Umesh Kulkarni disappeared as suddenly as he arrived on the scene. Photo Courtesy: YouTube screen-grab
Umesh Kulkarni disappeared as suddenly as he arrived on the scene. Photo Courtesy: YouTube screen-grab

Umesh Kulkarni, born March 7, 1942, arrived on the scene as suddenly as he vanished. Abhishek Mukherjee looks back at the career of a left-arm seamer whose career was plagued by injuries.

Few careers have been as meteoric as that of Umesh Narayan Kulkarni. A left-arm fast-medium bowler, Kulkarni was drafted into the Indian side for the twin tours of Australia and New Zealand in 1967-68 following one good outing. He failed, was not recalled, and vanished into oblivion shortly afterwards.

For a seamer, Kulkarni was of an unusually short frame (5’6½”), an inch taller than Ramakant Desai. He was, to quote Bill Phippard of The Canberra Times, “barely above medium-pace” though Rohan Rivett, writing for the same daily, said that he “really swings the ball.”

His First-Class career was pedestrian at best: a tally of 40 First-Class wickets from 29 matches at 39.95 (without a single five-for) is less than ordinary, more so because he was one of those rank tail-enders. His 4 Tests fetched him 5 wickets at 47.60.

Breaking through

Born in Alibaug, Kulkarni was the son of a storekeeper at Indian Railways. He came to Bombay in the summer of 1959 with his maternal uncle, and started off with tennis-ball cricket. Not used to footwear during his Alibaug days, he did not find it easy to adapt to chappals (slippers), and played barefoot.

Kulkarni joined Maratha High School (where Sharad Hazare was the captain), and became an instant success with nine wickets on Harris Shield debut barefoot. Fortunately for him, Vinoo Mankad was present at the ground. Kulkarni was summoned by the great man, who insisted he wore shoes, along with proper cricket gear.

Mentored by Mankad, Kulkarni became a regular in school cricket. Mankad taught him how to grip the ball, and also to bowl over the wicket. However, Kulkarni could not make a breakthrough till the Moin-ud-Dowlah Trophy of 1963-64. He found a spot in the all-conquering Bombay side as Desai’s new-ball partner, but did not make an impact.

His first performance of note (4 for 43) came against Ceylon. He was not a part of Bombay’s nucleus, and was a replacement bowler at best. Then came the Irani Cup of 1967-68, where he claimed 5 wickets in the match (2 of which were not specialist batsmen).

It was his first match of the season. Later that month he found himself on the squad for the twin tours to Australia and New Zealand. There is no way to find out whether it was one of those Tiger Pataudi “hunches.”

Down Under

Kulkarni generally had an eventless tour. He claimed 3 for 32 against South Australia Country (not the state side, and not a First-Class match), but that was about it. For some mysterious reason he played 3 of the 4 Tests in a series where India were whitewashed 0-4.

“When an international side is obliged to choose as an opening bowler Kulkarni who has not taken a wicket in the three games he played, it is obvious the Indians have the task in front of them,” wrote Phippard.

Playing at Adelaide Oval, Kulkarni sent down 5 overs for 25. India played three seamers in the Test (Rusi Surti and Abid Ali were the others), and Kulkarni was easily the most lacklustre of the three. The biggest achievement of his career came in the second innings, when he had Bill Lawry caught-behind the first ball of the innings. Unfortunately, that remained his only success of the match.

Kulkarni missed the second Test at MCG. He was ordinary in his third Test at The Gabba as well, claiming Doug Walters and Alan Connolly. However, it was his batsmanship (or rather, lack of it) that became the centre of focus during this Test.

The Test will forever be remembered for ML Jaisimha being summoned at the last moment, landing at Brisbane, defying jetlag, and scoring 74 and 101. Set to chase 395, India were reduced to 191 for 5 before Jaisimha added 119 with Chandu Borde. Unfortunately, a triple-strike from John Gleeson left India to score 62 as Kulkarni, the last man, walked out to join Jaisimha.

Contrary to expectations, Kulkarni hung on, allowing Jaisimha to help India approach the near-impossible target. He refused to get out as Jaisimha reached a well-deserved hundred — but fell immediately to Bob Cowper. Kulkarni remained unbeaten on a 28-minute 1 as India lost by 39 runs.

The last Test at SCG resulted in a 144-run defeat for India. Kulkarni got two tail-end wickets (of Eric Freeman and Neil Hawke), but that was it. The Australia leg amounted to 5 wickets at 73 apiece, but a match haul of 4 for 91 against Central Districts gave him another opportunity.

Kulkarni got a breakthrough at Christchurch with India 1-0 up in the series. New Zealand won by 6 wickets, and Kulkarni, after going wicketless in the first innings, was not even given a bowl in the second. It was the only Test India lost in the series (they won 3-1), and Kulkarni never played again.

Final days

On his return to India, Kulkarni’s career (not an outstanding one anyway) faded away due to injuries. He did not play another Ranji Trophy match (though he played for Bombay in the Irani Cup match next year). He played a couple of Relief Fund matches before hanging up his boots at 28.

A matriculate by qualification, Kulkarni had taken up a job with Tata. After his retirement from First-Class cricket, Kulkarni visited Ceylon with Tata Sports. He also played for Tata in Times Shield.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is the Chief Editor and Cricket Historian at CricketCountry. He blogs here and can be followed on Twitter here.)