A rare fast bowler without any frills, Raju Kulkarni talks about his motivations, memorable performances and life after cricket.

His disarming smile floored the batsman even before a ball had been bowled. He bowled bouncers but did not glare at the recipient, nor did he jump around the field on claiming a wicket. For Rajeev Kulkarni, who came to be known as Raju, dismissing a batsman was part of a job that he had honed in the company of stalwarts like Sunil Gavaskar, Dilip Vengsarkar, Ashok Mankad, G. R. Viswanath, Mohinder Amarnath. Within a year of making his first-class debut in 1982, he was bowling in the Irani Cup for Rest of India. His talent had been recognised in quick time as Kulkarni made waves with his bowling assets.

On placid tracks, he worked up speed. “That’s the way I knew to bowl. To generate speed and keep the batsman on his toes,” said Kulkarni, who played his last first-class match in 1993 against Bihar at the Brabourne Stadium. That he went wicket-less in eight overs spread over two innings was a signal for him to take leave of the game he so loved.

“My cricket came to a halt suddenly. I was leading the side and looked for motivation to perform. I realised I had no chance of playing for India again. I was in the 1991 Asia Cup squad but did not get even one match. There was nothing to look forward to. It was a very tough decision but I did not want any frustration to creep into my life. I was 31 and it was time to move on. I am a very positive person and don’t blame anyone for playing so less at the international level. I have no ill-feelings towards anyone. Maybe, I would have crossed those hurdles if I was good enough. I wasn’t and I accepted it gracefully. I was probably born at the wrong time,” Kulkarni explained his final days in cricket.

His aggregate was three Tests and 10 ODIs, five wickets in Tests and ten in the shorter format. But he was consistently good in the 79 first-class matches where he claimed 232 wickets. Pravin Amre said in praise, “He was a rare fast bowler, bowling 140-plus. He had a good bouncer and an out-swinger that squared you up. Speed was his strong point and you had to concentrate on seeing him off. On helpful pitches, he was dangerous. He was the fastest in domestic cricket and it was his pace that earned him the India cap.” In the opinion of Delhi opener Manu Nayyar, who got two centuries against Bombay, Kulkarni was “very quick and had an intimidating line and length. You had to watch him very closely.”

Mumbai, then Bombay, did not have any great tradition for producing fast bowlers. Ramakant Desai was a classical bowler who tormented someone like Hanif Mohammad, the Pakistan great known for his excellent technique. “I always wanted to bowl fast and I knew I was the fastest around. I never got the new ball at any level (in junior cricket) but I was very confident with the old ball,” said Kulkarni. He was grateful to Desai, who would relate anecdotes to help him improve.

There was no money in cricket those days. You played cricket because it enabled you to land a decent job. In Mumbai, institutions like Mahindras, Tatas, Mafatlal recruited cricketers, providing them jobs or stipends. “Believe me, getting a job was the motivation to strive on the cricket field, our best source of income. We would get Rs.200 per day and that was the lone security we had. Half day of special leave to practice at the Wankhede Stadium and then go to Bombay House after lunch to attend to office. I must confess that office was as important as cricket because social security was important. We had to sign the register before 2 p.m. after a gruelling training.”

Kulkarni learnt his skills at the feet of Anna Vaidya, a revered coach in Mumbai circles. For guidance in fast bowling, he had Vasant Amladi, another coach of repute, known for his selfless service to the game. At 18, Kulkarni went to Mafatlal and became a student of former Test opener Ashok Mankad, who had gained lessons in cricket and life from his famous father, Vinoo Mankad.

“Kaka (Ashok Mankad) groomed me in the mental aspects of the game. I had so much to imbibe from the company of Sunil (Gavaskar), Dilip (Vengsarkar), Ravi (Shastri), Sandeep (Patil). It was a galaxy and such a huge privilege to have grown up in such fantastic atmosphere.” In fact, former Board president Madhavrao Scindia invited Kulkarni to play for Madhya Pradesh but he refused politely. “To play for any other state was unthinkable. Mr. Scindia waited for me but I just couldn’t get myself to play MP.”

Among his best matches, Kulkarni picks the ones against Delhi (1983) and South Zone (1984) as his favourites. Against Delhi, in only his fourth first-class match, he took eight for 111 on an unhelpful track to help Bombay enforce a follow-on. On a placid track again, he claimed six for 58 and three for 85 to help West trounce by an innings. Kulkarni’s victims included K. Srikkanth, Mohammad Azharuddin and Syed Kirmani. “I bowled at my fastest against South and enjoyed my domination.”

Kulkarni, 51, does not forget his sound grooming. “I come from a middle class family where values were never compromised. Today’s generation is very enterprising. I admire these kids. I love their attitude to prove their point. Cricketers of my generation were not so confident.”

Later, Kulkarni shifted to Tatas in 1984 when Mafatlal shut down the cricket team and finally quit the job in 1996. “I was always interested in business.” Kulkarni had set up a sports good shop (1990) in Shivaji Park. One shop became two and he was soon into manufacturing garments under the brand name of Supremo.

“I started my own unit and concentrated on my work. It was a very different field I know. I was told that a cricketer can’t become a businessman. Self pride and aggression have to be set aside when doing business and I was willing to do it. I am glad it worked.” At the 2011 World Cup, within three days before the final, his company manufactured 3000 T-shirts for the BCCI. “We make apparel for golf and cricket.”

Kulkarni has built his factory in Kalyan and moved to a swanky office-cum-workshop in Prabhadevi. He spends 12 hours in office. “More than what I spent on the cricket field in a day,” he laughs. His life revolves around wife (Sharmila), son (Varun) and daughter (Reeva). He watches cricket on and off with his son. “I am a cricketer at heart.”