As he ran through batting line-ups time and gain, ending up with incredible figures as he did in the Ranji final against Saurashtra, experts wondered what it was about the amiable-looking Dhawal Kulkarni that made him such a difficult proposition for the opposition. Kulkarni’s strengths aren’t speed or swing but dogged persistence, which has helped him take 165 wickets at 26.86 in the domestic circuit. Not incredible figures by any yardstick but nonetheless reflective of the aforementioned qualities that has made him an indispensable cog in Mumbai’s triumphs. He is, in Mumbai’s cricketing parlance, a hardcore khadoos, and a key component in their three titles since his debut in 2008.
Nothing particularly stands out as he coils into the delivery stride, neither a classical side-on action nor a jerky release. Rather, he is plain to warrant attention, but wrapped in his apparent plainness is his deception. His aggression is concealed, he hardly sprays around, sustains a credible channel outside the off-stump, hits the deck hard, swings the ball both when conditions favour, but most importantly keeps the ball on the proverbial sixpence. And this he does without the routine feelers or warm-up balls.
A sample of his pitch map in the first innings of the Ranji final offers a better insight into his method. More than 70 per cent of his deliveries are pitched in the good-length zone for a medium a pacer- the 6.5-7 metre arc, and of those 80 per cent are on or outside the off-stump. The aberration mostly denote his yorkers or bouncers. When connected, the outline forms the shape of an incongruous diamond, which he can treasure for posterity or re-look in times of strife.
For a bowler of such simplistic methodology, it’s imperative to have the surprise yorker and the bouncer, which he sparingly deploys. On the sub-continental flatbeds, one has to be wary of excesses. “The best thing about him is that he consistently gives us early breakthroughs. And even if he doesn’t, he keeps pressure at one end. The batsmen would have to take risks to find boundaries. His methods are simple and he knows his strengths and weaknesses,” pointed out former Test cricketer Pravin Amre.
Ironically, his batting embodies his resoluteness - a batting average of 29.45. “With our batting, he hardly gets any opportunity, but there had been occasions when he has offered solid resistance, as in our final against Karnataka (2010). He works hard on his batting in the nets,” elaborated Amre.
In that particular match, Mumbai’s top-order struggled in the second innings, before Kulkarni engineered a late-order revival with 87 runs, a crucial knock which helped Mumbai win by just 12 runs. More than once he was on the national fringes, and was picked in the Test squad for the tour to New Zealand in 2009, though his Test debut didn’t materialise. But only 24, and stats to back, Kulkarni’s dream of playing for India is not far away if he keeps performing in the same vein.