Spinner Nilesh Kulkarni's rare first and a bitter rest, 25 years on

Published on Aug 05, 2022 04:04 PM IST

The left-arm bowler had a dream start to his Test career, taking a wicket off his first ball in the Colombo Test against Sri Lanka. The match though is only remembered for Sri Lanka piling on 952 runs against India's hapless bowlers on a dead wicket.

Nilesh Kulkarni PREMIUM
Nilesh Kulkarni
By, Mumbai

Mumbai was affected by riots and Colombo experiencing constant turbulence when 24-year-old Nilesh Kulkarni made his Test debut. For the 6 ft 4 in left-arm spinner from Dombivli, a suburb 50 km north of Mumbai, a Test call-up was an opportunity to fulfil his dream; his middle-class family was anxious and expectant.

It was July but Mumbai players don't fear rain. Instead, in 1997, the city was tense following the Ramabai Ambedkar Nagar killings. Kulkarni and four others, including former captain Mohammad Azharuddin, had to take a transit flight from Chennai to reach Colombo, but were stranded in a city hit by widespread unrest. Fortunately for the India players, Maharashtra Chief Minister Manohar Joshi was also the president of Mumbai Cricket Association and he arranged a police vehicle with an escort to get the players dropped at the airport.

On reaching Sri Lanka, the players knew it wasn’t going to be a usual sporting expedition. The tour was being staged in the midst of Sri Lanka dealing with the Tamil separatist group, LTTE. India’s peace-keeping forces were in Colombo.

It was a virtual lockdown. “We stayed in one hotel for 43 days,” says Ratnakar Shetty, former BCCI administrator who was India’s manager on the tour. “It got to a stage where we could reach the hotel restaurant blindfolded. We had been following the same rituals every day.”

Kulkarni was carrying confidence from a rich haul of wickets in the previous domestic season. "Quite an achievement” says Kulkarni because Mumbai seamers at the time, like Paras Mhambrey, Abey Kuruvilla (he was his teammate in Sri Lanka) and Ajit Agarkar wouldn’t spare many wickets for the spinners in the 1st innings.

Batting first at Colombo's Premadasa Stadium, India had three centurions in Navjot Sidhu, captain Sachin Tendulkar and Azharuddin before they declared on 537/8 post tea on Day 2. “We wanted to score runs quickly and declare so that we can bowl them out and win the match. That was the plan,” says Kuruvilla.

“There were 10 overs or so left with less than an hour to go. In our bowling attack, Abey had established himself, Venkatesh Prasad had been playing for a couple of years, Anil Kumble was an absolute senior pro and (off-spinner) Rajesh Chauhan had been playing for 6-odd years. In my mind, I was prepared not to bowl, just be a safe fielder,” Kulkarni recalls.

As luck would have it, one of cricket’s quirks--the ticking clock before the umpire would call end of day’s play meant Tendulkar summoned the lanky youngster to bowl his first over. “The umpire told me we needed to rush as he was almost going to dislodge the bails,” says Tendulkar. Match-ups wasn’t a commonly used term then but it was an instinctive call based on Tendulkar’s cricket smarts. Kulkarni was asked to bowl to the right-handed Marvan Atapattu. “Nilesh asked me, ‘Kai karu?’ (what should I do),” recalls Tendulkar. “I told him, ‘pahila ball taak, nantar apan discuss karu.’ (quickly bowl the first ball, we will discuss after that). But Nilesh had other plans.”

“I could only stretch for about 5 seconds before I bowled. All I was telling myself was 'land the ball in the right area, don’t embarrass yourself',” says Kulkarni. “The ball went in the right direction. In fact, had Marvan not been caught behind, I could have had him stumped too. But one way was good enough for me to get my first wicket off the first ball.”

No one in Indian cricket before or after achieved such a feat.

The remainder of the Test match was to be a kill joy for Kulkarni and the team. Sri Lanka went on inflict wounds on the Indian fielding side, some of which still haven’t healed--the pain of having to chase leather for 271 overs for three days on the most docile of tracks. Sanath Jayasuriya scored a career-best 340. Roshan Mahanama got 225, and together they raised a 576-run second wicket partnership. Aravinda de Silva made 126. Even debutant Mahela Jayawardena got a 50. When Sri Lanka finally agreed to stop batting after the fifth day’s mandatory overs had been bowled, the scoreboard read 952/6 declared.

Kulkarni would go on to bowl 419 further deliveries in the match and end up unrewarded. “I got to experience the vagaries of life in my very first Test, both extremes in my debut,” says Kulkarni with a smile. While he went to play 101 first-class matches for Mumbai, his India career lasted only three Tests and 10 ODIs. Kulkarni often falls back on lessons learnt on the pitch as he runs a successful sports management institute now.

“We had coined a saying, the first ball was a wonder ball, rest of the balls were thunderbolts,” says Shetty. “Myself and coach Madan Lal kept praying for a wicket to fall.”

“It's everyone’s dream to play Tests for India, leave alone take a wicket off the first ball. Well done, Nilesh!” Kumble recalls in a video message played at an event to mark 25 years of that record.

“I didn’t realise it’s been 25 years. I know you will remember that Test for that wicket but believe me, I have forgotten about that match. Sorry…three and a half days on the field for us. Whenever people remind me of that match, I tell them I missed my first Test hundred by 73 runs. When we declared, I was batting on 27.”

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    Rasesh Mandani loves a straight drive. He has been covering cricket, the governance and business side of sport for close to two decades. He writes and video blogs for HT.

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