Abey Kuruvilla © Getty Images
Abey Kuruvilla © Getty Images

Abey Kuruvilla, born August 4, 1968, was a big-hearted bowler for Bombay and one of its mainstays. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at the gentle giant who never made it big at the international level.

At 6’6″ Abey Kuruvilla’s frame stood well over most Indian cricketer across the years; his imposing shoulders and muscular arms intimidated you as he ran in to bowl. However, the build-up did not live up to the promise, and he was, at best, a fast-medium bowler who relied more on swing and accuracy than pace.

Filling in the void created by Javagal Srinath’s rotator calf-muscle injury Kuruvilla played 10 Tests, picking up 25 wickets at 35.68 with one five-for. He also picked up 25 wickets in — you’ve guessed it — 25 ODIs at 35.60 with an impressive economy rate of 4.72.

His entire international career spanned just one year (1997) in which he had picked up 50 wickets at 35.64. Among Indians, only Anil Kumble had managed more that year; his 61 wickets had come in 37 matches at 41.24.

He was at another level altogether representing Bombay. Over a career spanning nine years, he picked up 290 wickets from 82 matches at 27.26 with 10 five-fors. In List A matches, too, he had 70 wickets at 29.67 and an economy rate of 4.13 from 63 matches.

Picked out of the blue, and how!

Born in Mannar, Allepey, Kuruvilla migrated to Bombay at a young age. He never took cricket seriously, and at the age of 22 he bowled a few balls in a University trial before going to a movie. He got a phone call shortly afterwards, and in six months’ time he was hand-picked by Bombay captain Sanjay Manjrekar straight from the MCA-Mafatlal Camp for Bombay trials.

He bowled in the nets to Dilip Vengsarkar, Manjrekar, and Sachin Tendulkar, all of whom insisted that he should be included in the final. He made his First-Class debut in one of the most remembered Ranji Trophy matches ever — the 1990-91 final against Haryana at Bombay. Bowling his heart out on an absolutely flat track Kuruvilla picked up 4 for 128 as the visitors amassed 522, and after securing a 112-run lead, they left Bombay to chase 355 in the fourth innings.

Bombay lost 3 wickets for 34 before Tendulkar launched a furious onslaught, scoring a 75-ball 96 out of a 134-run partnership with Vengsarkar. Vinod Kambli chipped in as well, but wickets kept tumbling as Vengsarkar stood like a rock at one end.

Kuruvilla, the archetypal tail-ender, walked out to bat with fifty runs required for a victory. Vengsarkar showed faith in the youngster, often taking singles off the first ball and leaving him to play the last five — even off Kapil Dev or Chetan Sharma. He reached his hundred but suffered from cramps soon afterwards and had Lalchand Rajput as a runner.

As Vengsarkar played one of the most memorable innings of his career Kuruvilla rallied on, playing 25 balls and providing his senior partner the support he needed. With 8 runs to go Vengsarkar drove one very hard to long-off but Rajesh Puri dived to save three runs for his side. They would turn out to be significant in the context of the match.

Then, with 3 runs to score in 14 balls Kuruvilla played one to short fine-leg. As Rajput made a dash for it Kuruvilla fell short at the non-striker’s end as Bombay fell agonisingly short of a victory. A desolate Vengsarkar slumped to the ground and left the ground in unabashed tears, having scored 139 in 137 balls.

The ascent

Kuruvilla began the next season well and picked up his first five-for against Maharashtra at Bombay. He picked up 3 for 60 and 5 for 60 in the match — and had done enough to be picked for the West Zone Duleep Trophy squad. He picked up 3 for 62 and 4 for 59 in the first match at Bombay as they stomped East Zone on their way to the final.

Once again Kuruvilla found himself among wickets, picking up 3 for 60 and 6 for 98 from the match: however, West Zone’s batting did not click and they lost by plenty. He ended 1991-92 with 51 wickets at 22.70. He was in a contender for the tour of South Africa after his performance in the season but was eventually overlooked.

The next season he picked up his career-best haul of 6 for 61 against Gujarat at Bombay. He played key roles in Bombay’s successive victories in the Ranji Trophy in 1993-94 and 1994-95 — mainly bowling as the third seamer but finding it difficult to break through to the strong Bombay team. Surpassing all expectations, however, he scored 76 — his only First-Class fifty — against Uttar Pradesh at Bombay in the 1994-95 semi-final.

He came into the national reckoning for the first time in the rain-affected match for Bombay against the touring West Indians at Kozhikode. Coming on first-change after the more fancied Salil Ankola and Paras Mhambrey (both of whom were his ‘classmates’ under Frank Tyson and Balwinder Sandhu, Kuruvilla picked up 5 for 42 (including the wickets of Brian Lara and Carl Hooper) to rout the tourists for 176 after they were 66 for 1.

Bombay did not win the next season but won in the one following that. By now Kuruvilla had emerged as the spearhead of the Bombay (now Mumbai) attack, and was one of the contenders for the national squad. He had picked up 88 wickets at 24.36 in the previous three seasons, and when the squad for the West Indies tour was chosen Kuruvilla was named as the probable third seamer.

International cricket

When news came out that Srinath had to return home following an injury Kuruvilla suddenly found himself sharing the new ball with Venkatesh Prasad in the Test at Sabina Park. He picked up 3 for 82 — including the scalps of Lara and Hooper — both of whom he had dismissed earlier in his career. He added the wicket of Shivnarine Chanderpaul in the second innings, and was ready to take up the long journey.

Kuruvilla picked up his only international five-for — 5 for 68 — in the third Test at Kensington Oval where he, along with Prasad and Dodda Ganesh, bowled out the hosts for 140. India, however, did even worse, being bowled out for 81 and losing the Test by 38 runs.

He bowled beautifully in his second ODI at Queen’s Park Oval, teaming up with Prasad to run through the West Indies top-order, leaving them reeling at 32 for 5. Kuruvilla finished with enviable figures of 10-2-23-3 and India won by 10 wickets. He left the Caribbean on a high, and was named an Indian Cricket Cricketer of the Year.

Following the series, however, Kuruvilla’s cricket was confined mostly to the subcontinent — with Independence Cup in India, Asia Cup in Sri Lanka, and the Test and ODI series in Sri Lanka. The placid pitches should ideally not have helped his cause, but he did a more than impressive job of it.

He achieved his best bowling figures in the ODI at SSC when he removed both openers quickly and picked up 4 for 43 to bowl out Sri Lanka for 264. In a frenzied run-chase he even hit a six but India lost the match by 9 runs.

Leader of the pack

Following India’s ODI debacle in the season the selectors decided to drop both Prasad and Kumble, and decided to send an inexperienced bowling attack to Toronto for the Sahara Cup. Six months after his international debut Kuruvilla suddenly found himself as the main seamer for India for a complete series.

Sourav Ganguly’s all-round brilliance with both the bat and the ball won India the series by a convincing margin: the inexperienced Indian seamers, however, did an excellent job with the new ball, picking up 24 wickets between them, making early inroads in almost every match.

The decline

Then, suddenly, after one poor series in Pakistan (once again, while spearheading the attack), Kuruvilla’s position was in jeopardy. With seamers like Debasis Mohanty and Harvinder Singh coming up, Prasad’s presence in the sidelines, and most importantly — with Srinath coming back, Kuruvilla was left in a precarious position.

It was not that he played poor cricket. In the Mohali Test he bowled long spells and finished with 4 for 88 to match Srinath’s 4 for 91. After Sri Lanka scored 369 India managed to reach 426 when Kuruvilla walked out to join Ganguly, and after gritting it out for a while, pushed his senior partner to the background.

Three massive sixes disappeared into the stands as the stunned crowd sat in disbelief: was it really Kuruvilla they were watching? When Tendulkar declared the innings closed at Ganguly’s dismissal Kuruvilla had remained unbeaten on a 39-ball 35; it would remain his highest international score.

Curious record alert: Of all batsmen whose fours and sixes have been recorded in Test cricket Kuruvilla’s 4 career sixes remain the highest for anyone who has not hit a single four.

Still not content, he picked up 2 for 29 in the second innings. The second Test at Nagpur was washed out without India getting a bowl, and bowling first-change after Prasad had joined Srinath at the top, he picked up 2 for 63 in the match. He ended the series with 8 wickets at 22.50. His numbers were better than Srinath’s (9 wickets at 33.22) and he was the best seamer of the series by a distance. Nobody would have guessed that it would turn out to be his last Test series.

Then came the Akai-Singer Champions Trophy in Sharjah: Kuruvilla began the tournament well. He provided with the first blow, removing Alistair Brown early. Then, after England looked settled for a big score at 209 for 2 in the 40th over Kuruvilla began the rout by bowling Graeme Hick.

He also bowled Adam Hollioake and triggered a collapse as England were bowled out for 250. He picked up 3 for 50, but the batsmen failed him and India lost the match by 7 runs. After a not-too-bad outing against Pakistan (8-1-43-0) he was shown the door midway through the tournament and was never recalled once his Ranji teammate Ajit Agarkar — a superior bowler and fielder — appeared on the scenario.

Back to domestic cricket

Immediately after being dropped Kuruvilla got to play the touring Australians twice in quick succession — for Mumbai at Mumbai and for the Board President’s XI at Visakhapatnam. He picked up three wickets in each of the matches, and was out of contention for good.

He still played two more seasons for Mumbai and West Zone, bowling as good as ever, picking up 51 wickets at 20.08. Then, all of a sudden, he retired from all formats of the sport after being the 1999-00 Ranji Trophy final against Hyderabad that Mumbai won. In the press-conference he simply said “I’ve decided to call it a day. I’m 31, will be 32 in August and I think I should give the youngsters [mainly Sriram Kannan and Swapnil Hazare] a chance. If I stay back I’ll be holding up a place.”

When reminded of his much criticised limited fielding abilities he spontaneously responded “Probably all of them [the critics] were right.” When asked whether he had any regrets his response was even more unexpected: “I don’t have any regrets. At least I got a chance to play for India. There were so many good players who have not even played one match for India.”

There have been greater cricketers, but few as humble, gracious, and lion-hearted.

Post-retirement

Kuruvilla took to coaching after his retirement from First-Class cricket, and then became a selector. He was appointed the head of the All-India Junior Selection Committee in 2011-12, and in the next season he became the Chief Selector for Mumbai.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is a cricket historian and Senior Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He generally looks upon life as a journey involving two components — cricket and literature  though not as disjoint elements. A passionate follower of the history of the sport with an insatiable appetite for trivia and anecdotes, he has also a steady love affair with the incredible assortment of numbers that cricket has to offer. He also thinks he can bowl decent leg-breaks in street cricket, and blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in. He can be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42)