Tamil Nadu left-arm seamer T Natarajan has been included in the Indian squad for the remaining two Tests in Australia as the injured Umesh Yadav’s replacement. Being a left-arm bowler, he will add variety to the Indian pace attack. But the team management will have to take a call on whether he is ready for Test cricket in Australia, where he might have to bowl all day. Along with Natarajan, India have Navdeep Saini and Shardul Thakur to choose from to fill the third seamer’s slot.
IND vs AUS: Is Natarajan a favourite to play the third Test?
Natarajan’s is a rags-to-riches story, which makes him a sentimental favourite. It’s been a fairytale rise for the 29-year-old from Chinnappampatti, a village 36 kilometre off Salem in Tamil Nadu. He faced hardship as a child and teenager and without his exceptional cricket skills could have ended up being a weaver like his father. Natarajan went to Australia as a net bowler and he could return home as an international in all three formats. However, while picking the XI for the third Test, the Indian team management will keep sentiment at arm’s length.
What does Natarajan bring to the table?
As Tamil Nadu batsman Baba Aparajith, who captained Natarajan in a Ranji Trophy match against Railways last season, told The Indian Express, the medium pacer could bowl long spells. “He can come back and bowl at same pace.” Then again, over the last few seasons, Tamil Nadu played majority of their Ranji Trophy matches, especially home matches, on turners where spinners obviously did the bulk of bowling.
Natarajan is pretty accurate, which has contributed to his white-ball success. If he can take that to red-ball cricket, he could be a good option to do the holding job at one end. Also, as a left-arm seamer bowling over the wicket, Natarajan can create footmarks – without running into the danger area – outside the right-hander’s off stump – a potential target spot for off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin. Traditionally, the Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG) assists spinners as the match progresses. Natarajan has been working with the Indian team’s bowling coach Bharat Arun for over a month-and-a-half now and like his Tamil Nadu Ranji team coach Diwakar Vasu said: “He is a very good trier and a quick learner.”
What could be the potential shortcomings?
The third Test will be played in Sydney and traditionally the SCG pitch helps swing bowlers on the first morning before it eases out. Natarajan made a seamless progression from the Indian Premier League (IPL) to white-ball international cricket, coming as an injury replacement during India’s ongoing tour of Australia. He played the third ODI and although he accounted for 70 runs for his two wickets, he bowled well under pressure towards the end. In three T20Is, he topped the Indian bowling chart with six wickets at an economy rate of less than seven runs per over.
Test cricket, however, demands swing from a pace bowler. In the shorter formats, Natarajan has thrived on pinpoint yorkers and deceptive slower deliveries. Top of off stump becomes the target area for quicks in long-form cricket and Natarajan will have to adjust his line and length accordingly. Natarajan will have the natural left-arm bowler’s angle and also, as Vasu mentioned, he can bring the ball back into the right-hander. But Natarajan is not a natural swing bowler, which can adversely affect his potency in Test cricket. At his pace – around 130kph – the bouncer is not a wicket-taking option either. Batsmen put a heavy price on their wickets in Test cricket and a medium pacer needs to go beyond yorkers, slower deliveries and the cliché that a left-arm seamer will add variety.
“Test cricket is not easy. Not many of these slower balls and yorkers are going to be effective as far as Test cricket is concerned. And I don’t think that at his pace (around 130kph), bouncers could be a (wicket-taking) option,” Vasu told this paper.
Can Natarajan be used as a defensive option?
On the face of it, Natarajan’s bowling is cut out for the holding job in red-ball cricket. Aparajith said he used him as a strike bowler when he was the captain, but Test cricket is the highest level that allows very little margin for error. “Somebody who is making his Test debut, who is not express (fast) and who doesn’t swing the ball (much); you cannot expect him to be the strike bowler. There are other strike bowlers. He can be used as a bowler who comes in and bowls, and takes a couple of wickets,” Vasu observed. Also, Natarajan doesn’t have enough first-class cricket experience to fall back on if things start going against him. In 20 first-class matches so far, he has taken 64 wickets at an average of 27.
So the Indian team management will have to decide if they want the team’s third seamer to be a restrictive option to basically do the containment job. The Indian pace attack has a strike bowler in Jasprit Bumrah, while Mohammed Siraj returned with a match haul of five wickets on his Test debut in Melbourne. Siraj, though, is still learning the ropes as far as Test cricket is concerned and needs a third pacer who can complement him, mixing caution with aggression. Ravindra Jadeja’s left-arm spin already offers the team an excellent restrictive option.
What about Saini getting the nod?
Saini provides an out-an-out attacking option. He can go past 145kph and when in rhythm, the 28-year-old can be quite a handful for any batsman because of his pace and his ability to extract bounce. Saini is a hit-the-deck bowler, who can cut the ball into the right-hander off the seam apart from making the odd delivery straighten off a length. But he can be inconsistent with his line and length, especially when batsmen are in command. Restrictive bowling to keep the batsmen under pressure, especially on unresponsive pitches, is a weak area in Saini’s bowling.
Further, this is his first Australian tour and it’s not easy for a newcomer to hit the right length on Austrian pitches straightaway. Saini struggled in the two ODIs he played.
Does Thakur provide an all-round option?
A domestic cricket stalwart with 62 first-class matches and 206 wickets, the 29-year-old can swing the ball both ways at a decent pace (around 135kph). He can reverse the old ball as well. Thakur provides an allround option in terms of attack and defence. And he has previous experience of playing at this level, having made his Test debut against the West Indies in 2018.
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