HE LOVED cricket, but never “dreamt of becoming a cricketer”. In fact, Thangarasu Natarajan almost gave up the game midway, just over a year ago. But his perseverance paid off on Monday, when Kings XI Punjab shelled out Rs 3 crore for him at the IPL-10 auction, making him the most expensive domestic pick on Monday.
The news is yet to sink in. “I don’t know whether it’s a reality or an illusion,” says the 25-year-old left-arm seamer. His father is a daily wage labourer at a saree factory, while his mother runs a wayside tea-stall in Chinnappampatti, a village 40 kilometres from Salem.
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The tea-stall is an integral part of his family’s life. While Natarajan’s pace bowling skills — he is a death overs expert who bowls yorkers at will — has seen him take giant strides on the cricket field, his parents, on most days, can still be found at their tea-stall .
Even Natarajan, when he is not playing for Tamil Nadu or his club, drops in at the stall. He has been doing this for years — he often skipped classes to help his mother with her chores. Being the eldest of five siblings, he volunteered to take up odd jobs to supplement his family’s income. He would wake up early in the morning to distribute newspapers or milk. Sports was the least of his priorities. The only indulgence was a first-day first-show of a Vijay blockbuster at the local theatre.
Even cricket was an odd job in a sense. “There used to be local tennis-ball tournaments which would offer prize money. There were special prizes for the best bowler and batsman as well. Everyone wanted to bat, so I began bowling. I would just go out and bowl as fast as I could. I didn’t know anything else,” he recalls.
Soon he became the undisputed tennis-ball hero of Chinnappampatti. Then his neighbour, A Jayaprakash, a former fourth division cricketer, gave him his first leather ball. “I was 18 or 19 years old then. He gave me a brand new leather ball and told me to start bowling with it. I told him I didn’t have any use for it, as I never dreamt of becoming a cricketer. But he looked into my eyes and told me I could become a big star with the ball,” says Natarajan.
At 20, Natarajan got his first big break. Jayaprakash gave him a pair of cricket shoes, a train ticket to Chennai and the contact number of his friend, who managed a fourth division cricket club in Thiruvallur.
Within two years, Natarajan was bowling for one of the elite teams of the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association league, Jolly Rovers, which has Murali Vijay, Ravichandran Ashwin and Jayant Yadav among others. And then he was in the list of Ranji Trophy probables.
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The new year of 2015 began with the happy news that he had been picked for the state team. Five days later, Natarajan made his debut, against Bengal, at Eden Gardens. He shone with a three-wicket burst, but then came the bad news — he was among the 177 bowlers who had been reported for suspect action.
“My teammates comforted me, but I started to look at myself as a cheat. In the tennis-ball tournaments back home, anyone who chucked was called a cheat and wouldn’t be allowed to play. I thought of returning home and helping my parents,” he says.
But Jolly Rovers’ coach Bharat Reddy stopped him. “He told me not to sulk, because it wasn’t going to help anybody… ‘Even Muttiah Muralitharan was reported for suspect action, and look where he’s now,’ he told me. His words gave me a lot of courage. I decided to fight before giving up,” he says.
For nearly a year, Natarajan remained on the sidelines, before he resurfaced for Dindigul Dragons in the Tamil Nadu Premier League with a re-modelled action, less pace and more guile. A rich haul — and a reputation as a death-over specialist — paved his return to the Tamil Nadu squad. And this time, he left his mark on the domestic season (2016-17), with 24 wickets in eight games.
In his greatest moment of recognition till date, Natarajan credits Jayaprakash for his accomplishments. “En kadavul matiri (He’s like God),” he says. “Now my father does not need to go to the factory, and my mother does not need to go to the tea-stall everyday. My brothers can go to better schools.”