Breaking barriers as player-cum-coach, Karnataka's Nihal Ullal shows the way

By coaching while being a player, Nihal Ullal is setting a different pathway (Picture Credits: Instagram/ Shivamogga Lions).
By coaching while being a player, Nihal Ullal is setting a different pathway (Picture Credits: Instagram/ Shivamogga Lions).

It's a hard task being an all-rounder in cricket. Making your presence felt across all facets of the game and having an impact that amounts to having two players in the XI is no mean job. Unsurprisingly, very few have been able to place themselves as pantheons in this trade in a sport that has spanned 180 years on the international landscape.

An all-rounder ought to be a pretty decent multitasker. After all, you are talking about multiple trades and mastering them as well as you can.

The player in the spotlight here isn't an all-rounder if you're looking at conventional cricketing descriptions. Or for that matter, preparing your fantasy cricket team. Yet, considering that he is a wicket-keeper batter, it's fair to dub that category of players under the all-round bracket too.

When you fancy the fact that Karnataka's Nihal Ullal is also a professional coach whilst actively plying his trade on the circuit as a player, he truly redefines the word of a multitasker in this sport.

Fascinating, isn't it? The Mangalore-born wicket-keeper batter has traversed what is a road oft not taken given that a player who is also a coach at the grassroot levels is hard to run into. Yet here he is, taking over as the head coach of the New Innings Cricket Enterprise (NICE) in Bengaluru.

Playing remains Nihal's first priority and there are no two ways about it. A regular in the Maharaja Trophy for the Shivamogga Lions, he also made his debut for Karnataka in the 2022-23 Vijay Hazare Trophy. His dynamic batting was duly taken note of by franchises in the IPL as he was listed in the player auction that was held in Dubai in December 2023.

At 31, you'd think a player ought to peak in the next couple of years or so. Nihal has been performing well through the system and has loads to offer with bat and gloves. Why coaching, then?

If you reckon it's a sudden call, it isn't. He has been at it for a while, away from the public limelight, and opens up about it in a candid conversation with Sportskeeda.

"I’ve been doing this for the last two to three years actually now but I kept a slightly low profile since I was actively playing a lot. I thought it actually helped my game as well because I was always into the game while talking about it with students or kids. It helped me so I thought why not do it while playing," says Nihal.

Was the decision a straightforward one, though? After all, we are talking about an active cricketer venturing along this path.

"Initially I started taking a couple of students personally. I saw results in them where one of my students went on to play for Karnataka and went on to represent in the ZCA as well, the BCCI camp. So that’s when I thought I could take this up professionally. I saw results coming, that’s the reason I took it up. Playing is still my main priority. How I plan my thing is I start my day with practice and then get onto coaching," says Nihal.

The motivating factor behind Nihal Ullal's coaching foray

Hailing from Mangalore, Nihal's foray into cricket was akin to most kids from the 90s when the television era boomed in India. From baby steps with tennis-ball cricket, it was a swift move into the U13 Zonal team in Mangalore, although he didn't always have the opportunity to keep wickets with a certain KL Rahul donning that role.

By his own admission, he had to move to Bengaluru in search of better facilities that would accelerate his growth in the sport when he realized that this was what he wanted to do full-time.

Cut to the present day, and the new head coach of NICE narrates his initial experience with the academy on the sidelines of a match at the venue.

"Looking at the kids, there’s a lot of talent here so it took me back to my days when I started playing cricket. Here at NICE, the facilities are quite wonderful. Whatever is needed for a cricketer, everything is here - right from the ground, turf wickets, everything. Whatever a cricketer needs to improve his/her game, everything is here. And we are here to help so that definitely works for the kids."

There is absolute merit in these words, as NICE provides kids of all age groups with 13 turf wickets, two cement wickets, two astro-turf wickets and a matting surface for them to hone their craft under the close supervision of their mentors.

Little surprise, then, that the academy has catapulted two of its pupils into fame and early success - Shreyanka Patil, who is now an India international, and Vrinda Dinesh, who bagged a bumper Women's Premier League (WPL) contract a couple of months ago.

Nihal found a lot of reasons that drew him towards this academy in particular.

"As I told you earlier about the facilities and their aim of building a cricketer, I liked that a lot," states Nihal. "The struggles which I faced initially in my career and the facilities they have and a few cricketers coming from here - for example Shreyanka has gone on to play for India and Vrinda is also in the WPL. With Arjun (Dev), Kiran (Uppoor) and my experience, it’ll definitely help the kids and maybe we will see a lot more cricketers from here represent the state and the country."

It stems from a deep feeling of giving back to the sport when Nihal can. His own journey as a player has catalyzed this thought process.

"There have been times where I have thought ‘what more or what next’. Now there are three formats but at that time initially for an U19 cricketer there were only five games of one-day tournament. If you qualify, you qualify for the quarterfinals. And three or four games of multi-day cricket. That’s about it. But now the U19 boys play about 7-8 games and then four-five day games and their season goes on. Now locally they have the Maharaja Trophy which we didn’t have back then. We got the platform when we were about 19 or 20 where now people get that platform to showcase their talent at 16 or 17 which is a big factor where they are seen live on TV."
"At that time the competition was even more. There were many players - for example we had to play with the likes of Yere Goud, Sunil Joshi, when I played my first Karnataka Premier League season, they were playing. All the big stars of Karnataka cricket. But now if you see Karnataka is in a moving phase where people have started moving out of the state so competition is much less now. The seniormost I think are Manish Pandey and Mayank Agarwal. They are the two or three big guns we can think of. The rest are upcoming like Devdutt (Padikkal). But at that time there were many more so we had to face a lot more competition than what the guys are facing now," adds Nihal.

The change in coaching trends in Nihal Ullal's eyes

Sport is an entity that is ever-evolving. Cricket vouches for this better than most sports, for it has borne witness to revolutions aplenty over the years. The current era can perhaps be dubbed the 'T20 boom', while even T10 cricket is growing in popularity.

For someone who grew up playing the sport in the noughties, Nihal has observed an evolution in the way coaches approach the sport too.

"When I started playing, the trend was always staying at the wicket and spending more time at the wicket. Coaches were kind of basics are still important but - I am talking about 2005 when I started to take this sport seriously - I was taught to hit down the ground and a lot of basic things. If you hit the nets on the full you are out. But now the trend has changed - since T20 has come in, a player who makes an impact will go up the ladder. There are so many examples where you don’t see a lot of big scores or wickets but someone who can play an impact innings or bowl quick gets picked for India.
"So it’s more about making an impact in this generation. That generation it was more result oriented where you needed to score a lot of runs and pick a lot of wickets. That is still the thing but if you make an impact in a short period of time, you see a lot of players where they've not done much in domestic cricket. Maybe a miracle innings in the IPL or someone for example I can think of Umran Malik who can bowl 150 kph but has not done much in domestic cricket, he still has an India cap. So that’s how the change has happened," says Nihal.

Speaking of an evolution in the game, Nihal reckons that player-coaches are becoming a common presence.

"Actually now you see a lot of this happening. Kieron Pollard is batting coach of the Mumbai Indians team but in the SA20 he’s the captain. Dwayne Bravo is still playing but he’s the bowling coach of Chennai Super Kings. It’s going that way now where they’re considering a player-cum-coach or a mentor-cum-coach. Maybe this is just the beginning of that."

Are we then starting to look at something that will develop into a common trend in the future?

"Definitely," he says with confidence. "Because earlier once you retire you take up these roles. Even Wriddhiman Saha for example is the mentor-cum-coach of Tripura’s Ranji Trophy team. So definitely that is a way forward."

He further outlines a possible reason behind this potential paradigm shift.

"Maybe a dual role where they don’t need to find anyone else. That again depends on the individual as well. If the individual is capable of doing dual roles or taking up a captaincy and a mentor role, or a coach-cum-player role, it all depends on the player as well. If the player is capable of doing that, that position is always open."

"I'll have a better idea of what is required at the moment" - Nihal Ullal on the perks of playing while coaching

In his own words, taking up the mantle of coaching has had a positive impact on Nihal's game as a player. He believes in the opposite as well, particularly keeping in mind the requirements of modern-day cricket.

"Since I’m still playing I’ll have a much better idea of what is required at the moment and in which direction the game is going. Sometimes what happens is when you are from a different generation, it sometimes doesn’t work with what the modern day requires. So definitely since I’m still playing and know the requirements of how the game is going, I can put a lot more things into the students’ minds," says Nihal.

Selecting a cricket team in India is no mean job. There's a kid in just about every other street with a bat or ball in hand, harboring aspirations to play for the country. The conversion rate is a small number, though. No, we aren't even referring to the national team, but just breaking through the pathways, the age-group levels, domestic cricket and the IPL/WPL. Calling it a steep path would be an understatement.

But this is also a profession that we're talking of. One that you hope puts bread and butter on the table for your family. It's no secret that there is a massive difference in pay between a centrally contracted cricketer and a domestic warhorse, even if the latter can keep things going for their family.

Does that then become a factor in luring a player into trying their hand at a different skill in the sport?

"Maybe it is a factor," says Nihal. "People getting an IPL contract get much higher than what a domestic cricketer gets. Yes there have been discussions on hiking the pay. That has happened to a certain extent but for a newbie or one who is not a regular in the domestic setup they will also be looking at other options. BCCI has now come up with umpiring options for the ex-players and current players as well. People are going in that direction. There’s scoring as well. And a lot of current cricketers are going into commentary. A lot of different options are open for cricketers now."

It has been an enterprising journey thus far for Nihal. And the beginning to this second innings, which is running in parallel with the main one, has been nice (pun totally intended).

As someone who has seen it all along this journey, he signs off with a request directed towards the parents and guardians of those hoping to make it big in the sport.

"There are definitely a lot of options in cricket. If not a player, maybe as a coach, umpire or a commentator. Some people think that if you don’t make it to a certain level as a cricketer you are done in this sport. But there are a lot more options. Just a message to the parents - have patience and definitely results will follow. As (MS) Dhoni says it’s always the process. Stick to that process and results will definitely follow."

The future is certainly bright for Nihal Ullal. As an active player, he is still pursuing his own dreams while also shaping those of thousands of others in the state and the country.

(With key inputs from Sai Krishna, Featured Writer at Sportskeeda).

Looking for fast live cricket scores? Download CricRocket and get fast score updates, top-notch commentary in-depth match stats & much more! 🚀☄️

Quick Links

Edited by Sai Krishna
App download animated image Get the free App now