Dhawal Kulkarni was the unsung hero of Mumbai's emphatic 2021 Vijay Hazare Trophy triumph. As the cricketing fraternity went gaga over Prithvi Shaw's sensational showing with the bat, the pacer quietly went about his business, doing what he does best - making the new ball talk and picking up heaps of wickets.
The 32-year-old had 14 scalps to his name in six games at an incredible economy rate of just 3.72. His best bowling performance was a five-wicket haul against Maharashtra in the league phase.
Surprisingly, Dhawal Kulkarni went wicketless in the 2021 Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy as Mumbai endured a dismal campaign. However, in an exclusive interview with Sportskeeda, he explained that he was just focusing on his basics and didn't try anything different in the two tournaments.
"The way I bowled in Syed Mushtaq Ali, the same thing I did in Vijay Hazare. It was just the wickets column that showed, rest everything was the same. It was a complete team effort," Dhawal Kulkarni stated.
Dhawal Kulkarni hails teammates, coaching staff for Vijay Hazare Trophy triumph
Dhawal Kulkarni believes it was not just him but the entire team who stood together to help Mumbai win their fourth Vijay Hazare Trophy. He also hailed head coach Ramesh Powar and other staff members for helping the domestic giants stand on their feet after the Syed Mushtaq Ali debacle. He said:
"Everybody contributed in all the departments. It was a collective effort. If you see the stats, 3-4 of our batters are in the top 10 run-getters, while 2-3 bowlers are among the top wicket-takers. I would especially like to mention the effort that the coaching staff put behind us. So I think the coaching staff played a very crucial role in bringing back this team together and it was shown on the field. The coach gave confidence to each and every player and the thought process was clear. We needed confidence and a big role was played by our coach Ramesh Powar sir."
Dhawal Kulkarni was also delighted by the progress made by his teammates Prithvi Shaw and Suryakumar Yadav, with the latter recently making his Team India debut in the T20 series against England.
Suryakumar was knocking on the door of the Indian selectors through his consistent performances for Mumbai. Kulkarni was delighted that the hard work put in by the 30-year-old, who also shone for the Mumbai Indians in the IPL, had finally paid off.
Kulkarni also lauded Mumbai's stand-in skipper Shaw for putting his troubles in Australia behind him and taking the Vijay Hazare Trophy by storm. The diminutive opener scored 827 runs in eight games and a stupendous average of 165.40, notching up four hundreds, including a double-century.
"Both of them (Prithvi and Suryakumar) worked really hard. Especially Surya, he worked really hard for the last couple of years and he was rewarded. Similar thing with Prithvi, everybody saw that he was struggling in the Australian tour. But he really worked hard and he realized the importance of working hard and the results were shown by him," Dhawal Kulkarni asserted.
Dhawal Kulkarni opens up on missing ODI call-up
Dhawal Kulkarni has himself been a consistent performer in the Vijay Hazare Trophy. In six of the past eight years, he has been Mumbai's highest wicket-taker in IPL, something that speaks volumes about his dominance.
In List A cricket too, the speedster has some amazing numbers. He has played 125 games, taking 217 wickets, which shows he has a knack for making crucial breakthroughs.
However, it was not to be, as Karnataka speedster Prasidh Krishna was preferred over the Mumbai pacer. One could argue that it was harsh on Kulkarni since he had the same number of wickets as Krishna this season in lesser number of games and at a much better economy rate.
Nevertheless, instead of getting disheartened by the ODI snub, Dhawal Kulkarni wanted to use it as extra motivation for himself to perform even better. The 32-year-old believes selection is something which isn't in his control, and all he can do is keep on performing and knocking on the door of the selectors.
"For the past three years, I have been among the top five wicket-takers in the country in white-ball cricket. There is a bit of frustration as to what more was needed out of me, but I take it in my stride and also take everything as a challenge. I think it is right time to push myself harder and perform even better, so that I get an opportunity to play and represent my country," he explained.
Dhawal Kulkarni's meteoric rise in Mumbai cricket
Getting into a formidable domestic team like Mumbai is in itself a big deal. But to perform in tough situations and in big games when your side need it the most is an even bigger achievement.
Dhawal Kulkarni has done exceedingly well for Mumbai across all formats for quite a while now and has a reputation for being at his best in the finals. His nine-wicket haul against Saurashtra in the 2012-13 Ranji Trophy final remains one of his best performances for Mumbai to date.
His five-wicket haul in the second innings of the 2008-09 Ranji Trophy final against Uttar Pradesh is another example of how he usually comes into his own on the biggest of stages. Dhawal Kulkarni has revealed how special it is for him to play for a domestic powerhouse like Mumbai.
"As a cricketer when I started playing, it was a dream to represent Mumbai. It is not easy to get your Mumbai cap, you need to work really hard for it. I did really well at the U19 level for India and also for Mumbai. In my first season for Mumbai itself, I was the highest wicket-taker in the country. My confidence was sky-high because of that. Those spells that have helped Mumbai win, have been memorable for me," Dhawal Kulkarni said.
Dhawal Kulkarni's IPL journey with Mumbai Indians
Like many other young budding cricketers, it was the Indian Premier League (IPL) which gave Dhawal Kulkarni the stage to express himself even before he made his first-class debut for Mumbai. He was snapped up by the Mumbai Indians (MI) in the inaugural edition and was with them for six seasons (2008-2013).
In his very first season, Dhawal Kulkarni impressed one and all, taking 11 wickets fin 10 games. The 32-year-old shared his experience of being in the same dressing room with some absolute legends and opened up on how MI helped him develop as a cricketer. He said in this regard:
"It was like a dream come true representing MI in my first year. It was altogether a different and a special experience for me to play in front of such a big crowd at Wankhede. I had never imagined that I will get to play with greats like Sachin Tendulkar, Sanath Jayasuriya, Shaun Pollock. But when I got selected I was very happy and wanted to make the opportunity count and learn as much as I could. Everyone here really makes you feel like family and we are together and that shows when we play on the field."
Dhawal Kulkarni was reunited with the IPL giants in 2020 when he was snapped up at auction by the Mumbai Indians. The 32-year-old, who was over the moon to be a part of MI again after six years, has been enjoying every single moment of his return to the franchise.
Dhawal Kulkarni on Rohit Sharma - the captain
It's safe to say that last season, MI were head and shoulders above the rest of the IPL teams. They ended up winning their fifth IPL title in eight years, with skipper Rohit Sharma marshaling his troops brilliantly. Dhawal Kulkarni explained what made the 33-year-old the most successful captain in IPL history.
"Rohit has matured and grown as a cricketer over the years at MI. The way he leads the team is wonderful to watch. It has helped improve his temperament and has also helped him become better as a cricketer. You need such a captain who backs you and gives you confidence which helps you perform even better," Dhawal Kulkarni asserted.
Dhawal Kulkarni on the incredible IPL 2020 season
Dhawal Kulkarni was considered a backup for Jasprit Bumrah as the MI team management backed overseas pacers like Nathan Coulter Nile and James Pattinson for the third seamer's spot. The 32-year-old played just one solitary game against Sunrisers Hyderabad, recording figures of 0-22.
Instead of getting frustrated about the lack of chances, the 32-year-old put the team first and believed it was important for MI to stick with the winning combination. He reckons every single person involved with the team played a huge role in MI winning their fifth title. Kulkarni explained:
"I feel the middle-order is so jam-packed that there was no need to change the winning combination. And I even feel that our overseas bowlers bowled really well last year. Everybody was so happy and in that zone that they performed well. The members in the support staff, team management, all have a crucial role to play when you win such huge tournaments."
Due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, IPL 2020 had to be played inside a bio-bubble in the UAE. According to the bio-bubble protocols, the players were prohibited from moving freely.
Dhawal Kulkarni accepted that it required great mental strength to live in such a restricted environment, thus making the IPL 2020 win even more memorable.
"Looking at the COVID-19 thing, life in a bubble was very difficult. We weren't able to move anywhere outside the bubble, neither could we have any interactions. So it was a tough season last year, yet we emerged as champions. So I really enjoyed a lot," Dhawal Kulkarni said.
Dhawal Kulkarni on IPL 2021 and his future goals
The Mumbai speedster is gearing up for IPL 2021 and is expecting MI to do well yet again as they have managed to retain most of their squad. While he didn't get much game time last season, Dhawal Kulkarni feels he is ready to step up whenever called upon.
The 32-year-old wants to back his natural skills and believes he has a lot more to offer to the five-time IPL champions. He asserted:
"It is not about trying things differently. Whatever efforts I have been putting, it is going to be the same. Whatever time I get for preparation is going to be really crucial entering the tournament. Whenever I get an opportunity, I will try to give my best."
Dhawal Kulkarni doesn't want to look too much into the future and instead wants to focus on the next task at hand - making MI lift the IPL trophy for the third successive season. However, he also has a few personal milestones that he wishes to achieve and is highly motivated for the same.
"Talking about goals, my first goal is to win the IPL for Mumbai Indians. Second goal is to be the highest wicket-taker for Mumbai Indians in the IPL. And the third goal will be to represent my country again," Dhawal Kulkarni concluded.