On the 20th of September this year, the Sunrisers Hyderabad took on the Royal Challengers Bangalore in their first match of the 13th edition of the Indian Premier League.
As always, SRH entered the tournament as firm favourites, and the biggest reason behind this was their potent bowling attack. The Orange Army had a wealth of pace options at their disposal – Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Khaleel Ahmed, Siddarth Kaul, Basil Thampi and Sandeep Sharma.
All 5 bowlers had significant exposure at the IPL level, and were set to play important roles for SRH. However, David Warner and the team management sprung a surprise by fielding T Natarajan, who had played a grand total of 6 IPL games three seasons ago, in the playing XI.
Natarajan didn’t show great promise in these 6 games (that he played for the Kings XI Punjab in IPL 2017), either. The left-arm pacer returned only 2 wickets at an economy rate of over 9, and didn’t seem ready to step into the cauldron that is the IPL. But SRH placed their faith in him, and he didn’t disappoint.
Natarajan started by baiting and reeling in the biggest fish in the tournament – Indian captain Virat Kohli. He went on to add a number of high-profile victims in IPL 2020 such as MS Dhoni and AB de Villiers, and became the bonafide leader of the SRH pace attack once Bhuvneshwar suffered a hip injury.
These facts are now common knowledge, but very few people realise just how quickly Natarajan has made the step up to the international stage. The 29-year-old finds himself playing under Kohli this time, and against Warner, but the performances have remained just as impressive.
With India resting Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami, Natarajan has become the leader of the pace attack – at least temporarily – just 3 games into his international career. Less than 4 months ago, before the start of IPL 2020, he was hidden in the shadows of India’s other left-arm pacers and was considered an IPL flop.
The last 4 months have seen Natarajan rise rapidly to international stardom, and a closer look at his career over a larger sample size reveals a truly remarkable story.
Natarajan made his first-class debut for Tamil Nadu in the 2015 Ranji Trophy season, and picked up 3 wickets – including that of Shreevats Goswami – in the only innings he got to bowl.
However, he had to wait till 2017 to make his state debut in the format he is currently best suited to – T20. Natarajan gave a decent account of himself in that game as well, taking two wickets for 26 runs in his 4 overs with Mayank Agarwal and Karun Nair among those in the opposition.
Natarajan’s T20 debut for TN came after a fruitful campaign in the inaugural edition of the Tamil Nadu Premier League in which he scalped 10 wickets in 7 games at an economy rate of 7.33 for the Dindigul Dragons. In the next season, he went one better, recording 9 wickets in 6 games at an economy rate of 5.39.
While Natarajan didn’t have an excellent domestic record to speak of and was still a relative unknown at the national level, he turned heads with his unique ability to bowl pinpoint yorkers under pressure.
Natarajan’s TN teammate Murali Vijay, who captained the Kings XI Punjab in the latter half of IPL 2016 and had a considerable say in the team’s recruitment, recommended the pacer to mentor Virender Sehwag.
Natarajan’s name had started doing the rounds in cricketing circles after his exploits in the TNPL and in the Ranji Trophy (27 wickets in 9 games that year), and instigated a bidding war when brought up in the 2017 IPL auction.
Sehwag went all in for the then 26-year-old, and snapped him up for a hefty sum of 3 crores.
However, Natarajan’s IPL stint with the Preity Zinta-owned franchise didn’t go to plan.
Injuries hampered the quick’s progress, and he was unable to nail down a spot in a playing XI that was one of the weakest in the competition. The fact that Natarajan didn’t speak any language apart from Tamil worsened matters, as the support staff and the captain (Glenn Maxwell) found it difficult to communicate with him.
Regarding Natarajan’s stint at KXIP, Sehwag had this to say to recently:
“I was very happy because when I had picked Natarajan in the IPL for the Kings XI Punjab, everyone was asking questions that this player has come who has not even played domestic cricket and came after playing just the TNPL league, so how he was picked at such a huge price.”
“But he had injury issues when he played for us. He had problems of communication as well, as he didn’t know Hindi or English. So someone who knew both Tamil and Hindi would explain things to him. He found it difficult to explain to the physio as well what his problem was.”
Understandably, Natarajan’s stock dipped rapidly. In the 2018 auction, he didn’t find any buyers apart from the Sunrisers Hyderabad, who snaffled him for his base price of 40 lakhs.
Natarajan didn’t turn out for SRH in the 2018 and 2019 editions of the tournament, but continued to put in eye-catching performances in the TNPL. In 2018, he nailed pinpoint yorkers in a Super Over against the Karaikudi Kaalai, and finished with 12 wickets in 8 games.
Natarajan spent two years on the bench at SRH, and those two years have been invaluable for him to get an inkling of what is expected from him at the IPL level. And when he finally got his opportunity this season, he ensured that he grabbed it with both hands.
Natarajan doesn’t have the most imposing physique, and isn’t the kind of fast bowler who instils terror in the opposition with raw pace. He is a bowler who relies on intelligence and reading of the game to outfox batsmen, which is what makes his effortless step up to international cricket all the more odds-defying.
Natarajan’s most potent weapon is undoubtedly the yorker, but it is by no means his only mode of attack. Of course, the left-armer does have the angle across right-handed batsmen and the ability to tail it back into the southpaws, but he has a far more developed bowling arsenal than it would seem on paper.
A deceptive off-cutter that has been likened to Mustafizur Rahman’s, a surprise bouncer that has deceived the best players of the short ball, and an unerringly accurate back-of-a-length delivery that cramps batsmen for room have all made appearances during this year’s IPL and tour of Australia.
The SRH bowler has had a fair slice of good fortune, though. After initially not being named in any of the Indian squads for the Australian tour, Natarajan was called up to the T20I outfit due to an injury to Varun Chakravarthy.
Back spasms for Navdeep Saini then brought him into the fold for the 50-over format, before a combination of poor performances and rest for India’s quicks gave him the chance to make his ODI debut.
Natarajan won’t be the only one thanking his lucky stars. The Indian cricket team, along with their billions of fans, will be grateful for the Tamil Nadu man’s seamless incorporation into the national side.
Natarajan seems to be the ambrosia to India’s previously unquenched thirst for a left-arm pacer, and had he not made the most of his IPL opportunity this year, his prime would’ve flown by him. The 29-year-old’s meteoric leap from an IPL flop to the leader of the Indian bowling attack is nothing short of astounding, and fans can only hope that he continues to get better.