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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
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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

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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?

Posted by Tweety20 on (February 16, 2013, 1:28 GMT)

Such a sweet fellow.A very talented bowler who is always there for SL whenever they need him and does his best to deliver.Love his infectious smile.modern cricket needs sweet people like him.

Posted by   on (February 16, 2013, 0:49 GMT)

well done! nuwan kulasekara is an awesome bowler!

Posted by WPDDESILVA on (February 15, 2013, 17:45 GMT)

Are you serious? The best is yet to come? Does that mean he's going to drop more catches in world cup finals? Don't forget the last 50 world cup he dropped Gambhir and the T20 world cup final. What's the point performing 1 in 20 games if you cannot do it day in day out? Pathetic

Posted by Nmiduna on (February 15, 2013, 17:09 GMT)

May be if kula can bring these results to tests, then he'll be an invaluable asset. even without it though, he is still a very good bowler, the only quibble on his part is well, he is Sri Lankan.

Posted by   on (February 15, 2013, 14:41 GMT)

most underrated bowler in the world, and might be the most consistent

Posted by electric_loco_WAP4 on (February 15, 2013, 12:58 GMT)

Haa ...the perfect anathema to the Brett Lees and even Akthars of this world .A run of the mill 125kph trundler with nothing more or less than mediocrity as his forte ... A nice,polite character though -a rarity now-a-days - but that's a different matter of fact altogether-:)

Posted by   on (February 15, 2013, 12:37 GMT)

Class act. For my money, currently the best limited overs seam bowler in world cricket.

Posted by   on (February 15, 2013, 11:37 GMT)

Kulasekara - The unsung Hero of Sri Lanka Cricket

Posted by Master_Mihil on (February 15, 2013, 11:35 GMT)

Definitely he's a great bowler, not only inswingers i have seen many times his pinpoint yorkers at the death. I've only seen 4 players do that superb. Malinga,gul,southee and kula..

Posted by cover_drive_sach on (February 15, 2013, 11:20 GMT)

Nice to see a bowler smiling while bowling rather than using swearing words and stupid looks in the name of aggression. Became a fan of Kula after reading this interiew..May he has a bright and long injury free career ahead.

Posted by first_slip on (February 15, 2013, 11:09 GMT)

True he is a good bowler, but he shelled two impotent catches past 2 years (Ghambier at Wankhade and Samuels at premadasa), and that cost Sri lanka two world cups.

Posted by Palitha-Ferdinands on (February 15, 2013, 10:29 GMT)

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. This shows smiling is a much better tactic than sledging. Keep it up Kule. We will join you when they hit you over the boundary line. And we will join you when you clean them up too. Good Article Andrew. Now there are number of young talents in the squad. Hope they will keep you busy. Keep smiling.

Posted by   on (February 15, 2013, 9:31 GMT)

Kulasekara - The unsung Hero of Sri Lanka Cricket

Posted by JohnBrown on (February 15, 2013, 9:12 GMT)

Andrew Fernando you have an unerring feel for your subject. You write with empathy and understanding. In comparison English broadsheet sports writing is listless and narrowly focused. Your insights make the sport into an art which can be watched at another level. Thank you

Posted by Sirikumara on (February 15, 2013, 8:41 GMT)

Everybody don't forget that Kula was TOP bowler in ODI rankings for more than a year. Now also he is in top 10.

Posted by Meety on (February 15, 2013, 8:32 GMT)

His 5for at the Gabba was top shelf. One of the best spells I had seen. Starc upped the ante at the WACCA, but I won't be forgetting Kula's efforts anytime soon. Hopefully he continue on & convert his skills to the red-ball!

Posted by jimbond on (February 15, 2013, 8:31 GMT)

For some reason he is underrated in SL and by Sri Lankans. I believe he is their best bowler after Vaas. He bowls fast enough (not very fast) and swings enough (to beat the bat). In limited overs, he may get a bit of stick, but it is in the longer version where he should be of most value.

Posted by Vivek.Bhandari on (February 15, 2013, 8:06 GMT)

Finally some article/feature on Nuwan; He's a very underrated bowler who sticks to the basics of line-length and, as they say, plays the 2-card trick. Also, he is a very useful batsman, which not many people know about; Mahela did a masterstroke by promoting him in the WC final 2011.

Posted by seeknshare on (February 15, 2013, 7:39 GMT)

Was he the one who gave lots of runs in World Cup final against India??

Posted by Alexk400 on (February 15, 2013, 4:56 GMT)

For me he is useless . Just get lucky sometimes. Nothing special. Malinga is milion times better.

Posted by shihan12 on (February 15, 2013, 4:36 GMT)

One of the most lovable characters in the world cricket..way to go Kule..good luck

Posted by   on (February 15, 2013, 4:35 GMT)

I love Kula's innocent smiling style in the field as well as outfield. He deserves. All the very best Kula!!

Posted by mcsdl on (February 15, 2013, 3:42 GMT)

Kulasekara THE GREAT...! The guy is simply outstanding...!

Posted by caromball on (February 15, 2013, 3:10 GMT)

Nuwan Kulasekara has show his class to the cricketing world already.But still he is a very much underrated bowler.I don't think this will happen if he comes from Australia,England,India or from South Africa.

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