When Tamil Nadu made the Ranji Trophy final in 2011-12, T Natarajan was a tennis ball star for his local team in Chinnappampatti, a hamlet near Salem. It was a team led by his neighbour. Amidst a battery of right-arm bowlers, a left-arm action seemed odd, perhaps why he stood out despite not having even a remote idea about bowling with a leather ball.
It's from this hamlet that Natarajan came through the ranks to eventually move to Chennai and play for Vijay CC and Jolly Rovers, two of the more prominent clubs in Tamil Nadu Cricket Association's robust first-division league. Two years in league cricket was enough for the state selectors to thrust him into the first-class structure. He made his debut against Bengal in the 2015-16 Ranji Trophy. But even before he could let the dream sink in, he was crushed.
Natarajan was reported for a suspect action, leaving him with the unenviable task of remodeling it, undergoing tests and trying to find his way back. It was a long haul, or so one thought. But here he is, fit and firing, much more confident in his abilities after modifying his action under the guidance of former Tamil Nadu left-arm spinner Sunil Subramaniam.
An impressive stint for Dindigul Dragons in the Tamil Nadu Premier League and trials with Mumbai Indians later, he is at the forefront of the side's bowling resurgence this season, one that has been brought about because of a conscious decision to move from the 'spin to win' approach to empowering their young fast bowlers, under the mentorship of former captain and veteran L Balaji.
To say Tamil Nadu's bowling has been a one-man army won't do justice to the other two pacers K Vignesh and Aswin Crist. Like Natarajan, Vignesh too is a rookie, but has quickly worked his way up to be a certainty in the starting XI. The bowling revival is all the more heartening because the trio had a combined experience of 14 first-class games between them prior to the season.
"Bowling with a cricket ball initially was a new thing. I did not know anything about gripping the cricket ball and struggled for control initially, but later got used to it," Natarajan, who has 17 wickets in six games, tells ESPNcricinfo. "The TNPL was the big break. After getting my action right, I made sure not to keep the previous action in mind; that confidence was important. The TNPL also gave me a name and now I have trialled with Mumbai Indians."
The newly-launched T20 league has also helped give Vignesh's career a push. The swing bowler has 32 wickets in seven matches so far, including two five-wicket hauls at 20.28. One List-A game in 2014 later, he was in the wilderness for two years before returning. His long spells in the humidity of Chennai and training at the MRF Pace Foundation set him back on track.
"In 2014 when Vignesh made his List-A debut he used to often drop the ball short and did not have control like what he has now," R Prasanna, the former Tamil Nadu captain who coached him at Kovai Kings, recollects. "He's learnt to handle pressure. Now there is a belief that whenever Vignesh has the ball, he will get wickets."
Vignesh made his debut against Mumbai in Lahli and claimed match haul of nine-wickets to become the first TN bowler to grab a five-for on debut in the last decade. His state bowling coach L Balaji, who had narrowly missed a five-for on his first-class debut, against Colombo District Cricket Association in 2001-02, couldn't be happier.
"You can't get many wickets by pushing the batsman back on Indian tracks. There is not much carry and bounce from Indian pitches. It is about beating the batsman on the front foot in the air or off the wicket or with speed in four-day cricket, and opening up three dismissals - bowled, caught behind, and lbw," Balaji explains. "Vignesh especially has been doing that [bowling full] game after game. His strike rate [45.9] is really good."
Vignesh acknowledges Balaji's contribution in building the attack and emphasises the seamers now have the confidence to pick 20 wickets. "Bala bhai has been a great influence, and he gives examples of how he bowled on various wicket," he says. "We now know we can pick 20 wickets and set the game up. Sometimes, the wickets don't come your way. During those times we are prepared to be patient and look to build pressure."
Crist, the pace spearhead who has 27 wickets in eight matches at 29.33 adds: "It is about working together. Sometimes I pick wickets, KV and Natarajan contain. Sometimes it is the other way around. When the young bowlers lose their way, I know I am the experienced bowler and I say 'Machan read the situation and bowl accordingly.' I will ask them to be clear about their fields and will communicate with the captain."
The result of this partnership has been astounding. This season, the fast bowlers have picked up a total of 83 wickets as opposed to 35 last season, one were the side sometimes featured four left-arm spinners on tailor-made tracks at home. There was a need to switch from their template and reinvigorate their pace stocks on the face of BCCI's neutral venues ruling, which they've managed to so far.
The trio is confident of repeating their magic against Karnataka. What better way there is than to make a name for yourself by performing against a quality side having in their ranks the likes of KL Rahul, Karun Nair and Manish Pandey. The stakes are high. It's a storied rivalry, and three young men, who have had different paths to the state team, look every bit a part.