Throughout his childhood, tennis balls always trumped textbooks for T Natarajan. Even before his board exams, he was spotted more often in cricket grounds than in school, a fact that worried his parents to no end. Residents from his small village near Salem would chide him, advise him to study and remind him of his responsibility towards his ageing parents.
The warnings followed him even as he left to Chennai to pursue a career in cricket. But seven years later, when Natarajan went back to his village on Tuesday, the caution had given way to a magnificent hero's welcome.
On Monday, 25-year-old Natarajan, a left arm pacer from Tamil Nadu became the highest paid Indian uncapped player in the 2017 IPL auction. (Uncapped player refers to anyone who has not played in a national team). His base price was set at Rs 10 lakh, but what followed was a bidding war that ended with him joining the Kings XI Punjab for a mighty sum of Rs 3 crore.
"I was watching the whole auction all alone in the Sanmar company guest house," says Natarajan. "When my name was announced, there was complete silence for the first 50 seconds. My heart was in my mouth."
But he had no reason to worry. His performance in the Tamil Nadu Premier League for the Dindigul Dragons seemed to have made quite an impression on the IPL scouts. "The bidding began and the amount kept increasing. I couldn't believe it. The knot in my stomach was only tightening. Even now, my family is still coming to terms with this. They are just so happy," explains Natarajan.
The young cricketer's father is a daily wage worker in a powerloom factory, while his mother sells chickens from a small stall near their home in Chinnappampatty village in Salem district. "I am the eldest of 5 siblings and growing up we did not have much, it was quite a struggle," says Natarajan.
"We all studied in a Government school and there were no facilities or mentors there who could help me with my cricketing ambitions. I started off by playing tennis ball matches in Salem district. I would go play in every small tournament, inluding the ones held during Deepavali and Pongal," he laughs.
Even at the age of 20, Natarajan had only ever played tennis ball cricket and wasn't sure how to break into the larger circuits. "It was a well-wisher from my village called A Jayaprakash who took me under his wing and helped me join a club in Chennai," he says.
But being in Chennai meant tougher competition and new challenges for the left-arm medium pacer. Natarajan, however was more than ready. From the fourth division team of BSNL, he progressed to the 2nd division team of Chennai and Cements, and later even made it to the 1st division. He now plays for the 1st division team of the Jolly Rovers club.
"Back then my dream was to play the Ranji Trophy for Tamil Nadu and I was fixated on it," says the bowler. His perseverance and consistency earned him a spot in the Tamil Nadu team in 2014, but then came one of the hardest periods in his life. In his first-class debut for Tamil Nadu, Natarajan was reported for suspect (bowling) action. For the young lad, whose ability to bowl yorkers made people sit up and take notice, the complaint was a huge blow.
"I thought it was all over. It was such a difficult period in my life, and I thought I could never play cricket again," he recalls. But his mentors and even the TNCA was not ready to let him give up yet.
R Ashwin's coach from the TNCA, Sunil Subramanian, helped the pacer rectify his action and regain his confidence. "I really owe him for helping me through the whole episode. It was very hard in the beginning. My hand would ache, my body wouldn't cooperate and I thought this would just not be possible. But a year later, my action was rectified."
Natarajan was ready, and just in time for the Tamil Nadu Premier League. It was this young bowler's unpredictable yorkers and clever variation of pace that carried the Dindigul Dragons to the semifinals. "The TNPL was a turning point in my life," says Natarajan, who set up a seven-wicket victory for the Dragons in September last year. "I am really thankful for the opportunity and it has led me to where I am today," he adds.
So, what does his family think of his improving performance? "They don't really understand cricket," Natarajan says laughing. "They are just happy that I am doing well. Despite our limited means, my father and mother have done so much for me and my siblings. They are still toiling. With the money that I will now get, I want to give my siblings the education that they want and my parents the comfort that they deserve," says the bowler, before hurrying off to answer his mother's calls for breakfast.