One of the setbacks that India suffered while making a surprise comeback to win the second Test of the ongoing series against Australia at the Melbourne Cricket Ground was the injury suffered by Umesh Yadav. Though the Indian victory showed the resilience of the side to take the absence of a lead fast bowler in their stride, it opened up questions about who should replace him. The squad had left for Australia without Ishant Sharma, their most experienced campaigner and Mohammed Shami, who had looked the sharpest among the pacers during the first Test, was forced to return home due to a injury suffered during the match. The Indian selectors did not have to look afar as accompanying the Indian squad was a quiet and reserved left-arm fast bowler, whose performances with in the white-ball series had lifted the morale and resolve of the national side after a poor start to the one-day series.
It would be an understatement to say that Thangarasu Natarajan was the find of the Indian Premier League (IPL) 2020 season. Though he made his debut in Ranji Trophy in 2015 for his home state of Tamil Nadu, he had not exactly set the stage on fire with his performances in first-class cricket as could be seen from his tally of 64 wickets in 20 games with only three five-wicket hauls in an innings. But he showed an amazing ability to bowl well-directed yorkers, which made him an asset in limited overs cricket. He was bought by Kings XI Punjab for Rs 3 crore ahead of IPL 2017 but he had a very average season picking up only two wickets in six matches, with an economy rate of 9.07. He moved to Sunrisers Hyderabad in 2018 and, after couple of barren seasons, struck it rich during IPL 2020, finishing with 16 wickets at an economy rate of 8.02. So impressive was his performance that the Board for Control of Cricket in India (BCCI) named him as one of the four additional bowlers to travel with the national team to Australia. Lady luck smiled on him when Varun Chakravarty was forced to pull out of the T20 International squad with an injury, leading to Natarajan being drafted into the side. When Navdeep Saini sprained his back prior to the first ODI in Australia, Natarajan was added to the ODI team also. He made his debut in the third ODI and returned figures of 2/70 off his full quota of 10 overs.
Thus, by the time the T20Is started, Natarajan had got over the jitters of wearing the national colours for the first time. This showed in his performance as he came into his own and contributed substantially to his side’s success in the first two games. In the first match, he picked up three wickets, including those of dangerman Glen Maxwell and opener D’Arcy Short, while conceding only 30 runs. In the next encounter, he was in splendid form conceding only 20 runs off 4 overs, besides taking two wickets even as Aussies piled up a total of 194. In other words, he managed an economy rate of 5 when all other bowlers conceded in excess of 10 runs per over! This was what prompted Hardik Pandya, who was awarded the man of the match, to state openly that Natarajan was the more deserving candidate for this prize. In the last game where India went down by 11 runs, he again had the best economy rate, conceding 33 runs in 4 overs.
Natarajan’s sudden rise to prominence is more remarkable due to the background he hails from and the paths he has traversed to reach where he is at present. He was born in Chinnappampatti village in Salem district in Tamil Nadu as the eldest of the five children to his parents. Thangarasu, his father, worked as a weaver in a power loom unit while his mother Santha ran a small food joint near the house to help make ends meet. He studied in the government school in his village and it was while playing in the local matches that he caught the eye of Jayaprakash, who ran the local cricket club. Impressed by the lively pace that Natarajan generated, Jayaprakash took him under his wings and motivated the youngster to pursue the game seriously and aim high.
Starting out with playing in the lowly fourth division in the Chennai local league matches, Natarajan moved his way up the ladder and made it to the state side for Ranji Trophy during the 2014-15 season. It was his performances in the Tamil Nadu Premier League (TNPL) that caught the attention of talent scouts and cleared his way for reaching the auction tables of IPL. However, he was in for a period of poor luck after his first season in first-class cricket as his action was found to be suspect and he had to undergo a period of rehabilitation to correct the flaws therein. Later, after his debut season in IPL, which ended with little to show for the high amount he commanded at the auction, he needed a surgery on his left elbow. This was followed by two years in the dugout of the Hyderabad franchisee without getting a chance to play, till the fortunes were reversed this year.
In the Indian cricket system as it existed prior to the dawn on this century, cricketers born in certain cities held a distinct advantage. As the game was brought to the country by British, it was not surprising that its growth during the initial years was centred around Presidencies, cantonment areas and princely states that supported it. This placed cricketers from smaller towns and other localities at a great disadvantage, which continued even after the country became independent. Further, administrators invariably came from the large cities and most of the matches, both international and domestic, were also played there. Hence the game was practically non existent in the villages and towns before the event of live television in the early 1980s. Even after that, cricketers outside the big cities were forced to cross many a steep hurdle before they could catch the attention of even the state selection committee. This was particularly true for states like Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, where Chennai and Bangalore held absolute command over all cricketing activities and players from other parts, derisively referred to as the “districts”, had to work twice as hard and perform at much high levels than his compatriots from the “city” to win the attention of the selectors.
However, things have changed considerably during the last two decades with more players and administrators from smaller states and districts winning recognition at national levels. Here, one must congratulate the BCCI and the state associations who worked hard to improve the infrastructure required for the conduct of the game and improve its popularity across the country. The state level Premier Leagues have been good platforms for players to showcase their potential in the same manner that IPL helped cricketers to gain faster access to the big stage. Players like Natarajan are products of this system which has been working exceptionally well in unearthing talents from the grassroots level.
Natarajan has demonstrated to the cricketing world by his rise from the hamlet of Chinnappampatti to the national squad that there exists no glass ceilings in Indian cricket. While congratulating Natarajan on his success, let us also hope that his career inspires more players from such backgrounds to emulate him and follow his footsteps. It was Mahatma Gandhi who famously said that India lives in her seven hundred thousand villages. Natarajan’s accomplishment has the potential to shift the future of Indian cricket from the cities to the villages.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)