Abey Kuruvilla is congratulated by his team-mates after taking a wicket

We'll always have 1997: all of Kuruvilla's ten Tests and 25 ODIs came that year

Gemunu Amarasinghe / © Associated Press

Hate to Love

When Abey Kuruvilla reached for the sky

He was a tall boy with big dreams. He took his neighbourhood along for the ride

Deepti Unni  |  

May, high summer in Bombay, the air so thick with moisture every movement is like wading through soup. On a narrow strip of road, two gangling boys face off - tall, so tall. The taller of the two raises his arm, his fist seemingly disappearing into the clouds, and a missile comes scudding in from a great height. You don't see it; you only know it's there because it's found the batsman at the other end, who shies. The ball whangs off hot asphalt and heads for the nearest window. Thankfully it is protected by a grille. Even so, voices are raised. Not for long though, because tall boy's winding his arm up again. And again.

Abey Kuruvilla could do this all day. And he does. Never mind the yelling neighbours; ten years later they'd be yelling for him, not at him. And they did. For one year in the late '90s the lives of the residents of Shell Colony, a sticks-in-the-city backwater of Chembur, Mumbai, would revolve around his exploits on the field. It's all we would think about, talk about… he was, after all, incredibly, unimaginably, one of us.

And just as quickly it would all be over.

Mention Kuruvilla's name to an old resident of the colony today and there's a pause - a what-could-have-been space. For me, it opens up a tiny hollow in the heart, a back-of-the-throat-bitterness I have ashamedly carried into adulthood. You see, for much of my childhood I had a front-row seat to his talent, perched on the boundary wall of my grandmother's house, watching him bowl to my uncle, both just out of their teens, both six-footers, dreaming of playing for India one day, as boys do idly.

Shell Colony was a middle- and low-income neighbourhood, predominantly South Indian, and a great place to grow up in as a cricket-obsessed boy. Built originally to house employees of the erstwhile Burmah-Shell corporation in the 1950s, the colony, about half a kilometre across, housed two sprawling grounds where a minimum of ten cricket matches were on simultaneously at any time of the day. But it was also a good place to find bad company. In the early '80s it was an adda for gangster Abdul Kunju, sworn enemy of upcoming don Chhota Rajan, who operated just beyond the railway tracks, in Tilak Nagar. Kunju himself was a sports enthusiast and cricketer - an excellent allrounder, residents will tell you, handy with the bat, deadly with the gat - who met his end in 1985 on one of these very cricket grounds, gunned down during a volleyball match by Chhota Rajan's men. Bad company in Shell Colony meant running with the gangs, and cricket kept a lot of boys out of trouble.

Full length, full tilt: Kuruvilla, all six feet five inches of him, in action in the Toronto Cup in 1997

Full length, full tilt: Kuruvilla, all six feet five inches of him, in action in the Toronto Cup in 1997 © Getty Images

Cricket consumed Kuruvilla; fast bowling was all he wanted to do. He roamed the colony with bat and tennis ball all times of the day, trying to find someone to play with. He was raw pace and height then, pure intimidation, with an action that to my uncle was reminiscent of Michael Holding's. His yorkers were things of beauty, and fatal inevitability. The younger boys were terrified of his bouncers - my youngest uncle, then just a four-footer, caught one on the jaw. To hear him say it, he packed his bags and left to join the navy the next day - a life facing torpedoes in the water was preferable to facing Kuruvilla's missiles on land (he claims he never played cricket again). Kuruvilla played every local match he found, graduating eventually to "night cricket" matches organised by a small-time political aspirant, contested between Mumbai localities under jerry-rigged lights. It was the closest we had to club cricket.

But no one really knew he aspired to play seriously until, out of seemingly nowhere, he showed up in the 1990-91 Ranji Trophy final for Bombay against Haryana - that legendary final. He wasn't the same gully cricketer he'd been a few months before: at the end of 1990 he had joined Frank Tyson's Bombay Cricket Association-Mafatlal Fast Bowling Scheme and emerged a fast-medium bowler with a more controlled action but the same accuracy. He had been plucked from the camp, and picked by Sanjay Manjrekar to make his debut in the final, and picked up four wickets in the first innings. And when, in the dying overs, Dilip Vengsarkar collapsed in a crying heap after Kuruvilla played one to short fine leg and was run out with three runs needed to win, it didn't matter that Bombay lost. Not to us in Shell Colony. Because here was redemption. Abey Kuruvilla was going to save us from ourselves. We had begun to dream.

Any minute now he was going to break into the Indian team, we thought. Fifty-one first-class wickets - 35 in Ranji alone - in his first full season in 1991-92, surely that merited a call up to the national team? India's South Africa tour came and went, no call-up. In 1992-93, he picked up his best bowling figures of 6 for 61 against Gujarat. He was part of the winning Ranji squads of 1993-94 and 1994-95. Still no call-up. By 1997, Kuruvilla was approaching 30 and the dream had begun to fray at the edges.

Then, unexpectedly, it happened. With Javagal Srinath sitting the tour out with a rotator cuff injury, Kuruvilla was called up for India's series in the West Indies. He picked up four wickets in his debut Test, Brian Lara and Carl Hooper among them. Firecrackers went off in the neighbourhood, and would for the rest of the year every time Kuruvilla took a wicket. In the third Test, he picked up his first international five-for, but despite needing only 120 runs to win in the second innings, the batting collapsed in a heap. Sachin Tendulkar may remember it as the lowest point of his captaincy; for us it was the best of times. Kuruvilla's best ODI bowling figures came at the SSC a few months later, but the match is seared into my memory for the unexpected six he hoicked off Sanath Jayasuriya - in my schoolgirl memory it was the six that won the match, but of course India lost it by nine runs.

Coulda been a contender: with Saba Karim at an awards show in 2018

Coulda been a contender: with Saba Karim at an awards show in 2018 Anshuman Poyrekar / © Hindustan Times/Getty Images

And just as suddenly, our annus mirabilis was over. A middling tour of Pakistan, and a rising Ajit Agarkar meant India suddenly had no use for Kuruvilla. He didn't fade away as much as get erased clean out of existence, or so it felt. He never spoke up about being dropped - in life as in cricket, he came at everything with deep equanimity. But to teenage me it felt unforgivable. That he should spend his entire life in pursuit of that one thing, and he should let it so treacherously, so casually, be taken away - how could you not rage? How could you not fight it with every fibre of your being? How could this boy who was to be our hero take away the stories we would tell our grandkids?

In hindsight I realise with not a little shame that we felt entitled to his success. He put in the work and the countless hours and we wanted to reap the fruits. Never mind that we knew nothing of the backroom politics of Indian cricket, or what he had really been through. For a short while he had made us, a tiny colony of ne'er-do-wells and unremarkables, believe that we could rise above mediocrity and aspire to anything at all.

Shell Colony, as it was, is long gone, the squat row-houses swapped for faceless high-rises, sunlight barely reaching the streets too busy now for cricket. And it hasn't produced another name of note since. My anger at what could have been has faded to sorrow at what should have been. There was never any hate - no one could ever hate soft-spoken, unfailingly polite, ever-smiling Abey Kuruvilla - but there is lingering regret that we lost our chance to have our first Malayalee cricket superstar in him. Instead we got Sreesanth, but that's the subject of a whole other Hate to Love.

Deepti Unni is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo