Rise of the Hinterland Hero | Chennai News


Chennai: The MS Dhoni success story in the first decade of the 2000s marked the rise of the small-town hero in Indian cricket. Before him there was Kapil Dev who came from Chandigarh and took the world by storm in the 1970s and 80s, but it was after Dhoni that there was a consistent rise in the number of cricketers in the Indian team from outside the metro cities.
Tamil Nadu has produced a steady stream of cricketers who went on to play for India, but it won’t be too far from the truth if we say that it was the Chennai boys who ruled the roost. From S Venkataraghavan to R Ashwin — there have been innumerable TN superstars, but we will need a magnifying glass to find how many came from interiors of the state (not Kancheepuram, Tiruvallur or Chengalpet that are virtually extensions of Chennai).
And that’s where the rise of left-arm pacer T Natarajan becomes such a riveting story. Before Natarajan it was only M Venkataramana, an offspinner from Madurai, who played for India. And about 40 years before him, it was Kannayiram, again from Madurai, who went to the West Indies with the Indian team, but never played an official Test match. So, the rise of Natarajan, who comes from a modest background in Salem, is in many ways a game-changer for Tamil Nadu cricket. A lanky boy, who was a tennis ball cricketer till he was 19, has suddenly brought in a new wave of excitement and hope among all those youngsters who think making it big in city cricket is a bridge too far. “Natarajan has opened an academy in Salem where talented boys can train for free. It’s a huge step for the game in that part of Tamil Nadu and things are really looking up,” says Tamil Nadu Cricket Association secretary R Ramasaamy, who is also from Salem.
But why did it take so long for the boys from TN’s heartland to make it big? V Ramnarayan, a former first-class player and a cricket historian, feels lack of infrastructure and exposure were the impediments. “There were definitely some talented players in the districts, but they often lacked proper guidance and training. And in the 1970s and 1980s, it was more difficult for boys from modest backgrounds to take the risk of trying to make a career in cricket,” Ramnarayan says, adding that TNCA has played a big role in taking the game to the towns of TN.
Venkataramana, who played a Test match against West Indies in 1988-89, explains how difficult it was for a district boy to play cricket in TNCA league and be noticed in those days. “The biggest issue was the expenses of staying in Chennai. I was lucky that a corporate firm took care of my expenses, but for many others it was not possible to stay in Chennai and play the league and so they had to drop out,” he says. Still there were the likes of R Madhavan and M Senthilnathan from the districts, who knocked the doors of the Indian selection. “When we were playing, there were hardly any turf wickets other than Chennai. Add to that absence of good coaching and lack of exposure. It was difficult to get noticed,” says Venkataramana.
But with more corporate backing in the 1990s and 2000s, players could believe they could take a chance. And then of course, there came the IPL that, in many ways, democratised Indian cricket. “It brought about a change of mindset. IPL, and consequently state T20 leagues like TNPL which are live on TV, made people believe that there can be a decent career in cricket. When people started enjoying the games in their own backyard, as is the case with TNPL where most matches are played in Dindigul and Tirunelveli, they also began to believe they could be a part of it,” Ramaasamy says.
Natarajan, too, is very much a product of the TNPL. He made a mark for himself in the first year with his lethal yorkers playing for Dindigul Dragons. Consequently the 29-year-old whose father is a weaver and mother runs a chicken stall, was picked up by IPL franchises Kings XI Punjab and Sunrisers Hyderabad for big money and in no time, he turned from the boy-next-door to a star. “But, before that, he, too, had to go through that phase where had to take the risk of coming to the city and staying in Chennai. He found a mentor in Jayprakash, who brought him to Chennai and helped him find a base,” says the TNCA secretary. Natarajan had a problem with his action too, which had to be corrected. “He went through all the phases that a cricketer with hardly any backing from the districts can face to reach where he is today. That’s why he is such a role model for youngsters,” says Venkataramana. It’s for his followers to learn the meaning of perseverance from their hero and take the next big step.


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