February 15, 2013

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

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