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How G Periyaswamy beat the odds to become a TNPL star

If not for two persistent mentors, this season's leading wicket-taker of the T20 tournament would have been lost to cricket

Deivarayan Muthu
G Periyaswamy bowls, Dindigul Dragons v Chepauk Super Gillies, 1st Qualifier, Tamil Nadu Premier League, Tirunelveli, August 11, 2019

T Natarajan on Periyaswamy: "He can swing the ball in, attack the stumps, and gets a lot of wickets lbw or bowled. His slower-ball variation is not easy to pick"  •  TNPL/TNCA

On the night of August 15, G Periyaswamy found himself hoisted on the shoulders of his team-mates, with fireworks going off around them, to celebrate their second Tamil Nadu Premier League title. He had just taken five wickets to defend a total of 126 in the 20-over final, which took his tournament tally to 21 wickets - the most by a bowler in one TNPL season. So it wasn't surprising that he was named player of the final and the tournament.
The surprise was in how he overcame disability and difficult circumstances to get to a place where IPL scouts and Tamil Nadu selectors are now paying attention.
Periyaswamy fell in love with cricket around the age of seven, but a bout of smallpox had blinded him in his right eye, which made him a target of jibes and insults at school. That made him drop out after seventh grade. He then suffered a bout of severe typhoid, followed by a knee injury. All of that, and his family's stressful financial circumstances, threatened to end his career before it even took off, but his friend and mentor, medium-pacer T Natarajan, who plays for Tamil Nadu, and Kovai Kings in the TNPL, refused to let him give up.
Periyaswamy had not played under lights with the white ball before, but he shone the brightest in this season's TNPL with his slingy, Lasith Malinga-like action. Even some of the higher-profile Tamil Nadu players struggled to gauge his point of release. His yorkers, in the 135kph range, thudded into the base of the stumps and his cutters tricked batsmen into miscuing shots.
His Chepauk Super Gillies team-mate and India allrounder Vijay Shankar said Periyaswamy was the side's "X factor", and was particularly impressed with how he had made the step up to a higher level of cricket.
A couple of years ago, Periyaswamy attended trials for Dindigul Dragons, but they didn't pick him. Chepauk, though, picked him as their first player in the draft this season and he helped them get to the title, brushing Dindigul aside twice in the knockouts: he followed his 3 for 27, which included the wicket of Dindigul captain R Ashwin, in the first qualifier with 5 for 15 in the final against them.
"Kanavu maari irukku" [It feels like a dream], Periyaswamy says. "I never expected to first play the TNPL and then win it. I had to work, and I had to ask permission from my family to come and play in this tournament.
"Coming from tennis-ball cricket, I initially struggled to grip the white ball, but then got used to it. This slingy action and the yorker come naturally to me. I didn't feel much pressure playing under lights, even with the matches being shown on TV. We face pressure in tennis-ball T20s too."
On the night of the final, Periyaswamy's family back home in Chinnappampatti, a hamlet about 30 kilometres west of Salem, also celebrated his success with fireworks. It had not been easy for them to let him go to pursue his dream. They needed his wages to make ends meet. At one point, Periyaswamy himself thought "Ennakku cricket set aagathu" [I can't continue playing cricket], but two locals convinced his family that he had the talent to do it professionally - his mentor Natarajan and Jayaprakash, who runs the Chinnappampatti cricket club.
"I am here because of Natarajan anna [older brother] and Jayaprakash anna," Periyaswamy says. "They came and spoke to my parents, asking them to let me play this tournament."
Periyaswamy's father, Ganesan, runs a small tea stall and his mother, Gandhamani, rears cattle. After losing vision in his right eye, Periyaswamy found solace in playing tennis-ball street cricket in his village, but he juggled it with cattle-rearing and working as a weaver.
Jayaprakash first came across Periyaswamy in 2011 and was impressed by his very round-arm action. Natarajan and Periyaswamy would combine to win several trophies for their club in tennis-ball cricket with their yorkers and slower variations.
Periyaswamy went on to break into the Under-19 district side and became a yorker specialist, but then came the typhoid and the knee injury, which threatened to crush his dreams again.
By then Natarajan had graduated to league cricket in Chennai - and later made it to the IPL and the state team. He and Jayaprakash always had Periyaswamy's back.
"After Periyaswamy was down with typhoid, he became very weak and had body aches," Jayaprakash recalls. "We consulted a doctor in Salem and after one month he recovered from fever. Then he had problems in his leg. We used to pick him up from his home at 4am, consult doctors in Coimbatore, and even Bangalore, and then drop him back after treatment. Natarajan and I always knew he had the talent to succeed. Natarajan moved to Chennai to play cricket, but he always looked after Periyaswamy."
Periyaswamy took a break from cricket at one point to work as a welder, to help his family. However, having seen a spark in his bowling, Natarajan, with assistance from a couple of club managers in Chennai, brought him to the city, to play lower-division cricket.
After playing the 2017 IPL, where he was bought for Rs 3 crore by Kings XI Punjab, Natarajan set up his own cricket academy in Chinnappampatti to coach players for free. Periyaswamy was one of those players, but Natarajan soon realised he might need more help than his academy could give. In January this year, he put the bowler in touch with Tamil Nadu physio Thulasi Ram, who worked on his fitness and tuned him up for a stint with a second-division club in Chennai.
Periyaswamy was intimidated by the big-city life - he still is, according to Natarajan - but his accurate yorkers made Chepauk coach Hemang Badani and performance analyst Lakshmi Narayanan (who also works with Chennai Super Kings) sit up and take notice. And despite his blindness, Periyaswamy is a good outfielder.
Players who can bowl yorkers and mystery balls usually pique the interest of franchises at IPL auctions. Cases in point: Natarajan himself, Shivil Kaushik, KC Cariappa, and more recently, Varun Chakaravarthy.
When Periyaswamy bowled to Natarajan in the TNPL in Tirunelveli, he did so wearing shoes that used to belong to Natarajan. After that match, Periyaswamy joked to the host broadcaster that he will never dismiss Natarajan and will instead look to beat his edges.
Off the field, Periyaswamy is quiet, even in the dressing room. In contrast, in Chinnappampatti he is known as an entertainer who can mimic voices of famous Tamil cinema actors like Rajinikanth and Vijayakanth and former Tamil Nadu chief minister M Karunanidhi.
Natarajan hopes the TNPL will finally launch the 25-year old's stop-start career.
"A lot of people have discouraged him throughout his life and that has broken him," Natarajan says. "But I always knew he had something in him. His slower-ball variation is not easy to pick.
"He can swing the ball in, attack the stumps, and gets a lot of wickets lbw or bowled. The next step for him is to do more strengthening and improve his fitness. Let's wait and see if he gets into the IPL, but for now I'm eagerly hoping to open the bowling with Periyaswamy for Tamil Nadu this domestic season."
Periyaswamy is now back in his village, juggling cricket and work once again to help repay his family's debts. It remains to be seen if a call-up for Tamil Nadu or the IPL arrives, but his story is already one of triumph in the face of adversity.

Deivarayan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo