Early bird

Dhawal Kulkarni has played six matches for Mumbai. Six times he has taken a wicket in his first over, and twice in his second. At the end of the league stages, despite being rested in the final league match, Kulkarni was the season's second-highest wicket-taker with 32 scalps, including three five-fors - one of them coming in his first bowling attempt.

After a disappointing season last year, Mumbai are a feared force in the Ranji Trophy again. They are the only team in the whole Super League to have won five matches outright, were the runaway leaders in their group, and are the odds-on favourites to win the Ranji Trophy for a 38th time.

These are not two independent events; Kulkarni has perhaps been the biggest factor behind Mumbai's success, getting them early breakthroughs almost every time they go out to bowl.

It is hard to imagine that Kulkarni, Mumbai's latest medium-pacer, celebrated his 20th birthday on the flight to Cuttack before virtually throttling Orissa with pace and movement. Right from the beginning the Mumbai think-tank entrusted the youngster with new-ball duties, and Kulkarni hasn't let them down.

Wasim Jaffer, Mumbai's captain, can't thank his young spearhead enough. "His ability to strike early is something that we have missed in the previous years. It is exceptional," he says. It is no surprise Kulkarni himself attaches such great importance to his Mumbai cap, which Jaffer handed to him, with a "best of luck".

"This is my first year, and I feel good to play for a team that has produced so many greats," Kulkarni says, as the two of us, along with Ajinkya Rahane - the top run-maker this season, fit ourselves into an auto rickshaw, on the way home, after a Mumbai training session.

In person Kulkarni is a reed-thin, average-sized youth without any pretensions, though ambitions brew beneath the silent fa├žade. He comes across as a misfit in the Ipod generation: not for him the latest mobiles, sneakers or Playstations. He is happy to spend time with his family, exchanging harmless sledges with his sister - a national rifle shooter - and enjoying a cricket chat with his aaji (grandmother) - a quintessential Marathi manoos.


Interestingly Kulkarni's first steps into cricket were as a batsman, and he represented his school in the Harris and Giles Shield tournaments. The fast bowler inside him came to the fore after he picked 18 wickets in three matches in the renowned Shatkar Trophy [Under-17 league]. The progression was smooth: he excelled in the U-17, and got into national reckoning with his tally of 42 wickets in seven matches for Mumbai U-19.

Unfortunately, despite having taken 21 wickets in four games for Indian U-19 in New Zealand and Sri Lanka in 2007, the selectors ignored him for the Under-19 World Cup that India won earlier this year. The sporting spirit in the family became the safety net, keeping him from going down. His sister kept the competitive fire burning, asking him to match her gold-medal performance while his parents - his father is a former Bombay university badminton champ - and grandparents encouraged him to keep his head high. "Aaji watches me play whenever I'm on TV, and she is hugely proud. Unfortunately my grandfather expired last year. His dream was to watch me play with Sachin [Tendulkar]."

During the first training session of the IPL Mumbai Indians, Kulkarni's own dream came true when Tendulkar, in the middle of getting acquainted with the squad, stopped by to have a word. "He said, 'If you have anything to ask you don't need to feel shy. Be straight and ask the seniors.'"

Kulkarni was one of the youngest of the 27 in the squad, but by the end of the IPL season, not only had he become consistent, he also had got enough answers to the questions that now serve him as a template for success.

Impressed by the youngster's attitude Shaun Pollock offered crucial tips. "He spoke about variations, like after observing my slower delivery he explained how to bowl it more correctly, when to bowl it, and what situation it would work better in." Pollock also asked Kulkarni to work on his strong point: hitting the length, between 6.5 and 7 metres.
In addition, Tendulkar highlighted how yorkers and bouncers were most "effective" in death overs. Another important point Tendulkar made was "about visualisation at least 15 minutes before the match, what one should do".

As he walked into the bellowing Wankhede stadium in his first IPL game, against Bangalore Royal Challengers, anxiety gripped him. "[Shivnaraine] Chanderpaul hit the first ball for a boundary, but he got out to a slower one, next ball. That calmed my nerves." By the end of tournament Kulkarni was one of the finds.

Soon he earned the prestigious Dilip Sardesai scholarship, granted by Mumbai Cricket Association, which took him to the Centre of Excellence in Brisbane. "Troy Cooley [Australia bowling coach] asked me to focus more on fitness. That was the biggest thing I had learned, something new."

There is nothing spectacular about Kulkarni's action: he winds up into the delivery stride without a pronounced leap from a short run-up with a side-on posture. He is learning to move the ball in the air, but he is essentially a hit-the-deck bowler. Despite the challenge Indian wickets pose to fast bowlers, Kulkarni has worked up the wickets ladder. His willingness to learn comes across when he is candid about his shortcomings. "In Rajkot, the Saurashtra fast bowlers swung it more and bowled a more fuller length whereas I bowled short of length," he says.

Abhishek Nayar, the Mumbai allrounder, has noticed a big change in Kulkarni. "He was always skiddy and was the hit-the-deck kind of bowler till even earlier this year. But now he is moving the ball successfully. If you can swing the ball, it helps on the flat decks here," Nayar says.

During the IPL home game against Delhi Daredevils, Kulkarni did something for the first time: he asked his Mumbai Indians' teammate Dominic Thornley to tell Glenn McGrath to observe him. Just like with most young quicks, McGrath was the image of an ideal fast bowler for Kulkarni.

"Later McGrath told me that you should practise so much that you are able to bowl where you want to bowl," Kulkarni says. Asked the best way to fight disappointment, McGrath told him not to be harsh on himself. "He pointed out not getting a wicket is part of a bowler's life, and instead take it as a challenge." It is a point Kulkarni reminds himself of regularly.