By Damith Samarakoon | February 24, 2013
In a wide-ranging interview, Nuwan Kulasekara talks to Island Cricket’s Damith Samarakoon about why he took up fast bowling despite not possessing the physique of a traditional fast bowler, the secret to his success and more.
Have you always aspired to be a fast bowler since your childhood? Considering your physique, why did you take up fast bowling?
Since my childhood, I have always loved cricket. I played mostly soft-ball cricket growing up, and I never really aspired to be a fast bowler as such. When you play soft-ball cricket, you need to run up to the wicket rapidly and release the ball as fast as you can, so I just progressed from that point onwards.
Did you think at that stage you had what it took to play international cricket?
No, not really. To be honest, I was lucky and very fortunate that it all fell in place over time. When I finished my O-level exams, a friend in my village who played leather-ball cricket for Nugegoda Sports Club asked me to come and play for the club since I was not doing much after my O-level exams. That’s how I got into hard-ball cricket. I had never played leather-ball cricket until that point. I played close to four years of under-23 cricket for them. In my final year with Nugegoda Sports Club, we made it to the premier league tournament, where I met Champaka Ramanayake and Anusha Samaranayake. This opened doors for me to play for Galle Cricket Club, and that’s where I started playing first-class cricket. During an under-23 match between Galle and Nugegoda, a friend gave me Ramanayake’s phone number, and asked me to get in touch with him. Both Dilhara Lokuhettige and Hiran Gunasekera were instrumental in helping me connect with Ramanayake.
When did you start thinking that one day you could play for Sri Lanka?
In my first season of first-class cricket, playing for Galle Cricket Club, I was the best bowler. Shortly after that, I was picked to train at the MAX Cricket Academy. While at the academy, we played against India and Pakistan in the Emerging Team Trophy tournament in 2003, and I bowled well there. That’s when I realised I could be playing for Sri Lanka one day. I was picked to play for the national team the same year.
Fast bowlers are generally big, bulky and strong, and they rely on their physical strength to trouble batsmen with pace and bounce, but you’re different?
I never thought much about it. I wanted make best use of what I had in my control, and make best use of every opportunity that came my way. I can’t do what others do, so I had to think about how I could survive, how I could take wickets and how to cope with match situations. I had to work all this out myself. I never tried to emulate or copy anyone. I realised pretty early on that I could not bowl at 145 kmph, so I had to use my natural ability, which was mostly utilising in-swing at the time. After mastering the in-swinger, I worked on other variations like the slow ball, and focussed mainly on keeping the ball up. I never thought about bowling fast or dishing short ones out. My focus was more about hitting a decent line and length consistently and swinging the ball.
You swing the ball back into the right-handers at will, was the in-swinger something you worked hard on?
It’s something that came naturally. I didn’t know a lot about swing early on in my career. I knew it was moving about, but didn’t know how to fine-tune it, and I didn’t know how to make adjustments in order to hit a good line and length to make the swing effective. Playing for Nugegoda and Galle helped me work on all those aspects, but I was able to really polish it all up in my time with Galle Cricket Club.
After making your Test debut in 2005, you have played 18 Test matches. Do you think you have been labelled as a limited-over specialist, and has that impacted your Test career?
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. I’m generally a happy, positive person who enjoys life, so not being able to play many Tests from 2005 to now has not negatively impacted my outlook. I am not disappointed. I am happy with the success I have achieved in one-day and T20 cricket.
A quick look at your career reveals periods of highs and lows. Why do you think that is, and how do you pick yourself up when things aren’t going so well for you?
At the start of my international career, I was very inexperienced. Because I came into the Sri Lankan squad at a time when there were many seniors, I did not get many opportunities to play. Experience comes from playing, and I had a lot to learn about the game even at that stage. When I’m dropped from the side, I try to evaluate my performances to see how I can improve. I realise I can’t keep doing the same thing over and over, so I try to work on improving my game. I had to learn to analyse better, read batsmen better and also figure out how to bowl depending on match situations. All cricketers go through good and bad patches; that’s the nature of the game. I think that I managed to get out of bad patches quickly. I know my ability — to swing the ball and always maintain a good line and length — it is an asset, and I trust my ability to get me back into the side when I hit a bad patch. Like we analyse batsmen, the opposition batsmen analyse us as well. We also play against certain teams a lot in ODIs, so batsmen do tend to get used to bowlers, which is why I had to work hard on not being too predictable. Subtle changes, adjustments and variations can create doubt in the batsman’s mind, and it has helped me be successful again after a slump. I have worked hard on all of this with my coaches in the nets. The out-swinger is a delivery I have worked on as well. I also learnt how to bowl a different slower ball. These are some of the reasons I have been successful.
How do you respond to critics who say that you’re less effective in Test cricket? Some claim you don’t have much to offer once the shine wears off. The lack of pace has also been highlighted as a weakness.
You can take wickets with the old ball as well, and I have been working hard of late in the nets on reverse swing. Whether the delivery is fast or at medium pace, a good ball is still a good ball.
How do your tactics change from ODIs to Test cricket?
How you bowl with the old ball is what is different. Frustrating the batsmen by drying up runs with good field placings and using reverse swing to your advantage is key.
You have also excelled in recent times with the bat, and you have earned a reputation as a big hitter. There is often excitement amongst the fans when they see you coming out with a bat in your hand. Have you always been a decent batsman?
[He giggles] I was not always a good batsman. I could bat well in soft-ball matches, but I was not always a good batsman against the leather ball. Facing the hard, leather ball is a totally different game. I have improved my batting in the last three years by batting a lot in the nets. It is something that I wanted to do on my own will. I thought that I needed to improve my batting to contribute more to the team. I played mainly as a bowler, but I realised that any contributions with the bat from the tail is valuable to the team, which is why I worked hard to become a better batsman.
Australia too have worked on ensuring their bowlers are capable with the bat, have coaches in Sri Lanka made note of this, and is it a part of Sri Lanka’s training sessions?
That’s right. In every practise session these days, bowlers do have to pad up and bat in the nets. I think it’s a really good move. A lot of attention is given to technique as well.
What is your view of the future of fast bowling in this country?
The future is bright. There is nothing to worry about, to be very honest. We have a good stock of fast bowlers. Shaminda Eranga and Suranga Lakmal are very good. They have a bright future ahead of them, and will go along way. We have two rookie pacemen in the 20-man squad for the upcoming Test series, as well as other fresh faces in the development squad, so Sri Lanka has nothing to fear when it comes to the fast bowling department in the future.
One thing we haven’t seen in some of the new fast bowlers is there ability to remain injury-free, like you have for the most part of your career. Do you think bowlers like Nuwan Pradeep and Eranga, who were discovered in talent search competitions, get injured often because they are not used to putting their bodies through the rigours of bowling long spells, after getting into professional cricket much later in their lives?
I think I have been lucky to not have picked up injuries. No matter how much you train, or how hard you work, injuries can happen. Injuries are something that just happens, no one plans on getting injured. Not being used to bowling long spells could be one reason, but there’s no telling who could pick up an injury next. There are many fitness programmes these days, so I think future fast bowlers will be a lot fitter.
What is your view of the IPL?
A cricketer’s career is extremely short. For some, it can be one year and for others it can be five years. You never really know how long you will be playing for. This is our bread and butter, our profession, and we survive on this. Playing in the IPL really helps cricketers with their finances. Not just IPL, Big Bash and the Bangladesh Premier League also provide a way for cricketers to earn a living. When I was at the IPL, I didn’t get to play many matches, so I had a lot of time in the nets, and that’s where I learnt to perfect my back-of-the-hand slower ball. As long as you continue working on your game, without getting lazy, the time spent at the IPL is still a great opportunity to learn new things and pick up new skills, even though you’re not picked to play matches.
How will the IPL impact a young player like Akila Dananjaya. He too is unlikely to play, but will be in India during the tournament. There are fears that he will be used as a net bowler, and that his variations will be exposed.
Opposition teams these days use video analysis to study our bowlers, so they know a lot about our bowlers already. I don’t think there will be a huge negative impact on him. But he needs to be smart and aware that people will be observing him. It’s a good opportunity too for him to meet players from different countries and see what they do. Players from all over the world come to the IPL. The whole experience, even practising and warming up with players from around the world, teaches us a lot.
Damith Samarakoon is a cricket writer for Island Cricket and co-host of the podcast The Armchair Critics.
© Island Cricket