T Natarajan's excellent introduction could finally end India's long search for a left-arm pacer

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  • At 29 years of age, Thangarasu Natarajan is hardly a budding youngster who is making his maiden foray at the senior level of international cricket. Yet, the Tamil Nadu-native has arrived in Australia with less first-class and domestic appearances than India’s young starlets such as Shubman Gill and Prithvi Shaw.

    On Sunday in front of a partisan Indian crowd at the Sydney Cricket Ground, the left-arm pacer showed none of that inexperience in only his third outing in international cricket. In a T20I clash where every fast bowler from either side went at nearly 10 runs an over, Natarajan stood out starkly with figures of 2-20 from his four overs.

    While Hardik Pandya took all the limelight from India’s series clinching win in Sydney, Natarajan’s display was equally worthy of the Man-of-the-match award. The pacer wouldn’t have even been on the field had spinner Varun Chakravarthy Australian tour not pulled out of the tour due to an injury.

    Not only has Natarajan seized the unexpected opportunity to the hilt, he has also put himself firmly in contention to represent India in the 2021 T20I World Cup on home soil. Seven wickets in three limited-overs appearances are handsome returns for the rookie international who thrust himself into the spotlight with his accurate displays in the 2020 Indian Premier League.

    On a tour where experienced stalwarts such as Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami have been largely subdued, it is Natarajan’s raw exuberance which has helped India turn the tide against the Aussies. It is no surprise that each of Natarajan’s three appearances have culminated in victories for the visitors with his timely wickets.

    His rags-to-riches story has been well documented by several news outlets in the past week and is testament to the role franchise T20 model has played in unearthing hidden talent. Although the southpaw did make his first-class debut for Tamil Nadu five years ago, his career had come to a standstill after he was immediately reported for a suspect bowling action.

    It has taken a remodeled bowling action, patience and heaps of persistence for Natarajan to fight his way back from that early setback. From catching the eye of big franchises with his displays in the Tamil Nadu Premier League to starring for Sunrisers Hyderabad in the 2020 edition of the IPL, it has been some journey from a small village in the Salem district.

    His IPL performances for Hyderabad have seen him quickly gain a reputation as a yorker specialist, and wickets of heavyweights such as Virat Kohli, AB de Villiers were the icing on the cake of a remarkable season. Not many were surprised with his subsequent ascension to international cricket team, though his unfazed nerves on the big stage in Australia has been a welcome relief to the Indian fans.

    His ability to nail yorkers in the death overs should prove to be the perfect supplement to Bumrah and Shami in the T20I World Cups to come in 2021 and 2022. More importantly, Natarajan provides the perfect contrast to an Indian bowling attack which is predominantly right-armed.

    Ever since Irfan Pathan fizzled out at the international level after a meteoric rise, India have been desperately searching for a left-arm pacer to fill the void. Several different bowlers have been experimented in that role to similarly disappointing results. Natarajan’s Sunrisers Hyderabad team-mate Khaleed Ahmed was the last man to audition for the role, while the likes of Barinder Saran and Jaydev Unadkat were the previous candidates to fail the audition.

    It is just three matches into his international career, but the early signs from Natarajan will be highly encouraging for Kohli and the Indian team management. Unlike India’s premier left-arm pacers such as Zaheer Khan and Irfan Pathan, Natarajan doesn’t possess the ability to generate prodigious movement with the new ball.

    However, he compensates for that shortcoming with his accuracy at the death along with some clever change-ups in pace.

    There is just something about the angles created that make left-arm fast bowlers a headache for right-armed batsmen, and India will be delighted to finally have one of their own. Nearly every team at the international level has such a bowler at their disposal currently. Australia has Mitchell Starc, New Zealand have Trent Boult while England have Sam Curran. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s cup is overflowing with the trio of Shaheen Afridi, Wahab Riaz and Mohammad Amir.

    Only time will tell if Natarajan can sustain this initial euphoria and go on to forge a long career. Many have come before him, only to fade out quickly.

    India don’t really need him to lead the bowling attack like a Wasim Akram or a Zaheer Khan. They have the likes of Bumrah and Shami to take care of that mantle.

    They just require him to play an able supporting fiddle while also providing a different dimension to the bowling attack. Well begun is half the job done for Natarajan, and he will now need to maintain his electric start in what will be a busy schedule for India over the next two years.