T Natarajan's fairy tale began during the 2020 IPL, when he emerged from the Sunrisers Hyderabad bench and announced himself as the new yorker specialist. The left-arm seamer was then initially picked as a net bowler for the Australia tour, but as it turned out, he became the first India player to make his international debut across three formats on the same tour. More recently he closed out the ODI series decider against England in Pune last month with his pinpoint yorkers. Natarajan talks to us about his life-changing 2020 and looks forward to delivering again for the Sunrisers in IPL 2021
Before you had your breakout IPL last year, you warmed the bench for two successive seasons. How challenging was that phase?
I knew that I won't get to play during my first season at SRH because there were many star bowlers like Bhuvi [Bhuvneshwar Kumar], Siddarth Kaul and Khaleel Ahmed. I just looked to learn from Bhuvi, who is very calm, and I worked on my inswinger with [Muttiah] Muralitharan sir for two years in 2018 and 2019. I used to discuss about scenarios that you face in a match situation and try to learn from those.
In my second year at SRH, I thought I may get a chance, but okay, I didn't get it. Bhuvi kept telling me that my chance will come and advised me to stay calm and keep working on my game. The disappointment of not getting a game will be there for anyone, but I wanted to be prepared when the chance would come. If I was not ready and missed [making the most of] the chance when it came, then I wouldn't have got another chance.
What was your mindset like when you finally got the opportunity? Nervous?
I just wanted to focus on my fitness and be ready to give my 100% when the chance came last year. I might have felt the pressure if I had made my SRH debut in India - I'm not too sure. With no crowds in Dubai, I just focused on doing the best for SRH in that particular scenario.
When playing your first match, you always feel nervous, right? It will definitely be there, but I shifted my focus to doing the job for my team.
How did you deal with bowling yorkers to Kieron Pollard and Hardik Pandya in a small ground like Sharjah, where there is no margin for error?
I knew I would get hit if I erred with my length. Even if I miss it by inches, these batsmen are power-hitters who can hit it for a six. In a small ground like that, any batsman will be confident of hitting a six. Sometimes even if they mishit, the ball will go for six. I was just clear that I couldn't miss my length.
If I tried something else and did not stick to my strength and gave runs [with the variation] too, it would affect my confidence. I believed 100% that I could execute the yorker. I have always believed in my strength and even if I make an error, I back myself to come back with the yorker.
Even in the last ODI against England, Sam Curran hit me for a straight six first ball [in the 44th over], but the next five balls were perfect yorkers.
What was it like bowling to MS Dhoni in the IPL and dismissing him?
I pitched one in the slot and he hit me for a big six - 102 metres or something. The next ball I got his wicket [and didn't celebrate] - I was just thinking about that previous ball. After coming back to the dressing room, though, I was happy. After finishing the match, I also had a chat with him. Speaking to somebody like Dhoni itself is a big thing. He spoke to me about fitness and encouraged me, saying that I will keep getting better with experience. He said, use slow bouncers, cutters, and variations like that. It has been useful for me.
The yorker you bowled to AB de Villiers was one of the balls of IPL 2020. Was it doubly special because it came on the day you became a new dad?
Definitely. On one side there was my girl and on the other side, I got that wicket in an important knockout game. Romba santhosham [I was extremely happy], but I didn't really tell the others [about the baby]. I thought I will tell everyone else after we win the game, but my captain [David] Warner spoke about it, I think, at the post-match [presentation].
I bowled the yorker to de Villiers cross-seam. I bowled cross-seam yorkers against England too. When I try a yorker on the seam, there are some chances of missing my angle, so sometimes it comes out as a low full-toss. For me to bowl with the cross-seam grip is more comfortable.
Around that point, you were growing a beard and preparing for the rituals at home following the birth of your daughter, right?
Haha, yes. I never thought I would be picked for the Australia tour. I was just ready to go back home after the IPL.
After being upgraded from the reserves into the main squad, you put on the India jersey and celebrated it on a video call with your godfather, Jayaprakash, and your friends from your home town, Chinnappampatti [about 375km south-west of Chennai]. Tell us more about that.
I can't describe it! Santhosham oru varthai thaan [Happiness is just one word] and I don't know how else to describe it. My people and my friends all motivated me so much to reach this place. Coming from a small village to being selected to play for India… they were also very happy. A lot of people now know about my village.
More than anything else, I like the India logo on the jersey a lot. I also like the Tamil Nadu logo on the jersey, but after putting on the India jersey, it was a different feeling. I felt like my dream was fulfilled at that moment. I think I would have had bigger celebrations if I was with my people in Chinnappampatti, but I was alone and in quarantine at that time (laughs).
It must have been a difficult decision to not go home to see your newborn and instead travel to Australia?
My wife [Pavithra] told me that she and the baby [Hanvika] would wait for me. She asked me to win the trophy and said that they will be ready to welcome me back home after it.
You had a sharp inswinger when you broke into the Tamil Nadu side. Then for a while it looked like it disappeared before it came back in Australia, where you dismissed Glenn Maxwell at the SCG with it.
Whenever I practise, I've been working on trying to bring the ball back in, but in some situations I don't want to try something extra and bowl it on leg stump and give four. If I miss it, again it will affect my confidence, but it's something I've been working on. I want to practise harder and bowl the inswinger perfectly in match situations. Muralitharan sir has helped me with this and even [L] Balaji has worked with me on the inswinger at Tamil Nadu. He has shared his experiences and I also ask doubts to him and I have become a better bowler with their inputs.
After India won the T20I series, you were on the sidelines, but Virat Kohli called you and handed you the trophy. We believe your village celebrated the moment by lighting firecrackers.
After I left the ground and reached the room, my friends back home sent me videos of them bursting crackers after I got the trophy. From coming from a village to get the trophy from a legend… again, I was very happy. I had happy tears at that time.
Having travelled to Australia as a net bowler, did you have your own bat or did you get one from Washington?
This time I had a sponsored bat, not Washi's (laughs). When I was with Tamil Nadu, it was always Abhi [Abhinav Mukund] anna's [brother's] bat for me. Even when I was playing in the IPL earlier, there would be team bats and I would use them if I needed to bat.
You received a grand homecoming, with hundreds of people from other districts also turning up in Chinnappampatti. What was your reaction to the revelry?
I didn't expect it at all. The Covid rules were there, and I had come from Australia, but I was just told to get on the chariot. I thought there would be around 500-600 people there at my village, but people from Chennai, Kanyakumari and other districts of Tamil Nadu had come. There was even someone from Kerala. I never expected that something like this would happen in my life.
But whenever I go home, I always play tennis-ball cricket - that's where my journey started. I'm still the same old Natarajan in my village.
YouTubers have been crowding outside your house. When you visited the Palani temple [in Palani, south of Chinnappampatti] recently, you were mobbed. Have you got used to the spotlight now?
It's slightly difficult (laughs). I don't think I can roam around like I used to previously. It's a new experience. When I am in my village, I don't prefer being alone. I'm always surrounded by my group of friends and Jayaprakash anna [his mentor].
You have been trying to convince your mother to shut her chicken shop and take a break for a while. Have you finally succeeded?
I've been telling her. Now after the baby was born, she has stopped working.
G Periyaswamy and V Gowtham, two boys from your cricket academy in Chinnappampatti, have now got a taste of the IPL as net bowlers. Are you pleased about that?
Yes, it was always my dream to groom talent from my village, that's why me and anna [Jayaprakash] wanted to run an academy in my village and not in Salem city. I managed to make it to higher levels of cricket, so we just wanted to run the academy to give the boys motivation that they can also come up and become professional cricketers.
Periyaswamy has now won the Syed Mushtaq Ali trophy this year and Gowtham bowled at the CSK nets last year and also this year at Chepauk. Gowtham is an 18-year-old left-arm seamer who has solid fitness and can bowl yorkers. His dream is to grow like me, but I think he can become better than me with match experience because he has the height advantage and can bat a bit too. Our aim is to develop as many young players as possible, and that will never change.
Recently you had a knee complaint and visited the National Cricket Academy after playing a long stretch of cricket starting with last year's IPL. How have you dealt with that?
Playing continuously for six months across formats is difficult for anyone. It's more difficult for a bowler. I also bowled at the nets and I have to thank god that my body withstood that load. Even if you are fully fit, a small sprain or something can turn into an injury. But I enjoyed those challenges and those six months were like a dream for me. It gave me so many experiences. Travelling and playing together with the Indian team is a big thing for me.
Before the Gabba Test, I had a niggle in the knee and I had to take an injection for it. It didn't settle much after returning home, so I had to go to the NCA in Bangalore. That was my first time there, although I've played at the Chinnaswamy stadium. [Rahul] Dravid told me feel pannathe [don't worry] and said I can approach him and speak to him anytime. He said that if I want to practise there, I could just drive down from Salem in a couple of hours and train at the NCA anytime.
This IPL there will be greater expectations on you to nail those yorkers at the death. How are you preparing?
I know I will have to do the job 100%. I will have to focus on not missing my length and have a clear plan for that scenario. If I miss my length, I am aware that I will be taken for runs. I have bowled under pressure in the past, so all of those experiences will help me this season. Bhuvi is back and in form, so he will share his thoughts when I'm under pressure. Our team has good communication and it's like a family. Even if I give runs, the team management backs me, so that gives me the confidence that I can come back.
I've also never played an IPL game at Chepauk. I think Vijay [Shankar, Sunrisers Hyderabad team-mate] has played IPL in Chennai, but this will be the first time for me in Chennai. I've played a lot of cricket at my home ground, so it will be nice to play in Chennai.
This is also the year of the T20 World Cup. Has the thought of bowling together with Jasprit Bumrah, who handed you your maiden T20I cap, crossed your mind?
I haven't looked that far ahead. When the opportunity comes in the future, I will think about it. For now, I'll keep doing whatever I've been doing to stay fit and perform well for my team.