If you drive to the west along State Highway 219 from Salem for about an hour, you will chance upon Chinnappampatti, a small village under the Pappampadi Panchayat, Taramangalam block of Salem district.
Nondescript, with not even a good tea shop or restaurant to stop by, in case you have aching legs or a full bladder, from a long drive, this village falls under the Assembly constituency of current Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, Edappadi K. Palaniswami, who belongs to the Kongu Vellala Gounder community, a dominant caste of the area, which is classified as a backward caste.
However, it is likely that this village will be well known by now to all Indians, or will soon be because of one man — T Natarajan.
The 'yorker king' of India, who by making his ODI debut at Canberra recently (ODI cap number 232 for India) has brought back the focus on meritocracy, as mentioned by Harsha Bhogle in a recent tweet.
Salem district is part of Kongu Nadu, a historical region largely in western Tamil Nadu, ruled by the Cheras during the Sangam age.
The Vanniyars, classified as a most backward caste, and Adi Dravidas and Arunthathiyars, who are scheduled castes, are in significant numbers in Salem district.
A Google search using the terms ‘Thangarasu Natarajan’ and ‘Caste’ give 1,500-odd results, but none of them reveal his caste. Before you term me casteist, let me clarify that the sociology of sport, especially cricket, is of great interest to me and I am sure, to others as well. We need to understand where our heroes come from, what challenges they have faced and the barriers they have had to face and break.
Caste is a much maligned term, but it retains its primacy as an identity, at least in non-metropolitan India.
Yet apart from Ramachandra Guha writing about the Palwankar brothers, in his 2002 book, A Corner of a Foreign Field, we have hardly explored how our cricket teams have evolved in terms of the representation of various castes and whether various trades within crickets — batsmen, fast bowlers, and spinners have had a Varna connection.
Most iconic Indian players have largely been upper caste, till the arrival of Dhoni, from the cricketing nurseries, where the breed and stock are well known.
To add to that is the unique challenge that a southern Indian from a cricketing hinterland may face — Hindi. Most Indian cricketers converse in Hindi or in the increasingly IPLized world of global cricket — English.
A cricketer from rural Tamil Nadu will definitely be underprivileged, and would not be able to communicate with his teammates and captain with ease.
We have to view T Natarajan’s rise from these lenses, document his struggles and how much he has let his abilities do the talking.
His six sigma approach to bowling yorkers, never a centimeter away from target, has already been praised by international commentators including Brett Lee and Tom Moody.
A lot has been said about him, but never enough, one can argue. We still need to explore his background and his story in greater detail, for cricketers will come and go, but stories will remain to inspire future good- for-nothings from back-of-beyond India.
What the Dhoni phenomenon did for tier two towns of India, coming from Ranchi, is folklore now, but the Natarajan story is yet to seep into our collective psyche.
While Munaf Patel came from Ikhar, a village 35 kilometers north of Bharuch, he was discovered by Kiran More, former Indian wicketkeeper and chairman of the selectors board, and sent to the MRF Pace Academy for his ability to bowl at 150 kph.
Natarajan on the other hand, played tennis ball cricket, till the age of 20, till he was spotted by Jayaprakash, a virtually unknown club cricketer, who belonged to the same area as Nattu.
It was Jayaprakash, who convinced Natarajan’s family to allow him to travel to Chennai and paid for all his expenses. In Chennai, he caught former India wicketkeeper and the head honcho at Jolly Rovers cricket club, Bharat Reddy’s attention and favour.
Without Jayaprakash, as openly acknowledged by Natarajan, he wouldn’t have gone anywhere. He probably would have played some tennis ball tournaments around Salem and then, when the time came to pack up, would have set up an upgraded version of the roadside eatery that his mother ran.
So much so, that Natarajan’s IPL jersey reads JP Nattu (Shirt Number 44) and his Instagram handle is natarajan_jayaprakash.
Imagine Sachin’s insta handle reading Sachin_Achrekar or Dhoni_Bannerjee for MSD!
Natarajan made his TNPL debut with the Dindigul Dragons in 2016, the inaugural year. By 2017, he had been picked up for Rs 3 crore by the Kings XI Punjab for the IPL.
Disappointment followed with a mediocre season and then injury, after which he largely warmed the bench for Sunrisers Hyderabad for two seasons.
But the money from 2017, didn’t go to his head. By August 2017, in consultation with his mentor Jayaprakash, he opened The Natarajan Cricket Academy in Chinnappampatti.
Not in Chennai, where he could enroll middle class kids for a good monthly tuition fee, not even in Salem, Tamil Nadu’s fifth largest city, which has a steel plant and an airport.
It feels a bit odd that that someone who learnt his cricket ball art fairly late, set up an academy, soon after an IPL cap, even before he had made his name in Ranji Trophy or ever been shortlisted to play for India.
Soon enough, quite a few gully cricketers from this area were playing in the TNCA lower division league. In 2019, a beneficiary of Jayaprakash and his mentorship, Ganesan Periaswamy, a Lasith Malinga style slinger, was the star of the TNPL final, taking 5 /15 to guide the Chepauk Super Gillies home in a low-scoring thriller over the Dindigul Dragons.
The Chinnappampatti twins both played for the Tamil Nadu squad, in the Syed Musthaq Ali Trophy, India’s national T-20 tourney in the winter of 2019.
Natarajan is 29. As a fast bowler, he probably has three-five years of cricket at the highest level, left in him.
Injuries are unfair on pacemen; a major one being enough to rob 10-20 kms of their pace and effectively end their careers.
Video analysts work out their weaknesses in double quick time, informing batsmen of the arm positions, release points, even grunt styles and their effect on the deliveries bowled.
Nattu won’t be one of the all-time greats India has had, in any form of the game.
A couple of memorable overseas tours, a match winning toe-crusher, dislodging Jos Butler’s stumps in the 2021 T-20 World Cup in India or a slow bouncer which snares the all-important David Warner in 2022 in Australia, may be his swan song.
His legend, however, has to live on. We need to retell it many more times, in different dialects, on dusty cricket grounds in Rajnandgaon, Mahboobnagar, SriGanganagar or Kokrajhar.
For all the shenanigans of the BCCI, cricket cannot remain confined even to the 52 international venues, neither can it be the fiefdom of the middle class, who can afford to buy their children practice kits and send them to cricket academies.
It will be truly representative and meritocratic in small measure due to Leftu Mani, the Yorker King.
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