The name Nilesh Kulkarni reminds us of a cricketing feat of taking a wicket off the very first delivery of his Test career (against Sri Lanka at Colombo in 1997). He was the first Indian to achieve that. Post that, his international career did not go in the direction that he would have hoped for. Nevertheless, the left-arm spinner remained a stalwart for the Mumbai Ranji team till his retirement in 2010.
At present, he is creating records in a different territory. He opened a sports management institute – International Institute of Sports Management (IISM) in Mumbai which has been producing professionals for a decade now. This year, the institute was awarded the Rashtriya Khel Protsahan Puraskar by the President of India.
In a chat, he took us through his journey of wearing different hats as a cricketer and as an entrepreneur.
You have come a long way from being the first Indian to take a Test wicket off your first delivery to the IISM winning the Rashtriya Khel Protsahan Puraskar. How has the journey been?
Thanks, it has been absolutely brilliant. You have to first unlearn a few things that you learnt as a cricketer before you start something like an institute as this is a completely different ball game. But the beauty is that all the management lessons like leadership, man management, critical and analytical thinking are part of your lifestyle as a player. Without having a formal education, you tend to practice these on the cricket field. The most important part of the journey has been learning from the failures. I believe in former President APJ Abdul Kalam’s definition of FAIL - First Attempt in Learning.
When you say unlearn things that you learnt as a cricketer, what do you exactly mean by that?
Not in a negative sense, but as a sportsman you tend to have a different ego and perspective. In business, you have to see the perspective of the other person as well to arrive at a logical solution for the organization. While playing, many of those decisions are made in the spur of the moment, but in business first, you have to understand before you give that decision.
Going back to your playing days, when did you think that you could represent India?
The BCA Mafatlal Scheme under Sir Frank Tyson was a very critical step in my life. He give me an analytical perspective. Slowly I progressed to junior cricket to company cricket and then to the Mumbai Ranji team. I was confident when I broke into the Mumbai team as I had plenty of wickets under my belt. Likewise, when I had two-three brilliant seasons in my initial years, it gave me the confidence that I could play for India. The only way you can think about playing for the country is either by getting wickets or scoring runs and I had got many wickets.
Can you talk through your first delivery in Test cricket and Marvan Atapattu’s dismissal?
After Sachin (Tendulkar) declared in the last session of Day Two, the Sri Lankans began well. In fact, I was not supposed to bowl on that day. Usually, the captain lets you know in advance so that you start warming up and I had not got any indication. So, I was casually moving from my fielding position. As luck would have it, suddenly Sachin came and told, ‘Nilesh come and bowl.’ This was probably because Marvan (a right-hander) was on strike. As I was getting to the umpire, he told me to start the over within a minute otherwise it will be the end of the day. So, then I went through all my motions very quickly without having the time to prepare. My only focus was to land the ball in the right place so that I should not look like an idiot in my debut ball. Thankfully, it did, Marvan nicked it and Nayan Mongia took a brilliant catch. It became a great story for me. To be honest, I did not know about the record and was only happy that I got a wicket. After the day’s play, I was in the nets preparing for the next day. Then all the Indian journalists started congratulating me and said that it is part of a record. That’s when it hit me. It was a very satisfying moment.
Four years later you made a comeback in that famous Test against Australia at Chennai 2001. You were the last man remaining in the dressing room when the winning runs were hit. Any memories from that match?
Well, I was sitting on a pressure cooker. Every senior member would just came and say that I had to hang around like I had done in the first innings. At that point of time, my weight was around 80 Kgs, but with the pressure, I felt as though it was 240 Kgs (laughs). In those days, the dressing room in Chennai just had an open barricading between the crowd and the pavilion. A couple of guys just started shouting to not repeat the 1986 tied Test (when the last man dismissed was also a left-arm spinner, Maninder Singh) and said ‘Nilesh you have to do it.’ All those thoughts started hitting me. But the brilliant effort of Sameer Dighe and Harbhajan Singh ensured that I didn’t have to go out to bat.
Generally, former cricketers venture into commentary, coaching or administration post retirement. What prompted you to pursue a sports management institute?
The trigger was the Indian Premier League (IPL). After a contract was given to IMG UK to manage the IPL, I was thinking that why can’t we find 100-200 professionals in India for the same. The answer was that there was no formal sports management education available in India at that point of time. So, here was an opportunity. Then fortunately or unfortunately, I did not get an IPL contract. So, I was thinking about retirement anyway and this became my next passion. But it was very tough. At that point it was ahead of its time. We didn’t have content available for a formal sports management education, so it took up a while. I failed many times and learnt from it.
Do you think the BCCI and the other state boards in India are ready to take in professionals as administrators?
Yes, why not. What you are probably seeing is at the senior level, but at the grassroot level change is happening. Not only in cricket, but across all federations, the change is fairly evident. Every time I go to a federation or a Sports Authority of India (SAI) centre, I see a lot of our ex-students working there. For me, that’s the most satisfying thing. In fact, the other day when I went for the awards function at the Mantralaya, one of my ex-student (part of SAI) received me. When you see these kinds of things, you feel that you have done something right. The advantage is that the industry is growing and opportunities are getting created.
As you said, the growth of so many sporting leagues has created the need for professionals to manage the events. While, many question the influence that IPL has had on cricket, what’s your take on it?
The global practices in the business of sports works on annual properties. In the form of IPL, India got its first annual sports property. As many as 20,000 to 25,000 people get engaged with one event like IPL. Also, after IPL, many other national leagues have come up. It gives an opportunity to aspiring professionals to make a career in sports. Overall, the impact of business of sports through IPL is huge. Why I am separating the two is that I am not speaking on behalf of the players. I am talking about people who are not players.
What are the future plans that you have with IISM?
Right now, the focus is on improving. For the last few years, IISM has focussed on research work. We have published 18-20 knowledge reports in last year and a half and many more are in the pipeline. We have our own Research Journal. These are the things that we have taken as our institute’s vision. Expansion is also on our horizon, hopefully there would be an announcement soon.
Bowling to Steve Waugh or leading IISM? Which one excites you more?
In cricket, one doesn’t have retakes, so bowling to Steve Waugh would obviously be more challenging. In my business, I still have a second chance. In cricket, if someone hits you for a six it’s gone. But obviously, as a cricketer, you know that you have to retire at some time, you should always set goals for yourself even after you finish playing. For me, I always maintain one thing, that I love my Mondays now that I am into my work environment. For me that is an exciting part, it is my oxygen which keeps me going.