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Vol. XXX No. 19, February 1-15, 2021

Toe-crushing yorker specialist who makes his presence felt

by V. Ramnarayan

A year ago, Thangarasu Natarajan was barely known outside Tamil Nadu; today, he is a household name in Indian cricket. Who would have thought a young man who went to Australia as a net bowler for the Indian team would end up winning matches for the side in all three formats of the game? Yet that is exactly what happened with Natarajan, whose first innings spell (3 for 78) at the Gabba, Brisbane, played a key role in India’s stunning victory that clinched the series 2-1 against the Aussies – a success hailed the world over as the greatest Indian rope trick in the history of the game. The team’s brilliant win at Melbourne and stirring draw at Sydney came at a time when India had lost her key frontline bowlers to injuries, the captain had returned home on paternity leave and the team had crashed to 36 all out in the second innings of the Adelaide series opener.

Natarajan has been a game-changer in the past, with his dead-accurate yorkers winning matches for Sunrisers Hyderabad in the death overs of IPL 2020. As a result of his talent and a few fortuitous circumstances (read injuries to other bowlers), he made his debut for India in T20, ODI and Test cricket – all within the space of a couple of months during a single tour of down under. Like his colleague Washington Sundar, one of the unexpected architects of the now famous Brisbane victory, he too entered the daunting Gabba arena (where the home team had been unconquered for more than three decades) with no Test cricket experience under his belt – Natarajan came in to replace the injured Umesh Yadav in the squad.

For Natarajan, the eldest child born at Chinnappampatti near Salem to a power loom weaver and his mobile food vendor wife, it has been a fairytale ascent from rural tennis ball cricket to a possible berth in the Indian Test team in the foreseeable future. His journey from obscurity to fame was not smooth; there were quite a few unscheduled stops, delayed departures and 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.”

Mohammed Siraj, the other recent Test debutant of subaltern background, was 21 years old when he graduated from tennis ball to cricket ball cricket; Natarajan was only marginally younger when he made the transition at 20. We all know that cricket eventually became Natarajan’s ticket to liberation from poverty – his anna A.K. Jaiprakash (not a relative) shepherded him across villages and towns as a ‘contract’ player for a fee of perhaps a hundred rupees an appearance. 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. Apparently, 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. 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 press meets and one-on-one interviews, but he sprinkles English words freely 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 supporters. The hero’s welcome he received in Salem and his appearances on national TV & social media have already made him a national star.

He may now be a third or fourth pace bowler in the Test team, but knowing Natarajan’s work ethic, the next miracle is just waiting round the corner. He will surely strain every nerve to add enough pace, swing and seam variations to become one of the leaders of the pack.

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