Kapil Dev calls him “My Hero.” V. V. S. Laxman is convinced India has found a “confident” bowler. Fans are loving his controlled aggression. Yes, T. Natarajan, the smiling assassin, is the bowler to celebrate ahead of the Test series against Australia.
Without wanting to compare, there are shades of Irfan Pathan and R. P. Singh; both left-armers had arrived with a bang. Pakistan great Wasim Akram would have loved working with Natarajan because such bowlers always excited him. Bowlers who could rattle the batsmen with a bouncer, yorker or the one that slants away.
Remember the dismissal of AB de Villiers during the Indian Premier League (IPL) recently when Natarajan got the ball to leave the in-form batsman, who ended up edging the ball. That was Natarajan at his peak.
The left-arm medium-fast bowler from Salem in Tamil Nadu has impressed one and all. From assisting parents (Thangarasu and Shantha) run a roadside stall in Chinnappampatti, a village 30 km outside Salem, playing tennis-ball cricket barefoot, to donning the India cap, it is a fantastic story.
A friend, Jayaprakash, took him to Chennai where former India wicketkeeper Bharat Reddy, welcome the boy with open arms at the Jolly Rogers Club. “I like players who come from a tough background because they work hard to achieve their goals. Also, they face the challenges better having gone through the harsh realities of life,” Reddy said.
‘Terrific role model’
Reddy lost no time in creating the support system for Natarajan. He was drafted into Sanmar, a company that has provided work opportunities to 30 Test players. “I must thank S. Sankar for supporting Natarajan, who to me is a terrific role model. His work culture is great and is able to learn his lessons quickly.”
So, Natarajan earned a place in Dindigul Dragons in the Tamil Nadu Premier League (TNPL) in 2016 and the next year got into Kings XI Punjab for a whopping sum of ₹3 crore. Natarajan stayed humble and used the money to set up an academy. He was on the right track.
But his world had almost crashed when he was reported for suspect bowling action in his first season for Tamil Nadu in 2015. This was a very tough phase for Natarajan but he found a mentor in former India off-spinner M. Venkataramana at the SRM –run institute of science and technology.
“We worked on his action,” said Venkataramana. “He lost a season but worked diligently on his action. He was reasonably fine when he came to us. I knew him as a special bowler in the TNPL where he would come and bowl the tough overs. He was known to bowl the crucial overs and was always used to check the flow of runs. He has improved so much in the last one year. If he can bowl the one that comes in he would be a lethal bowler.”
Natarajan’s first request when he graduated to play competitive cricket was “proper boots.” Imagine his mindset when he was dropped even by Salem following the suspect action episode. “It can be tough for anyone. But not for Natarajan. He utilised the time to become strong mentally. See how he worked during the Lockdown period with the limited facilities he had at home,” added Venkataramana.
The best thing to have happened to Natarajan was being picked by Sunrisers Hyderabad. True, he did not play the first two seasons but this edition of IPL ensured that the 29-year-old left-armer did justice to his talent, courtesy Laxman.
“He is such an inspiration,” Laxman told Sportstar. “He fought back injury to create his own dreams and achieve them. I have seen him bowl the tough overs, especially the death overs. He had to sit out the 2019 IPL because we had Bhuvneshwar (Kumar), Sandeep (Sharma), Siddharth (Kaul) and Khaleel (Ahmed). But believe me he did not lose his focus.”
Laxman continued, “He never missed a training session. He was the most enthusiastic member at the nets, bowling endlessly. He would be first at the gym session, nets session, completing his drills. During matches, the first man out of the dugout. He has been brilliant. The blockhole ball makes him special. The margin of error is less when you bowl the bouncer and yorker but Natarajaran is phenomenal. His dedication, too, is amazing. In the last IPL, he would come to bowl even on the off days and finally I had to tell him ‘you will not come to the ground. We want you fresh.’ He is a level-headed bowler and I was so happy when he was added as a nets bowler for the Australian tour and finally when he was picked following the injury to Varun. I am sure Natarajan will emerge a standout bowler of the tour.”
V. V. S. Laxman…“I am sure Natarajan will emerge a standout bowler of the tour.”
During the Lockdown at home, Natarajan devised innovative training methods. Carrying water cans on his shoulders to gain strength. “What I like is that he is a very patient listener, respects the seniors, is down to earth. I am sure he can become an asset in the coming season.”
The spell at Sydney proved that Kapil was right in calling him his “hero” and the bowler living up to the expectations of Jayaprakash, Reddy, Venkataramana and Laxman. Last but not the least, the backing from the National selectors!