Updated: January 16, 2021 8:07:50 am
In September last year, January 2021 seemed so far away. T Natarajan left home in Chinnappampatti, near Salem, for the Indian Premier League already thinking of his return flight in mid-November, the month he would become a father for the first time. He had already decided on the temples he should visit and the rituals he should perform after returning home, besides growing a beard till the child was born.
Some 360 kilometres south of Chinnappampatti, in Chennai, Washington Sundar was restlessly waiting for the day he would board the flight to the UAE. Bereft of competitive cricket for nearly four months, his life, he said in a Royal Challengers Bangalore video, felt lifeless. “I wish I could just keep on playing cricket non-stop,” he said.
Four months later, beyond their wildest dreams or fantasies, necessitated by a chain of unusual incidents and unprecedented circumstances, both found themselves as Test cricketers, playing a pre-eminent role on the opening day of the decisive fourth Test at the Gabba. Sundar heckled the wicket of the most prolific batsman in contemporary Test cricket, Steve Smith, before Natarajan’s twin strikes, of centurion Marnus Labuschagne and Matthew Wade, limited the damage Australia would have inflicted on India. But for their timely strikes, the day’s final score (274/5) would have assumed monstrous proportions.
It’s learnt that Natarajan was in contest with Kuldeep Yadav for the fifth bowler’s slot. Sundar’s batting, bowling control and potential plans of leg-trap against Smith and Labuchagne made him a sure shot to replace Ravindra Jadeja. The team management felt that at the Gabba, it would be wiser to go with Natarajan for his control, left-armer’s angle, and ability to reverse from round the stumps. In Jadeja’s absence, it’s expected that Yadav will play a vital role in the home series against England.
On the most overwhelming day of their careers, neither debutant underwhelmed. At no point did it weigh on them that one was replacing arguably the finest fast bowler in India’s history, and the other the finest off-spinner of this generation. Far from shedding nerves or being over-ecstatic, both traits counterproductive, they exuded an unreal composure, as if they had been part of the side for ages, as if they were too familiar with the rigours of the five-day game. Washington had tasted international cricket — he has featured in 26 T20Is and a solitary ODI before the Australia tour. For Natarajan, it was uncharted waters.
Truth stranger than fiction
Neither, anyway, would have nurtured even faint hopes of making their Test debuts on this tour. Washington was part of just the T20I squad, Natarajan was chosen among the reserves before Varun Chakravarty picked up an injury and he was named as the replacement. Thereon, their stories took more twists and turns than an O Henry short story. Natarajan was picked for the third ODI, and then the T20Is. Washington featured in all three T20Is.
Both were supposed to leave after the white-ball leg, but were asked to stay back as net bowlers for the red-ball leg. It’s an unusual scenario, as net bowlers are usually sourced from the local cricket association. But in these unusual times, the teams usually carry over-large squads. Both were thrilled, though Natarajan was longing to see his daughter. But his childhood coach A Jayaprakash called him to say “not to worry about things back home.” “I told him just to keep his focus on his game. It was the best chance in his life. I told him to take every net session as a Test match,” says Jayaprakash.
It was a moment of unalloyed joy and pride for Jayaprakash, the first person to spot Natarajan during a tennis-ball tournament eight years ago and fast-track his staggering journey from a nondescript weaving village to Chennai and then to Brisbane. It’s a remarkable, class-transcending moment in Indian cricket too — the son of a porter and tea-shack vendor playing Test cricket. There have been several famished-to-famous stories in the IPL, but few in international cricket. Natarajan’s comeuppance has not just been refreshing, but also reassuring.
Washington’s is a more straightforward tale; he progressed through the conventional route, via age-group cricket, playing the U-19 World Cup, making his First-Class debut at 17, IPL debut a year later and putting on the India jersey at the end of 2017, egged on by a cricket-crazy sister. Unlike Natarajan, who exudes a rustic charm, Washington is a metro-boy with oodles of confidence and a hint of swagger. The big stage hardly frazzles him, it’s as if he were born into it. Like in 2017, after Rising Pune Supergiant’s chief spinner Ravichandran Ashwin was injured, he was called for trials.
Unfazed by bowling to Steve Smith, MS Dhoni or Ben Stokes in the nets, Washington swiftly earned a contract. Dhoni threw him straightaway into the deep end, and he did not look back. He featured in all their remaining games and ended up with the second-best economy rate in the league. “I know how important it is to latch onto every single chance you get at any level of the game. You can take nothing for granted,” he had told this newspaper once.
However, both had one big myth to bust on their debuts. That they can be more than useful with the red ball. Both have modest First-Class experience — Washington has grabbed 30 wickets from 12 games while Natarajan has 64 from 20. Not middling numbers but not spectacular either. There was always a rider that hung to their necks: Are they good with the red ball? Can they bowl long spells? Do they have Test-match temperament?
On Friday, they ticked all those boxes. Both were not over-conscious of themselves, but bowled with terrific self-awareness, craft and cunning. They were barely frazzled when bowling against Smith, arguably the finest batsman around, and Labuschagne, the highest run-getter of the series.
Not just Natarajan and Washington, it has been a feature of India’s Test debutants in this series. They burst out as if they were fully formed, ready in mind and body. They are not overawed by the grandness of the stage or the reputation of the opponents. Mohammed Siraj and Navdeep Saini for example. Siraj, in fact, is doing a mini-Stuart Broad on David Warner, knocking him out twice in three bouts. In the company of Shardul Thakur and Natarajan, he compensated for the injured Saini on the first day at Gabba.
Together against adversity
It reflects the team ethos. This Indian team has a magnificent fieriness. There is also a sense of togetherness. For instance, even though Jasprit Bumrah was not fit to play, he was lurking near the boundary rope, offering advice to Siraj, Saini and Natarajan. Similarly, Ashwin would be seen alongside Washington. Nobody is detached, everyone is involved. It’s the hallmark of great teams. And from this cohesiveness emerges a sense of courage that one could ride the roughest of waves and repel the fiercest of storms, a conviction that no setback could set them back. If they don’t have Ashwin and Bumrah, they have Washington and Natarajan. For this pair of debutants, in January 2021, September 2020 might seem so far away. Almost a different world altogether.
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