We'll build this thing together: (From right) T Natarajan with Washington Sundar and mentor A Jayaprakash at the Natarajan Cricket Ground, Chinnappampatti
We'll build this thing together: (From right) T Natarajan with Washington Sundar and mentor A Jayaprakash at the Natarajan Cricket Ground, Chinnappampatti
Natarajan's emergence from his village and his circumstances was remarkable enough. Now he's trying to make sure others do too
Chinnappampatti in Tamil Nadu was undetectable on most maps until T Natarajan put it there with his searing yorkers in the IPL and for India. To reach the village, about 375km inland from Chennai, it takes me an overnight train to the nearest city, Salem, from the railway station a bus to the Five Roads intersection, and from there a taxi to the Omalur bus station, from where Mani, a childhood friend of Natarajan's, picks me up. Chinnappampatti is about 20km from Omalur.
It is a laid-back village, cut off from the hustle and bustle of industrial Salem, with Tamil hit songs of the 1980s and '90s blaring from radios and speakers. There are just two schools in Chinnappampatti, one of them the government school Natarajan studied at. If you can afford to go to college, you need to travel to Salem, Omalur, or the nearby temple town of Tharamangalam.
The heat in Chinnappampatti is more oppressive than Chennai's, and the electricity is wonky - there is a power outage when I visit Natarajan's new home, perhaps the only two-storey house in the village. You enter the living room to a trophy collection, ranging from the ones Natarajan won in local tennis-ball tournaments to some from the IPL. Above the trophy cabinet are framed pictures special to him: with Virender Sehwag, who prompted Kings XI Punjab to fork out Rs 3 crore (about US$454,000) for him in the 2017 IPL auction, with MS Dhoni, Sachin Tendulkar, Yuvraj Singh.
Less than a kilometre away from this house, on Jalakandapuram Road, stands a one-room shack, which can barely accommodate Natarajan's trophies, let alone his family. But this is where Natarajan used to live with his four siblings - Thilakavathi, Tamilarasi, Mekala and Shakthi - and parents Thangarasu and Shantha. There were days the family slept on empty stomachs on the mud floor.
In his home town with T Natarajan
In his home town with T Natarajan
Now, as we enter the tin-roof shack, Natarajan is mobbed by villagers. Teenagers ask for selfies. Natarajan, dressed in a red T-shirt and grey track pants, acknowledges them all as they click. In front of the shack is a poster for Valimai, starring Ajith Kumar, one of the biggest stars in Tamil cinema. But there is no bigger star in Chinnappampatti than Natarajan, or Left-u Mani [Left-arm Mani] as he was known in Salem's tennis-ball circuit back in the day.
"Including my grandmother, eight of my family members used to live in this one room," Natarajan recalls. "Mann tharai thaan [Mud-floor only].
"This second-hand fan is still running," he laughs. "There is no bathroom, so one had to use the common bathroom. There used to be thorny bushes near the house and anything can come in. I have even slept on the road; back then this Jalakandapuram Road was narrow and there weren't too many vehicles. There was no guarantee for safety. I still can't believe that we somehow grew up here. Time just flies."
Across the road is the Up to Date Salon, a barbershop where Natarajan used to spend his time as a kid. It was where he watched TV, since his family couldn't afford one. When there was no power at home, it was here he came in the evenings to study.
As we wait for the proprietor, Moorthy anna [brother], who has gone home for lunch, more villagers gather at the entrance of the shop to catch a glimpse of their hero and take selfies. When Moorthy returns and is asked about Natarajan's stunning rise in the cricket world, he chokes with emotion.
"He's played for India and reached a higher level, but he never forgets his roots," Moorthy says. "When he was a kid, he used to get me blades for cutting [hair], and spent time at the salon. When Virat Kohli handed him the T20I series trophy in Australia and Hardik Pandya gave his Player-of-the-Series trophy to Natarajan, the village celebrated by bursting firecrackers for five hours. That was our Diwali day.
Home-town hero: Natarajan poses for a selfie with a fan outside the Up to Date hair salon, one of his childhood haunts
© ESPNcricinfo Ltd
Home-town hero: Natarajan poses for a selfie with a fan outside the Up to Date hair salon, one of his childhood haunts © ESPNcricinfo Ltd
"Natarajan struggled a lot during his childhood, but he is now taking care of his sisters and family very well. We're all hoping he does well for SRH in the IPL again and goes to Australia [for the T20 World Cup] again."
Natarajan's parents are similarly emotional when asked about their son's emergence. Thangarasu was a daily-wage weaving worker, while Shantha ran a small chicken-pakoda stall outside their one-room shack. She continued to run it even after Natarajan became the IPL's yorker sensation.
"It's a proud feeling for me and Shantha," says Thangarasu. "We just can't describe it in words. He has not only brought laurels to Chinnappampatti and Tamil Nadu but also for India. I hope he keeps growing and keeps playing for India. I don't know what else to say."
"His homecoming after the Australia tour was simply unforgettable," Shantha says. "He has played IPL, India, but he has never changed. Whenever he takes a wicket, he smiles, and whenever he gets hit, too, he smiles.
"We also haven't changed. I remember all the struggles that we went through as a family. I used to cook chicken pakoda until my granddaughter was born. Natarajan kept telling me to close down the shop, but I wanted to do my job. Now I've stopped working because I help take care of Hanvika [Natarajan's daughter]."
As a boy, Natarajan would dash out of school during his lunch break to buy meat for his mother's stall, drop it off at home, and rush back. During holidays he would work odd jobs to help his struggling family make ends meet. He has worked at brick kilns, steel plants and construction sites, he says, while his brother, Shakthi, worked in grocery stores. Natarajan is now setting up a grocery store for Shakthi in Chinnappampatti.
Natarajan with his mother Shantha and father Thangarasu
© ESPNcricinfo Ltd
Natarajan with his mother Shantha and father Thangarasu © ESPNcricinfo Ltd
Tennis-ball cricket was hotting up in and around Salem a decade and a half ago, when Natarajan was in his late teens. With batters swinging for the hills every ball in six-overs-a-side matches, bowling full and fast into the blockhole was the only option for bowlers.
A Jayaprakash, who ran the Chinnappampatti Cricket Club, was particularly impressed with Natarajan's pace and accurate yorkers. He convinced Natarajan's family to give him the space and time to pursue cricket as a profession.
Jayaprakash, popularly known as JP in Chinnappampatti, even helped Natarajan get into AVS College in Salem. There, Natarajan remembers, he played for Salem University and Salem district. "But it was my anna [Jayaprakash] who first took me to Chennai to make me play league cricket for BSNL fourth-division team. Anna was just recovering from an ACL [a knee ligament] tear, he had fallen down, but he came all the way to drop me. He accompanied me on a stick [as a crutch] and we came in an unreserved train compartment.
"We found a seat on the train, but he made me sit because I needed rest before playing in Chennai. He was standing in the unreserved compartment for the entire duration of the journey of almost seven hours. I'll never forget what he has done for me. JP anna is God's gift to me."
In Chennai, Natarajan climbed through the ranks, turning out for Chemplast and Vijay CC in the robust first-division league. Two years in first-division league cricket were enough for the state selectors to thrust him into the first-class structure. He made his debut against Bengal in the 2014-15 Ranji Trophy. But even before the dream had sunk in, it was crushed. Natarajan was reported for a suspect action, leaving him with the unenviable task of remodelling it, undergoing tests and trying to find his way back.
In 2013, Natarajan began playing league cricket in Chennai. Less than two years later, he had made his first-class debut for Tamil Nadu, and by 2017 he was playing in the IPL
Deepak Malik / © BCCI
In 2013, Natarajan began playing league cricket in Chennai. Less than two years later, he had made his first-class debut for Tamil Nadu, and by 2017 he was playing in the IPL Deepak Malik / © BCCI
"Even when I got selected, some people from the districts didn't call me to congratulate me," Natarajan remembers, "but after my action was deemed suspect, they would call and ask, 'Enna ippadi aaidichu?' [How did this happen?] with a tinge of sarcasm.
"I thought my life and career was gone. But Sunil Subramaniam sir [former Tamil Nadu captain] helped me correct my action at TNCA [Tamil Nadu Cricket Association] and Bharath Reddy sir [former India wicketkeeper-batter] supported me a lot.
"I was playing for Chemplast at that point. I was in Chennai for one year and there were talks of ivan throw adikuran [he is a chucker] and stuff like that. It was very hurtful, but my anna helped me understand and overcome the troubles.
"It was a step-by-step process at TNCA. My run-up wasn't balanced enough, so they tied a rope around me and asked me to run and test. After a few run-ups, I used to bowl slowly and then Sunil Subramanian sir used to correct my action. I had to keep repeating the same thing. Running with the rope was something I did repeatedly for one-two months. Mentally, I was drained. Even if you do it correctly once, it's not enough; you have to keep doing it correctly and repeating it."
Natarajan played his second first-class game 21 months after the first. But shortly before that, in August 2016, Dindigul Dragons picked him for the inaugural Tamil Nadu Premier League, and he repaid the faith in spades, taking ten wickets in seven matches at an economy rate of 7.33. His Super Over full of yorkers in that tournament against Abhinav Mukund and Washington Sundar of Albert TUTI Patriots made IPL scouts sit up and take notice. Abhinav was Tamil Nadu's captain at the time and Washington had represented India at the Under-19 World Cup earlier that year.
Natarajan (talking to Sunrisers and Tamil Nadu team-mate Vijay Shankar here) didn't get a game in the 2018 and 2019 IPL seasons, but he went on to have an unforgettable tournament in the UAE in 2020
Samuel Rajkumar / © BCCI
Natarajan (talking to Sunrisers and Tamil Nadu team-mate Vijay Shankar here) didn't get a game in the 2018 and 2019 IPL seasons, but he went on to have an unforgettable tournament in the UAE in 2020 Samuel Rajkumar / © BCCI
Five months later Natarajan earned 30 times his base price of Rs 10 lakh ($15,000). He watched the auction on TV in Chennai and immediately headed back home to Chinnappampatti to celebrate with his family in their one-room shack.
At the same time, the hefty price tag invited pressure. "I doubted whether I could tackle the challenges at the IPL level. At that stage I couldn't speak English properly. My communication skills were poor. There was only one member in the squad who knew Tamil and that was [R] Sridhar sir [fielding coach of the franchise]. He was the one who took care of me.
"I wouldn't have taken as much pressure if I had been bought for a lesser price. I had an elbow niggle too. So I played just six matches for Punjab. I was feeling nervous throughout that IPL season. A few people told me that I did well in the opportunities I got, but I feel I performed only to around 50% of my potential."
After that first IPL stint, Natarajan underwent an elbow surgery. In the 2018 IPL auction, he was picked by Sunrisers Hyderabad for a significantly lower sum, Rs 40 lakh ($60,000). With Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Sandeep Sharma, Khaleel Ahmed, Siddarth Kaul and Basil Thampi in the team's mix, Natarajan warmed the bench all through that season and the next.
In 2020, with the pandemic raging, Natarajan, like everyone else, was uncertain whether the IPL would go ahead. Little did he know that the season would turn his career - and life - around. Reeling off 71 yorkers that season in the UAE - nobody else bowled more than 28 - he held his own against elite power-hitters like Kieron Pollard and Hardik Pandya on a small ground like Sharjah.
Having travelled to Australia as a net bowler in India's squad, Natarajan eventually made his T20I and Test debuts on that injury-hit 2020-21 tour
Bradley Kanaris / © Getty Images
Having travelled to Australia as a net bowler in India's squad, Natarajan eventually made his T20I and Test debuts on that injury-hit 2020-21 tour Bradley Kanaris / © Getty Images
"Aaru ball, aaru yorker [six balls, six yorkers]: I don't have any other thoughts in my mind," Natarajan says. "The same thing was in my mind against Pandya and Pollard in Sharjah. I know that I will get hit if I miss my length. But my job is to hit those yorkers and win games for my team. I used to change my action slightly when I bowled the yorkers in TNPL, so teams picked up on that and noted it at the death. After I played for Tamil Nadu, I got to bowl yorkers without changes in my action."
Ganesh JP, Natarajan's uncle and a former tennis-ball player in Chinnappampatti, says Natarajan has always relished bowling yorkers under pressure. He recalls one tennis-ball match in particular.
"We scored only 22 in six overs. The opponents were from a different town and they were probably thinking that they could chase it down in two overs or so. We won by six runs in the end. Nattu bowled two of the six overs and took four wickets for two runs, and got a maiden. Nattu was studying in the eighth or ninth standard. We roamed around the entire village with the cup. Incredible memories. The yorker is and will always be Natarajan's special."
Following his breakout IPL, Natarajan was picked to tour Australia with the India team as a net bowler, just when he was preparing to return home from the UAE to be with his wife and new-born daughter. As thanksgiving, he had been growing his hair and beard (when he eventually returned to India, he tonsured himself at the Dhandayuthapani Swamy temple in Palani, near Dindigul). Then mystery spinner Varun Chakravarthy was sidelined from the tour with an injury and Natarajan was upgraded into the T20I squad. His friend Washington marked the moment by singing a song from the blockbuster Rajinikanth movie Padayappa #friendshipgoals.
Just hours before the ODI series opener, Natarajan was also added to the ODI squad as cover for Navdeep Saini. He made his international debut in both white-ball formats and emerged as the top wicket-taker in the T20I series.
Then he was back to net-bowling duties for the Test leg. He was supposed to prep the Indian batters for Mitchell Starc, just as Washington, also a net bowler, was to do for Nathan Lyon. Instead, four years after coming up against each other in that TNPL Super Over, Natarajan and Washington made their Test debuts together under freakish circumstances - India's front-line bowlers were all injured, so they fielded their least experienced attack since 1933. The pair ultimately helped India win at the Gabba and seal an incredible series victory.
"I'd done very well in the IPL. That gave me confidence and that would've given [the team management] confidence too, I think," Natarajan says. "I was very confident - I've played with and against these players in the IPL. David Warner was also very happy I was picked for the Australia tour. He tweeted too.
"'Be bindaas [relaxed] Nattu,' [Ravi] Shastri sir used to say. Hardik told me to do what I've done in TNPL and IPL during the white-ball series. He said that I need to be the Player of the Series during the T20s, so he handed over that trophy to me. I didn't expect a Test debut at all, but I got cap number 300. Sema [great] moment. To wave the flag and celebrate the Gabba victory with Washy [Washington Sundar] - I kept getting goosebumps."
There were more goosebumps on his return home. Natarajan, who drove down from Bengaluru, was greeted by hoardings, drumrolls and firecrackers, then carried home on a horse-drawn chariot. Everyone in Chinnappampatti wanted a piece of him. Fans thronged his home for selfies and some presented him with portraits of himself.
Swagat nahi karoge ?— Virender Sehwag (@virendersehwag) January 21, 2021
This is India. Here cricket is not just a game. It is so much more. Natarajan getting a grand welcome upon his arrival at his Chinnappampatti village in Salem district. What an incredible story.#Cricket pic.twitter.com/hjZ7kReCub
"I can never forget that experience," he says. "I just thought that people in and around Salem will come for my homecoming from Australia, but I couldn't believe it. People from Chennai, Trichy, Madurai, Coimbatore - there were fans from so many parts of Tamil Nadu - and a few even turned up from Kerala. One fan said that he came from Kerala two days before my arrival but couldn't see me in the end. I felt very bad for him, I still feel bad for him.
"After coming home, I switched off my phone for one month. If I speak to a few and don't speak to others, it doesn't look good, and that's not the way. I still remember so many cricketers tweeted in support of me. Actor Sivakarthikeyan, comedy actor Sathish, who is also from Salem, all praised me and every praise meant so much to me."
Natarajan gifted his Test jersey to Jayaprakash, with a message on it: "The love of my life Jayaprakash, I love you JP anna."
"You need a mentor to succeed in life, especially if you are coming from a village and don't have enough exposure," he says. "If I hadn't met Jayaprakash anna in my life… I would have also been doing some odd job.
"He doesn't speak to the media, I don't know what mentality he has, but one day I will somehow make him speak to the media for an interview," he laughs. "He was such a stylish batsman during his tennis-ball cricket days. The whole village used to come and watch him bat. If he had a mentor, like I have him now, he would have made it to a higher level."
Natarajan and Jayaprakash's bigger dream was to launch a cricket academy in their own village. Natarajan made a start in 2017 with his IPL earnings, getting turf wickets laid. When he is in his village now, he and the academy coach, N Prakash, a former tennis-ball player himself, train players there. Elavarasan A, who represents Jaipur Pink Panthers in the Pro Kabbadi League, is a fitness trainer at the academy.
Rise together: G Periyaswamy, who made his name in the TNPL and then played T20s for Tamil Nadu after being backed by Natarajan, coaches kids at his academy
© ESPNcricinfo Ltd
Rise together: G Periyaswamy, who made his name in the TNPL and then played T20s for Tamil Nadu after being backed by Natarajan, coaches kids at his academy © ESPNcricinfo Ltd
Despite poor vision in his right eye from a childhood bout of smallpox, and stressful financial circumstances, Periyaswamy broke into the TNPL and bowled Chepauk Super Gillies to the title in 2019. He has also bowled alongside Natarajan for Tamil Nadu.
"I've known Nattu anna right from the tennis-ball days," Periyaswamy says. "We used to travel together on two-wheelers - sometimes we didn't have enough money to fill petrol - to play tennis-ball cricket in and around Salem." Following in Natarajan's footsteps, Periyaswamy recently started his own academy. His father, Ganesan, ran a tea stall and his mother, Gandhamani, reared cattle. Periyaswamy was ready to give up cricket when Natarajan and Jayaprakash dragged him back.
Those two players aside, G Aravindh, another alumnus of Natarajan's academy, got a deal with Lyca Kovai Kings, Natarajan's team in the TNPL, while a youngster named S Jet Lee has been part of the Tamil Nadu U-16 side.
"The idea of starting an academy in my own village struck me back in 2009-10, when I was just a tennis-ball cricketer in Chinnappampatti," Natarajan says. "Me and JP anna decided back then itself that we have to train them for free.
"Everything fell in place. If someone shows potential, I encourage them to trial for lower divisions in the Chennai league. We've never asked any team to pick them, we just help them with a trial and then it's up to the boys to impress them. Sarakku irundha [if they're talented], they will definitely get a chance at a higher level.
Where it all began: Natarajan stands outside his old one-room house
© ESPNcricinfo Ltd
Where it all began: Natarajan stands outside his old one-room house © ESPNcricinfo Ltd
"The one who has impressed me the most, if you ask me, is Gowtham. In a fairly short period, he has played TNPL and is also part of the first-division league in Chennai.
"Periyaswamy, he is also impressive. We both come from a small village near Salem and to open the bowling together for Tamil Nadu is a massive thing for us. You can't even dream of this!"
Natarajan's academy is abuzz when he gets there to oversee proceedings in the afternoon. He instructs one kid to give warm-ups to the others and once the action begins, asks the bowlers not to pitch it short, so as to threaten the edges. Natarajan's sister Thilakavathi's son Harish turns up to train. Ashwin, Abhinesh, Rahul, Dharani, Dharanitharan, Prem Kumar, Vasanth, Ramesh - every kid at the academy wants to emulate Natarajan and bring glory to Chinnappampatti.
"We spotted Nattu in a tennis-ball tournament when he was around 15 or 16," Prakash, the academy's coach, says. "Similarly, we spotted Gowtham when he was 15 or 16 during a tennis-ball match. Cricket is everything for these boys - sometimes they even skip the little festivals in Chinnappampatti [to play]. Nattu is responsible for everything."
Before Natarajan, Mariyappan Thangavelu, the Paralympic high-jump gold-medallist, who was born in Periavadagampatti, was arguably the most notable sportsperson from Salem district. "Before, there was opposition when youngsters told their families they wanted to play cricket," Natarajan says. "Now the parents trust us and trust our training. Some of those folks are now coming and enrolling their children in our academy, saying JP will take care of them. Aravindh, for example, is not from Chinnappampatti, but he comes and trains here."
Natarajan is now setting up his own cricket ground in Chinnappampatti, in front of the Periyandichi temple. His uncle Ganesh, largely in charge of the ground, expects it to be ready in about six months.
Happy to Announce that am setting up a new cricket ground with all the facilities in my village, Will be named as *NATARAJAN CRICKET GROUND(NCG)— Natarajan (@Natarajan_91) December 15, 2021
* #DreamsDoComeTrueLast year December I Made my debut for India, This year (December) am setting up a cricket ground#ThankGod pic.twitter.com/OdCO7AeEsZ
"We got a 4.5-acre land and got tractors to break the stones and even up the areas," Ganesh says. "The turf wickets will be coming from Chennai. It will be a huge thing to stage matches here once the ground gets ready."
Washington recently visited Natarajan's academy to tune up for the white-ball series at home against West Indies, having missed the South Africa tour before that with Covid. "They see [Natarajan] as a huge hero," Washington says of the visit. "To come from here and play all three formats for India is no mean feat. To actually go there and visit his academy and spend time at his home... oh, that food at his home was amazing.
"We had a lot of fun together in Australia, going for long walks and going to beaches. It's impossible not to talk about the Gabba Test whenever we meet. He has inspired a lot of cricketers, especially from the Salem region."
Natarajan's grand plan is to transform his academy into a residential academy like the MRF Pace Foundation in Chennai. It seems a monumental task, but Natarajan and Chinnappampatti are no strangers to cricketing miracles.
At the IPL mega auction last month, Sunrisers Hyderabad snapped up Natarajan once again, for Rs 4 crore ($533,000), outbidding Gujarat Titans. They have bid for Natarajan every time he has been up for grabs, so he was expecting to come back to Sunrisers.
Like in the past, the period leading up to this IPL has not been without challenges for Natarajan.
A few weeks before visiting Chinnappampatti, I met him at Spur Fitness in Kottupuram, Chennai, where his rehab from knee injury was being overseen by Shyam Sundar Jayapalan, a physio who has worked with him at Sunrisers. Natarajan was in a cheerful mood, having just celebrated Pongal in his village with his family, but anxiety crept into the conversation when we chatted about his injuries.
Natarajan at his cricket academy in Chinnappampatti. He has been focused on helping others to success right from when he first made his name in the game
© ESPNcricinfo Ltd
Natarajan at his cricket academy in Chinnappampatti. He has been focused on helping others to success right from when he first made his name in the game © ESPNcricinfo Ltd
He first sustained the knee injury in the lead-up to the Gabba Test, and played through the pain with injections. Non-stop cricket from the start of IPL 2020 had taken a toll on his body. He played just two games in the next IPL before a recurrence of the knee injury put him out of action. He had surgery and was eyeing a return in the second chunk of the league, in the UAE. Upon arrival in the Emirates, however, he tested positive for Covid-19.
"That was another setback for me," he says. "If I had played well in seven matches in the UAE, I might have at least gone to the [2021 T20] World Cup as a net bowler. Who knows? Match fitness is very important for selection, and I missed out on that last year."
Other than at Spur, Natarajan worked on his fitness at the National Cricket Academy (NCA) in Bengaluru, where he also fine-tuned his skills and his bowling action, with help from S Aravind, the former Karnataka seamer now part of the state team's coaching staff.
"I'm looking to swing the new ball more in white-ball cricket. Sometimes in the past I haven't got much swing under pressure in big matches," he says. "I'm looking to have more control over the legcutter and have been in touch with Sreenath Aravind. He's a superb red-ball bowler. Through [R] Prasanna [Tamil Nadu assistant coach] I have spoken to him previously too. During the last Syed Mushtaq Ali tournament, I wasn't in a good rhythm. I realised something was wrong and I passed my videos to him. He spotted that I was falling over in my action - the loading and landing was unstable - and I have rectified it since."
The day after I met him in Chinnappampatti, Natarajan was to join the Sunrisers pre-season camp in Chennai. "I have recovered fully and I'm ready for match intensity," he said. "I just want to do well for SRH in the IPL and the rest will take care of itself. I will just do my job and not burden myself with expectations. Australia tour [the T20 World Cup] and all is a long way away."
Whether or not Natarajan adds more chapters to his remarkable story, it has already touched many lives and could well be made into a biopic. A leading Tamil actor has already approached him. But Natarajan's focus now is to prove his form and fitness in the forthcoming IPL and pave the way for the next generation of cricketers.
"You will see more Natarajans from Chinnappampatti," he says. "They could become my opponents someday in the IPL. Who knows?"
Deivarayan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo
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