Nuwan Kulasekara

Nuwan Kulasekara © Getty Images

Nuwan Kulasekara, born on July 22, 1982, is an integral part of Sri Lanka’s One-Day International (ODI) setup with his consistent bowling and useful batting. Nishad Pai Vaidya looks at his career.

Sri Lankan cricketers are unique in their own ways. The Emerald Isle has produced some of the most unorthodox players such as Muttiah Muralitharan and Lasith Malinga, who redefined their respective arts. As a result, Sri Lanka have their own brand and unique style of play — one that has tasted success in the one-day arena. Nuwan Kulasekara isn’t unorthodox like some of his compatriots, but is a vital part of their limited-overs setup and is the typical Sri Lankan player for the formats. There is the Sri Lankan flavour to his game.

Born on July 22, 1982 in Nittambuwa, Kulasekara grew up playing a lot of soft-ball cricket and didn’t really think he would make it to the highest level. In an interview with Island Cricket, Kulasekara said, “I played mostly soft-ball cricket growing up, and I never really aspired to be a fast bowler as such.” It was only after completing his schooling that Kulasekara picked up the leather ball for the first time and played for the Nugegoda Cricket Club for four years. He then progressed to the First-Class level in 2002, playing for the Galle Cricket Club.
Debut season and maiden international call-up

By his own admission, Kulasekara didn’t see himself become an international cricketer, but his progress to the highest level was fairly quick. During the 2002-03 season he made his senior debut for Galle Cricket Club. In his maiden First-Class season, he scalped 61 wickets in 15 matches at an average of 21.06. That included a three fifers and one match haul of 10 wickets. The Sri Lankan selectors recognized that potential by blooding him into the Sri Lanka under-23 team in 2003. Later, he was picked for the Sri Lanka Emerging Players Squad for a tri-series involving similar sides from India and Pakistan. He also toured India with Sri Lanka A for another tri-nation event. All this had happened within a year of his senior debut, but bigger honours were waiting.

Having created an impression, Sri Lanka picked him for the One-Day Internationals (ODI) when England toured in late 2003. In a rain marred series, only one game was possible —  that hardly went the distance owing to a poor batting performance by England. Making his debut alongside Andrew Strauss and Dinusha Fernando in the first ODI, Kulasekara had his share of the spoils as he picked the wickets of Rikki Clarke and Ian Blackwell. England were bundled out for a paltry 88 — a total that was brushed aside by Sanath Jayasuriya and Romesh Kaluwitharana.

Kulasekara had a decent start to his international career, but in the years that followed, his opportunities were few and far in between.

Nuwan Kulasekara

Nuwan Kulasekara lacks the pace but has the ability to trouble the batsmen with his nagging accuracy © Getty Images

An uncertain period

Sri Lanka had the likes of Chaminda Vaas and Dilhara Fernando handling the pace bowling department. In 2004, they discovered the uncanny Malinga and a stable all-rounder in Farveez Maharoof. This meant that Kulasekara was pushed back in the pecking order and had to bide his time for his chances. In five ODIs in 2004, he accounted for only one wicket and did not play another game until 2006.

In April 2005, Kulasekara was handed a Test cap at Napier when Sri Lanka toured New Zealand for two Tests. In a game dominated by the bat, Kulsekara did manage to get his first wicket when he dismissed Lou Vincent for a blob in the first innings.

Thereafter, he was out of the side and couldn’t break into the eleven. However, during the VB series 2006 Down Under, Kulasekara got a fairly long run in the one-day team and did decently well. He didn’t have too many wickets to show, but was economical. Later that year, he was given a chance in the Test arena, but didn’t do much with the ball.

But, there was one performance that stood out. For the first time in his fledging career, he showed glimpses of his batting talent. As Mahela Jayawardene battled to avoid defeat in a Test match at Lord’s against England, Kulasekara proved to be an able support. With his captain rallying the innings, Kulasekara kept the Sri Lankan ship afloat at the other end with a gritty display of 64. That helped Sri Lanka steal a draw under fading light — a result that was the start of a largely successful summer for them.

The batting performance may have been inspiring, yet his bowling wasn’t delivering. As a result, he was on the bench yet again. In the lead-up to the 2007 World Cup, he managed to return to the side, but appearances were sporadic.
A change in fortunes and rise to the number one spot in the rankings

What Kulasekara lacks in pace, he makes up for it with nagging accuracy and an in-swinger that can trouble the best in business. That is what kept him on the radar for the one-day and he made a comeback in early 2008 — again in the one-day tri-series in Australia. The performances that established him in the one-day side came against the West Indies in April that year. In two games at the Queens Park Oval, Trinidad he recorded figures of three for 43 and three for 28. Those spells showed that he was a wicket-taker and it was the catalyst he was looking for. From that point onwards, he became a fixture in the one-day side and never looked back. A Test berth continues to be shaky even now as he has only played 20 games.

Nuwan Kulasekara: Sri Lanka’s dependable performer in one-day cricket

Nuwan Kulasekara is no mug with the bat © Getty Images

The years 2008 and 2009 heralded a period of consistency for Kulasekara. With the new ball, he would often get them early breakthroughs and formed an effective partnership with Malinga. Vaas was now out of their limited-overs side and he filled into the role perfectly. While Malinga rattled the batsmen with his slinging deliveries and the lethal toe-crushers, Kulasekara maintained a tight line and would get subtle movements. His consistency is his biggest strength and the ball comes on to the batsmen quicker than they expect. He finished 2008 with 33 wickets at an average of 20.87 in 21 matches. In the middle of 2009, he rose to the number one spot in the ICC Rankings for ODI bowlers and that was a reward for his discipline and consistency.

While Kulasekara’s recent form hasn’t matched the high standards he set in 2008 and 2009, he continues to chip in at crucial intervals. Some of his spells have been devastating and have put Sri Lanka in command from the outset. In the final of a tri-series against India in Bangladesh (2010), he combined with Chanaka Welegedara to reduce a strong Indian batting line-up to 60 for five. His most memorable performance came in early 2013 when Sri Lanka tied a remarkable series against Australia Down Under.

Using the movement and the pace off the pitch, Kulasekara figures of five for 22 shot Australia out for 74 at Brisbane. In fact, at one stage they were 30 for six — five off them taken by Kulasekara. That is his value to this Sri Lankan side. He gets the wicket almost every game and there are times when he can scalp victims in a heap. Malinga isn’t the only one running the show.

With the bat, Kulasekara continues to be a very handy option. At Lord’s in 2006, he showed his grit and now he has evolved into a pinch-hitter. The team management trusts him with the job and even promoted him ahead of Thisara Perera in the 2011 World Cup final — where he scored 32 to help Sri Lanka out of a precarious position in the slog overs. Against England during the ICC Champions Trophy 2013, he was sent ahead of Angelo Mathews, Dinesh Chandimal and Lahiru Thirimanne in a tall run-chase. Chasing 294, the game was in the balance with Sri Lanka at 187 for three in the 36th over. Sangakkara was going strong and absorbing the pressure. Kulasekara walked in and started smashing the ball to all parts after a sedate start. Sri Lanka romped home with almost three overs to spare.

Kulasekara’s next target would be to grab a Test berth on a permanent basis. He is a proven customer in the shorter versions. Nevertheless, Sri Lanka would need a consistent bowler of his caliber in Tests. For a fast-bowler aged 31, he seems to be in prime condition and has time on his side to carve a Test career. He told Island Cricket, “I have not been as consistent in Tests cricket as I have been in the other two formats. I don’t let that affect me. Test cricket is a different ball game, and I continue to work hard and make use of opportunities I get in that arena.”

(Nishad Pai Vaidya is a Correspondent with CricketCountry and anchor for the site’s YouTube Channel. His Twitter handle is @nishad_44)