In the build-up to this season’s Ranji grind, Tamil Nadu coach Hrishikesh Kanitkar decided to take the probables to the picturesque hill station of Dehradun, some 3,000 kilometres from Chennai, the fulcrum of Tamil Nadu cricket. It was a perfect getaway, an escape as much from the notoriously muggy October weather as the chaotic buzz of the city, where also hangs over the heads an oppressive sceptre of underachievement each time a pre-season camp begins. It also gave Kanitkar, who wasn’t quite acquainted with the players, the opportunity to assess some of the youngsters in the squad.
He was instantly impressed by a skinny youngster, who had been raved about in the just-concluded Tamil Nadu Premier League. But apart from the hype he generated in the T20 league, the coach had little inkling of his craft, and he’s prudent enough to realise that success in T20s wouldn’t necessarily guarantee similar rewards in First-Class cricket.
If any, it was with a cloud of scepticism that Kanitkar first watched K Vignesh in the nets. But the coach binned all doubts about the 22-year-old, whose face still bears traces of adolescent innocence, almost instantly. He immediately scrawled his name down in the imaginary team sheet. “His rhythm, his action, the ease with which he could generate certain amount of pace. That’s what I liked about him,” says Kanitkar.
It was not a mere hunch, but accumulated judgement shaped by nearly two decades of domestic cricket. Duly, Vignesh was in the team sheet for the season opener against Mumbai. The youngster from Ambattur, a nondescript suburb of Chennai, instantly justified Kanitkar’s wisdom. It must have been the lushness of the Lahli surface that prompted his inclusion as the fourth seamer, but he displayed no nerves, skinning through the Mumbai batting line-up to snare a five-for on debut. He took four more in the second innings to herald his arrival in domestic cricket.
But still, doubts lingered about his ability to bargain wickets on surface less friendly than the Lahli-types. It took him just three more matches to prove he’s not a green-track bully. On a placid surface in Raipur, he scythed through Baroda, picking up his second five-for. Followed four-wicket hauls in Rajkot and Nagpur, both traditionally slow turners with negligible swing and zip. The tour de force was perhaps his four-for in the second innings in Vizag, for the sheer context of the match and the quality of the opposition batsmen. He nailed Kaunian Abbas, who was stitching up a useful partnership of 61 with KL Rahul. His wicket triggered an implosion, from which Karnataka never recovered. The protagonist of the implosion was Vignesh himself, accounting for Manish Pandey (0), Shreyas Gopal and Karun Nair in a lengthy spell that read 12-1-43-4.
Apart from Pandey’s dismissal, when the ball spat awkwardly from a good-length area, all his wickets were planned and plotted to perfection. “It was the usual length which I bowl, I bowl back of a length but the ball kicked in. It was rising from a length. It was unexpected that he edged it or gloved it. I had not planned on it,” Vignesh reflects after the match.
He also seamlessly switched roles with left-arm seamer T Natarajan, depending on the batsman. Against a well-set KL Rahul, he deployed a more defensive line, while left-arm seamer Natarajan attacked him from the other end. It was a deliberate strategy, as he later explains: “Rahul came with a different plan of placing the ball to third man, it was really difficult to pick initially. The lengths we were bowling, this wicket was assisting back-of-length bowling, but he countered it really well and was playing to the third-man region. We had fields but still couldn’t exploit it there. So l came up with a different plan, tried to bowl tight to him and then attack the batsmen at the other end.”
However, there were also times when he laboured for wickets, but was always quick to make the adequate adjustments and realise that medium pacers, especially someone who relies on swing and seam rather than outright pace, don’t always gets immediate dues. “You can never say it’s easy. Every wicket is difficult for me to get,” says Vignesh, who tops Tamil Nadu’s bowling charts with 37 wickets, at 19.83 runs apiece.
He has been the perfect antithesis in Natarajan. Unlike Vignesh, Natarajan bowls yorkers at whim and can whip up decent pace. He has an uncanny, quick-arm action and supple wrists that can snap through 90 degrees at the point of release, reminiscent of Bangladesh seamer Mustafizur Rahman. Natarajan couldn’t stop giggling when someone brought up this comparison during a press conference inhis highly prolific TNPL stint. “I felt happy for it, but at the same time, I didn’t take it seriously because Mustafizur is someone who has represented his country at a very young age and performed well at the international level. I have a long way to go before being compared with such a great bowler,” was his shy reply.
TN’s own “Fizz”
But what probably escaped him was that it was not only an identical action that prompted this comparison, but a similar backstory. Like Mustafizur who hails from a dotty village in the remote Sathkira district, Natarajan is from Chinnappampatti, a village in Salem, some 300 kilometres from Chennai. His father Thangarasu is a daily-wage labourer in a saree factory, his mother runs a wayside-tea shop. He hadn’t watched any cricket on TV, for his family couldn’t afford one. He never wore shoes until he became a popular tennis-ball player in the district. And till 20, he hadn’t even touched a leather ball. Like Mustafizur, whose brother pillion-rode him for 40-odd kilometres for training, Natarajan had an understanding neighbour, Jayaprakash, who supported him through every phase of his career.
Worse still, finally when he got all the right breaks and made his Ranji debut, against West Bengal early last year, and shone with a three-wicket haul, he was reported for a suspect action, one among the 177 to be reported last year.
That was a time when he deliberated on quitting the sport altogether, only to be dissuaded by close friends. For nearly a year, he was almost invisible, not even playing regularly in the TNCA first division. But in this TNPL, he made a terrific comeback, like a blast from the past, with a realigned action and a retooled skillset. He impressed several of Tamil Nadu’s senior players such as Abhinav Mukund, who he stupefied in a TNPL match. Abhinav’s team, Albert Tuti Patriots, required 13 runs in the last over. At the other end was another promising batsmen, Washington Sundar. Natarajan fired in six searing yorkers. Abhinav and Sundar had to contend with just five singles. The Tamil Nadu selectors, too, were left impressed and he was summoned back to the team. He has made a massive difference, with 23 wickets at 29 each.
The fairytale doesn’t end there, he believes. It has just begun, he says, and the climax shall be reached only if he breaks into the Indian team. “That’s my dream,” he says. There’s a fire within him, feels Kanitkar, but for the while he is helping his domestic team keep the dream of winning a Ranji title after 18 years alive.
Brief scores: Karnataka 88 & 150 (KL Rahul 77; Vignesh 4/53, Natarajan 3/40) lost to Tamil Nadu 152 & 87/3 (Dinesh Karthik 41 not out) by 7 wickets.