Thangarasu Natarajan’s Punjab deal the latest product of IPL’s dream factory | The Spin

A bowler who honed his craft with a tennis ball and has played only four T20 games for his state side offers the latest example of the IPL’s capacity for fairytales

‘If not for cricket, I would have become a coolie’

The village of Chinnappampatti, 20 miles from Salem, 200 miles from Chennai, is so small that it does not even seem to show up on most maps. It has five bus stops, three temples, two schools and, as of this week, one hero. His name is Thangarasu Natarajan, though most who know him call him “Nattu”. He is 25, a left-arm fast bowler who has taken exactly four wickets in Twenty20 matches for his state side, Tamil Nadu. And on Monday morning he was bought for $445,000 by Kings XI Punjab in the Indian Premier League player auction. Natarajan never even held a cricket ball until he was 20. When he was young his mother worked in a snack stall, and his father wherever there was work to be had: as a railway porter, or in one of the many textile factories around about. They had five children, and many more important things to spend their money on than Dukes and Readers.

Natarajan was supposed to follow his father, become what they call a “daily wage worker”, until a local cricketer spotted him playing in a village tournament, took him under his wing, and arranged for him to have a trial with a fourth division club side in Chennai. In the next five years Natarajan worked his way up through the leagues, from one club to another to another until he got into Tamil Nadu’s Ranji Trophy team. He has had to rebuild his action too, after he was called for throwing on his first-class debut. It took him a year, but he did it, in the end, without compromising his one outstanding skill. Natarajan has a wicked yorker, a trick he learned, he’s said, because the only way to beat the bat in tennis ball cricket was to bowl fast through the air and full at the feet.

Last September Natarajan was playing for Dindigul Dragons in the Tamil Nadu Premier League against Albert TUTI Patriots. The match went to a super over. Abhinav Mukund was on strike. When Natarajan was playing in the Chennai leagues, Mukund was opening the batting for India during their 2011 Test tour of England. But Natarajan won their duel. He delivered five perfect yorkers, and one full toss, Mukund and his two team-mates managed to score five runs off them, for the loss of a single wicket and, ultimately the match. It was the kind of performance, excellence under intense pressure, that made the IPL scouts take notice. Five months later Natarajan has become one of the best-paid players in India, sold for 30 times his reserve price. “If not for cricket,” Natarajan told Cricbuzz on Monday, “I would have become a coolie.”

When the IPL held the first player auction in 2008, a lot of players felt pretty uneasy with it. Adam Gilchrist said it all made him feel a little like a prize cow at a cattle market. Of course the auction was Lalit Modi’s idea. “I believe in free markets deciding everything,” Modi said. “Let the people decide, in certain cases you might lose, in others you might win.” Never mind that this particular market had been designed and regulated by Modi, who set spending limits for each team, and, he later insisted, was even forced to fix it so that certain star players were bound to sign for particular teams. The auction was just another of Modi’s publicity wheezes, and it worked wonderfully well.

Each year, the IPL auction delivers a Cinderella story. This year, it’s not just Natarajan. There’s also Mohammed Siraj, a 22-year-old from Khaja Nagar in Hyderabad, the son of an autorickshaw driver, another self-taught fast bowler who learned to play in tennis ball cricket. He was bought for $375,000 by Sunrisers Hyderabad. Siraj spoke on Monday about his very first cricket match, a club game: “My maternal uncle was the captain of the team. I got nine wickets for 20-odd runs in that 25-over game. My uncle was so happy he gave me Rs500 as a prize. It was a great feeling. But today when the bid was raised to 2.6 crore, I just went numb.” He says he plans to buy his parents a new house, to say sorry for all the times they caught him skipping school so he could play.

Similar scenes were playing out across the world. In Dubai the 22-year-old batsman Chirag Suri, who has played three games for the United Arab Emirates, was watching the auction on TV with his parents. His father had raced back from work with his construction firm, and was home in time to see his son be bought by Gujarat Lions. Suri had caught the eye of the Gujarat coach Brad Hodge during a training session at the Masters Champions League last spring. And in Harare, where Afghanistan are playing a series against Zimbabwe, Mohammad Nabi was up performing his morning prayers, before he settled down to watch the auction on a live stream. Nabi became the first Afghan to be bought by an IPL side. He joined Sunrisers Hyderabad for $45,000. He said it was “the happiest day in my life”.

Nabi seemed to be even more pleased for his young team-mate, the 18 year-old leg-spinner Rashid Khan. He was caught in a bidding war between Mumbai Indians and Sunrisers Hyderabad, so fetched the highest price of them all, just under $600,000. Back in Kabul, at the head office of the Afghan Cricket Board, around 150 people had gathered to watch the auction play out. The auction hasn’t just transformed the lives of the two men who were bought, but given a boost to the entire country as it pushes to become a full, Test-playing member of the ICC. “It’s been a dream come true”, said Rashid. This week, he, and everyone else involved in the IPL, aren’t in cricket but the fairytale business.

This is an extract taken from the Spin, the Guardian’s weekly cricket email. To subscribe just visit this page and follow the instructions.

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Andy Bull

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