Left Arm Over – From Rags to Riches | Natarajan's tryst with miracles
Thangarasu Natarajan's journey has not been a direct flight from obscurity to fame, but instead, one with unscheduled stops, delayed departures, even a crash landing, along the way.
Thangarasu Natarajan. A year ago he was barely known outside Tamil Nadu–where he made waves under the captaincy of R Ashwin for Dindigul Dragons. Today, he is a household name in Indian cricket. The 29 -year-old left-arm medium pacer has literally been a game-changer in the recent past, with his dead-accurate yorkers winning matches for Sunrisers Hyderabad in the death overs of IPL 2020. As a result of his admirable opportunism on the field of play and a few fortuitous circumstances (read injuries to other bowlers), he stands poised to make his Test debut for India in the foreseeable future.
Incredibly, Natarajan's first promotion in an astounding career graph – growing from a pay packet of Rs. 5,000 a month to a Rs. 3 crore IPL contract ‒ has not been the sole miracle in an astounding career graph. It has turned out to be the first in a series of logic-defying breakthroughs.
For Natarajan, the eldest of five children born at Chinnappampatti near Salem to a powerloom weaver and his street-corner fast food vendor-wife, it has been a fairytale ascent from rural tennis ball cricket to brilliant performances in IPL 2020 and T20Is and ODIs for India, and a possible berth in the Indian Test team in the foreseeable future. The distinction nearly came his way in the Sydney Test on January 7 after he replaced the injured Umesh Yadav in the squad. It has however not been a direct flight from obscurity to fame, but instead, a journey with unscheduled stops, delayed departures, even a crash landing, along the way.
Wiry, slightly built, five foot nine inches-tall Natarajan strikes a positive note every time he runs in ever so smoothly left arm over the wicket, to angle the ball away from the right-hand batsman. Disarmingly, whenever someone asks him to spill the secret of his proclivity for yorkers of pin-point accuracy, Natarajan invariably says," Tennis ball cricket."
If the recent Test debutant of subaltern background, Mohammed Siraj, was 21 years old before he graduated from tennis ball to cricket ball cricket, Natarajan was only marginally younger at 20 when he made the successful transition. We all know that cricket eventually became Natarajan's ticket to liberation from poverty, that his "anna" AK Jaiprakash ‒ not a relative ‒ shepherded him from village to village, town to town, as a 'contract' player for a fee of maybe a hundred rupees an appearance. We know that the keen talent-spotting eye of Virendra Sehwag was responsible for Kings XI Punjab buying him for three crore rupees in the IPL auction of 2017.
Natarajan moved to Chennai with Jaiprakash's help in 2011. Starting with the BSNL Club, he made steady progress in the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association league, playing for India Cements sponsored teams in the second and first divisions before he was picked up in June 2014 by Jolly Rovers CC, the iconic team sponsored by the Sanmar Group. An apocryphal story has it that when the club offered him a package of Rs.50,000 pm, Natarajan, happily accepted it believing the sum to be his annual remuneration. At Jolly Rovers, he flourished under the caring supervision of the team management which included well known former cricketers Bharath Reddy, Ajay Kudua and Jaikumar.
If the magnum IPL contract was the first miracle to happen to Natarajan, being reported for an illegal bowling action and kept out of cricket until he corrected it was a brutal knockout punch. He even wondered if he would have to go back to his village forgoing his monthly salary from Jolly Rovers. But the team kept its faith in him and supported him through the year-long ordeal of correction. Once he successfully achieved the near-impossible feat, he returned to action in style, with the yorker firmly in place.
Natarajan never did get to play a match for Kings XI but he stayed the course without losing heart, coming into his own with his splendid showing for the Dindigul Dragons, eventually getting picked by Sunrisers Hyderabad and rubbing shoulders with the likes of skipper David Warner, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Kane Williamson. His outstanding display of left-arm medium pace bowling, especially his yorker magic in the death overs, made him the most popular player of the team. Originally chosen as a net bowler for the tour, Natarajan has already won matches for India in the white ball phase of the ongoing tour of Australia. He has not only put his village on the world cricket map, but he has also already started 'paying forward' by training young aspirants at his academy, with a special focus on the underprivileged who do not have to pay a fee.
Natarajan is perhaps the only India cricketer to speak Tamil in pressers and one-on-one interviews, but he sprinkles English words freely and aptly across these interactions. He comes through as a confident but self-effacing young man with an engaging smile and a good word for each of his mentors and motivators. With all the training facilities on offer, he should be able to build muscle and gain pace. An increase in pace, if accompanied by the ability to swing the ball, will make him an effective Test bowler, at least as a third seamer in the pack.
Many Tamil Nadu cricketers have gone on to represent India. Natarajan has a marvellous opportunity to do his state, coach and seniors proud. A lot of cricket is played in the mind and Natarajan will look to conquer his opposition with body and soul.