting at about a metre outside off stump, Kulasekara had the ball holding its line just long enough to draw the batsman into the stroke, before it dived hard at the stumps, like a snake suddenly smelling prey. Bailey offered no shot to a delivery that would have hit middle stump. Clarke and Henriques attempted to get their bats down but had their inside edges beaten by a distance.

Kulasekara's form continued through the limited-overs leg of Sri Lanka's tour (he earned the Player of the Series award in the ODIs), and they emerged with creditable results.



At 30, Kulasekara is finally earning international acclaim, but for much of his youth, he only played cricket with a tennis ball. He grew up in the village of Ranpokunagama, in the western province, where the local schools he attended did not have teams. It was not until he moved to Bandaranayake College in the city of Gampaha, at 17, that he first began to bowl with the hard ball, at a friend's suggestion. He quickly began impressing with unerring line and length, and movement into the right handers, born of a strong wrist that cocked towards the right at the point of delivery. Before long, he caught the eye of national fast-bowling coach Champaka Ramanayake, who set him up in a first-class team.

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



Three years after playing his first competitive match, Kulasekara announced himself in domestic cricket with 51 wickets at 20.29 in his debut first-class season. He earned a national call-up the following year as a result.

 
 
Starting at about a metre outside off stump, Kulasekara had the ball holding its line just long enough to draw the batsman into the stroke, before it dived hard at the stumps, like a snake suddenly smelling prey
 

He leans back in his chair, looks to the heavens and exhales as he recalls the moment he heard he had been selected for Sri Lanka. That boyish, wide smile returns. "I can't really explain the feeling," is all he can muster verbally, but there's no mistaking the wonder in his expression.

He puts his quick promotion down to destiny rather than luck, and is philosophical about his first, unsuccessful stints at the top level. "I think I just let nerves get the better of me back then. I was still a good bowler, and I've always bowled a good line and length, but when batsmen began putting me under pressure, I didn't know what to do."



He took two wickets in his first ODI, but went wicketless in four of the next five. He was sporadically expensive as well, and his lack of pace did not promise a long career. He slid back into domestic cricket, emerging for a longer second shift in 2006, but that ended with him being dropped from the side.

"I think when that happens, you've really got to heap responsibility on yourself to improve and find a way to get back into the team," he says. "I improved my inswinger, and watched other bowlers and how they handle difficult situations. When I came back again, I was ready to be an international player, and I felt like I'd cemented my place in the one-day team for the first time."



What followed his return was striking run of consistency that saw Kulasekara become the top-ranked ODI bowler in the world, almost surreptitiously. In 2008 he averaged 20.87 in 21 matches, and he went on to have a 14-match streak that saw him take wickets in every game. This time the movement he had always achieved in the air was complemented by sharp seam into the batsman off the surface, and a cannier use of length.

Kulasekara learned that even at his pace, the short ball could be an effective weapon, as long as he cramped the batsman by darting it in. Left-handers often fell to the fuller deliveries, which they edged to slip.

"I think during that time, because I was getting wickets with the inswinger, I neglected developing the one that goes the other way. Just like we study batsmen, eventually batsmen began to look for the inswinger from me. After the tri-series in Australia last year, I thought I definitely need an outswinger." 



He's had it for almost a year now, and though his recent ODI exploits in Australia were largely founded on prodigious inswing, he has reclaimed a place in the Test team thanks in part to the new delivery. In June and July last year, Kulasekara was Sri Lanka's best seam bowler in the home series against Pakistan, and he has contributed handily, if never decisively, since then.

He is confident his best years are ahead of him, as he adds new weapons to his armoury and hones the skills he has already acquired. Chaminda Vaas, whose pace, build and method invoke an easy comparison, enjoyed an upswing in results after 30, as he discovered reverse swing and dreamt up ever-more sophisticated plots to swindle batsmen with movement. With pace stocks as thin as theirs, Sri Lanka need Kulasekara to do the same. Perhaps with that one unforgettable spell in Brisbane, he has begun his golden years.

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

RSS Feeds: Andrew Fidel Fernando

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

Posted by gahapanmachan on (February 17, 2013, 2:01 GMT)

So pleasing to see the village boy hitting dizzy heights in world cricket. How nice to see a class fast bowler wrecking havoc in Oz cricket with a decent smile and attitude. Hope the aggro speedsters learn a thing or 2 to make this game a pleasant and enjoyable for everyone.

Posted by Rocketman1 on (February 17, 2013, 0:25 GMT)

Probably the biggest lesson here is that you need to get these guys into the team early to expose them to the international arena. He started off well, got some stick, got dropped, then fought his way back into the side. These are the type of players you need to produce. Guys that get a taste at the top, then get hungry enough to stay there, or fight their way back in after set backs are the guys that won't get complacent. As for shelling that important catch in the WC finals, SL may not have reached that final if Dilhara Fernando was bowling no balls through a tournament.

Posted by ahead-of-time on (February 16, 2013, 18:42 GMT)

His genuine and lovely smile should be contagious. Andrew as a writer has been able to see all aspect of a player. Good article about a good bowler and a wonderful human.

Posted by Tal_Botvinnik on (February 16, 2013, 16:01 GMT)

@Mitcher This is a interview, not a poem about Starc's swing abilities. Starc struggled against SL and SA.

Posted by Mitcher on (February 16, 2013, 3:04 GMT)

So where are all those people who were up in arms about Mark Nicholas' recent article about Mitch Starc and swing. Apparently you weren't allowed to write an article about swing without mentioning everyone single person's favourite player. That's changed yeah?

Comments have now been closed for this article

FeedbackTop
Email Feedback Print
Share
E-mail
Feedback
Print
Andrew Fidel FernandoClose

    An all-round ODI giant

Numbers Game: Few players can boast the sort of numbers that Jacques Kallis achieved in ODIs

    Is being bowled out by Moeen embarrassing?

Polite Enquiries: Is Rahane India's Misbah? Should Rohit be dropped? Jarrod Kimber and George Dobell discuss

    'We were determined to prove we were not an average team'

Former South Africa wicketkeeper Dave Richardson remembers his favourite moment from the Lord's win in 1994

    'A test of Kohli's mental strength'

Bowl at Boycs: Geoffrey Boycott on Kohli's recent form, and Cook's captaincy

How does one 'lead by example'?

Alex Bowden: A captain needs to do enough as an individual to retain respect and control, but exceptional performances may not result in even greater influence

News | Features Last 7 days

The woeful world of Pankaj Singh

Pankaj Singh greeted his most expensive analysis in Test history with the words 'That is cricket'. It was admirable acceptance from an impressive man of a record he did not deserve

Bhuvneshwar on course for super series

Only 15 times in Test history has a player achieved the double of 300 runs and 20 wickets in a Test series. Going on current form, Bhuvneshwar could well be the 16th

Ugly runs but still they swoon

Alastair Cook did not bat like a leading man but the crowd applauded him for simply not failing

Boycott floored by an Indian trundler

When Eknath Solkar got under the skin of Geoff Boycott, leading to a three-year self-imposed exile from Test cricket

Worst keepers, and honours at Lord's

Also, most keeping dismissals on debut, seven-for at HQ, and youngest ODI centurions

News | Features Last 7 days
Sponsored Links

Why not you? Read and learn how!