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T Natarajan: 'If you do well as a bowler this IPL season, you will have the confidence you can succeed anywhere'

The Sunrisers Hyderabad fast bowler talks about how he has found success on flat pitches, his new variations, and what it's like to be captained by Pat Cummins

T Natarajan gets ready to collect the ball, Chennai Super Kings vs Sunrisers Hyderabad, IPL 2024, Chennai, April 28, 2024

T Natarajan: "If I execute my ball - yorker or slower ball - I have the confidence that I will not get hit. It's natural for every bowler, though, to miss the length. I'm also okay to get hit when I bowl to my field"  •  AFP/Getty Images

From being a yorker specialist, T Natarajan has evolved into a more versatile bowler who now has the on-pace and slower bouncers in his repertoire. In an IPL season where bat has dominated ball like never before, Natarajan has been so impressive with his defensive skills that he even bowled a triple-wicket maiden. The left-arm seamer was "unlucky" to miss out of India's squad for the T20 World Cup, according to former Sunrisers Hyderabad coach Tom Moody, but he continues to front up to bowl the difficult overs for his franchise. Natarajan spoke to us about the challenges of being a bowler this IPL, Pat Cummins' leadership, and bowling to MS Dhoni at Chepauk, among other things.
When you, Heinrich Klaasen and Co visited a mall in Hyderabad, a lot of people were chanting your name and Klaasen's. Are you enjoying the reception you're getting in Hyderabad this season?
I was very excited. I don't think we've had this much attention during all these years in Hyderabad. There was a lot of crowd and we got mobbed (laughs). Yes, I was very happy to see so many people appreciating and cheering us.
Perhaps it's Sunrisers' explosive brand of cricket that has brought about all the attention. Do you feel your batting line-up has changed the landscape of T20 cricket?
If you ask me, the skill level of batters has improved so much. And most teams have batting depth all the way down to No. 9 or 10. This gives batters the freedom to play their game. Plus, the impact-player rule is an advantage for teams. Batters are all very happy, but only a bowler will understand the mindset of another bowler (laughs).
Even if a team scores 200-plus, the batters are chasing such high targets. As a bowler, it has been very difficult to bowl on these pitches this IPL. If you see that Kolkata-Punjab match, even 260 [261] is not a safe total. Paavam illaya [poor] bowlers? (laughs). That match was like a video game, with most sixes in a T20. As a bowler if you do well this season on these flat pitches, you will have the confidence that you can succeed anywhere.
You usually bowl the last over of the powerplay and come back to bowl at the death. What's it like to have someone like Pat Cummins trust you to bowl those tough overs?
I feel it's an honour for me that Cummins and the SRH team management trust me to bowl those tough overs. I feel since 2020, it has been my process to bowl at the end of the powerplay and at the death.
Initially, it would have been difficult for the team to give me those overs. But after having a bit of success, they would have got confidence in my bowling. And I also have the confidence that I can bowl in any situation. I have had the mindset to adapt according to any situation in T20 cricket. If the batters are scoring a lot of runs, I will try to control and find some success for the team. Since 2020, I've had a clear mindset while bowling the pressure overs.
In this season, we haven't seen too many bowlers with defensive skills. How have you managed to nail the yorker consistently despite the dew?
I feel dew has been a factor in all grounds, not just in Chennai. Even during practice, I bowl with the wet ball, and I have also had previous experiences of bowling in dewy conditions in the IPL. Though you practise for it, there are chances of losing your grip. Even if you miss the yorker by a small margin, the ball will go for six. There's no big secret [to bowling the yorker]. Dew or no dew, I just focus on my execution.
I focused on bowling these slower cutters on wide lines outside off. Even at SRH, I communicated a lot with the coaches about variations and did spot-bowling for the slower bouncer. Both the captain and the support staff have encouraged me to bravely bowl the slower bouncer.
Bhuvi [Bhuvneshwar Kumar] bhai, too, has given me a lot of confidence to bowl the slower one. I've had a chance to work with Bhuvi bhai for seven years. He has always advised me to not take too much pressure and keeps telling me I have all the skills as a bowler. Even after the end of a match, I sit down with him and try to rectify the mistakes I have made in the match. All of this has helped me execute my variations.
You also did well for Tamil Nadu in the Syed Mushtaq Ali and Vijay Hazare tournaments. How did that help you prepare for the IPL?
Yes, the white-ball tournaments went well for me, but the focus has been more on fitness than my bowling in the lead-up to the IPL. I missed the Ranji Trophy because of some pain in my knee. I played the practice game before Tamil Nadu's first Ranji match [in early January], but I couldn't play and went back to rehab.
How did you deal with being on the sidelines once again?
I've worked with Shyam Sundar [the current SRH physio] for ten years and he knows my body well. I also trained regularly at the TNCA and used their gym facilities to be in good shape. My recovery was: gymming one session, training at Chepauk one session, and bowling one session. Also, whenever I need something with my bowling or fitness, I seek inputs from Sreenath Aravind, the former Karnataka left-arm seamer who is now the bowling coach of Baroda. He's my bowling coach. Even during the IPL, I'm in regular touch with him about my bowling.
I have to be patient with the rehab, though. I've had three surgeries, so I started from scratch, and it has been going well so far in the IPL. Touch wood!
You often discuss fields with Cummins during games. How has his captaincy empowered the team and especially the bowling attack?
He gives me a lot of freedom, and in terms of communication with the entire bowling attack, he is very strong. I feel he understands my mindset as a bowler, so it's a big plus that he is my captain. To start with, I will go with my plans and strengths. If I get confused, I have a chat with him and get more clarity. He has told me: "Don't worry, whatever happens, I'm there for you." I'm a quiet person, sometimes I don't even speak much with Indian players. But I've become very attached to Pat Cummins. Obviously, [I'm] delighted to play under a captain who has won world titles.
What's it like to bowl to someone like Klaasen in the nets?
I've bowled to him a few times in practice matches - both in 2024 and 2023. Nets is a closed space, but yes, any bowler, including myself, fears bowling to someone like Klaasen. He's hitting the ball long and far. Too long and too far! It's a learning process for me too. I can understand his strengths and use that information when I come up against him as an opponent.
You came up against CSK for the first time in the IPL at Chepauk this season. How did you keep calm while bowling to MS Dhoni when the crowd was screaming and dancing to the Rajinikanth song "Petta Paaraak"?
Only now that you're telling me do I realise that they played that song (laughs). I had to focus on my job and my execution against him. There was also a lot of dew, but I've played a lot of cricket at Chepauk, so I had the belief that I can even execute with the wet ball. I haven't bowled to him in the IPL at Chepauk, but on other grounds I've bowled a set of four-five decent balls to him. My mindset was that I shouldn't make any errors.
Sameer Rizvi didn't play the game against SRH at Chepauk. But do you recall coming up against him while playing Uttar Pradesh in a thriller in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy last October?
Yes, I remember it was a very close game. Tamil Nadu had scored only 140 [146] and I bowled a tight 19th over, taking the wicket of Dhruv Jurel. It was a good pitch and once the sun was out, the ball came onto the bat in Dehradun. It also had something for the bowlers. I hope we can play all games on that pitch (laughs). To start the domestic season like that was a confidence-booster. It gave me self-confidence for the rest of the season. Rizvi scored 75, but despite him being not out, it was a satisfying feeling for us to win the game.
When you burst onto the scene in Tamil Nadu, you used to swing the ball in sharply. Did the swing disappear somewhere along the way?
I believe I can still get inswing. Even during the Vijay Hazare Trophy, I got wickets with the inswinger. These days, however, the new ball swings for just one or two overs in T20 cricket, and when I come to bowl in the last over of the powerplay in T20 cricket, there is no swing.
Actually, there is no swing for any bowler in this IPL. The wickets have been like that. I think we've played about nine games, but the ball hasn't swung much. Not just for SRH but for most of the teams. But yes, even during practice, I try to swing the new ball and it has been coming out nicely.
Have you had an opportunity to pick the brains of the other left-arm seamers, like Marco Jansen or Fazalhaq Farooqi?
I've travelled with Jansen and Farooqi for two-three years. Farooqi can bowl a lot of slower balls and Jansen can get swing naturally. Jansen also bowls a lot of inswingers, so I try to pick that up from him. All four - Farooqi, Jansen, [Jaydev] Unadkat and Akash [Singh] - have different styles. So, during training I try to learn off them and I've also shared my experiences with them.
Given your recent form and excellent defensive skills at the death, did you expect to be picked for the upcoming T20 World Cup?
Firstly, I was happy to even be part of the selection conversation. I have to thank God for that. After three years, they [selectors] are considering me and there was chatter around my potential selection. Whether I'm selected or not, it's not in my control. To be even part of the discussion is an achievement for me. If you want to climb to the top of a building, you have to take one step at a time. My focus is to execute well and help SRH win games. Not being selected for the World Cup hasn't disturbed me. I always believe that whatever is meant to happen will happen.
You have a stretch of home games coming up. Are you relieved that you will have some cushion to work with on a bigger ground?
Oh yes, very, very happy that we have games coming up on a bigger ground in Hyderabad. Bigger ground - that's the key. Home conditions are an advantage for any team. We will have to assess the wicket, but we can use the boundaries to our advantage if we can execute well. We hope that we can do well, as a bowling attack and as a team, in these conditions.

Deivarayan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo