Tamil Nadu coach says Natarajan is a quick learner, but needs to sharpen game for the long form.

About a month-and-a-half ago, when India had embarked on the tour of Australia, T Natarajan was in the party as a net bowler. He was subsequently drafted into the T20I squad followed by the ODI side and played for India in both formats. Now Natarajan has been named in the Test squad as the injured Umesh Yadav’s replacement.

Natarajan will be in contention to play the third Test in Sydney as India’s third quick bowler. On the face of it, being a left-arm seamer, he brings variety into the pace attack. Bowling over the wicket, he can create footmarks outside the right-hander’s off stump for Ravichandran Ashwin to manoeuvre. But the Indian 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 and plan his wickets.

If he plays, Natarajan will return home as an international in all three formats. For someone from Chinnappampatti, a village 36 kilometres off Salem in Tamil Nadu, it’s been a fairy-tale rise for the 29-year-old; he faced hardship as a child and teenager and without his exceptional cricket skills, could have ended up being a porter or a weaver like his father. Natarajan is the Indian Premier League’s (IPL) gift to Indian cricket. A fine season with Sunrisers Hyderabad in the 2020 IPL saw him enhance his reputation as a yorker specialist.

With six wickets in three T20Is and another couple in an ODI in Australia, Natarajan has made a seamless progression to white-ball international cricket. But Test cricket is a different ball game. It’s the ultimate test of a cricketer’s skills, where a medium pacer needs to go beyond pinpoint yorkers, deceptive slower deliveries and the cliché that a left-arm seamer will add variety. To start with, Test cricket demands swing from a pace bowler apart from other variations to get the better of batsmen. Natarajan’s first-class career is still in its formative stage with just 20 matches and 64 wickets at 27.03, attesting that he is not a red-ball thoroughbred yet.

“He (Natarajan) is a very good trier and I’m sure that working with (Bharat) Arun (India’s bowling coach), he will learn quickly. As a left-arm seamer, he has that natural angle (the ball that slants across the right-hander) and with the red ball, he could bring the ball in also. But it’s a learning process for him,” Tamil Nadu head coach Diwakar Vasu told The Indian Express.

Natarajan plays for Tamil Nadu in domestic cricket and Vasu has been working with him since last season. T20 cricket allows a bowler to be a tad one-dimensional. Yorkers and slower deliveries are staple for fast bowlers in the format where batsmen try to force the pace and commit mistakes. In Test cricket, batsmen put heavy price tags on their wickets.

Grabbing the opportunity

“See, I am very happy for him and want him to play Tests and wishing him success. But I am not saying he is going to be immediately successful. He has to learn and I am sure he is a quick learner. We have to see if he is ready for Test cricket. It will depend on how he grabs the opportunity (if it comes),” Vasu said.

So, what are the aspects Natarajan needs to learn? “He needs to swing the ball. He needs to bowl a more consistent line. He also needs to cut the ball (off the seam). 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. I think (if he plays), he needs to bowl up, work on his swing, work on his angles. That would be a better option for him,” the Tamil Nadu coach observed.

The potential disadvantages can make Natarajan a stock bowler, a restrictive option. Vasu agreed. “Somebody who is making his Test debut, who is not express 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.”

Over the past two seasons in the Ranji Trophy, Tamil Nadu played the majority of their home matches on turners. Natarajan didn’t play all the games last season, but Tamil Nadu batsman Baba Aparajith allayed fears as regards to his ability to bowl long spells.

“I have played with him for three-four years now, and he is a very hardworking bowler. He doesn’t get tired very easily. He can bowl long spells. He can come back and bowl at same pace,” Aparajith told this paper.

Aparajith captained Natarajan in Tamil Nadu’s Ranji Trophy match against Railways last season and used the seamer as a strike bowler. “Whenever I brought him back into the attack, the main aim was generally to get wickets,” Aparajith said, insisting that Natarajan could be used as a strike bowler in Tests also. “He is very accurate and pretty sharp off the wicket as well.”

Options for third seamer

With Umesh Yadav ruled out of the Test series due to a calf muscle injury he sustained during the second Test, India have three options for the third seamer’s slot – Navdeep Saini, Shardul Thakur and Natarajan.

Navdeep Saini

He was picked for all three formats, but the BCCI informed that Saini had complained of back spasms ahead of the ODI series, although he played two matches. The right-arm quick was very expensive, returning figures of 1/83 and 0/70 respectively and wasn’t picked for the T20Is. In a tour game against Australia A, Saini had 3/19 in the first innings but gave away 87 runs in 16 overs without a wicket in the second. After Mohammed Shami suffered an arm fracture, the Indian team management decided to pick Mohammed Siraj for the second Test and the latter vindicated the selection with a five-wicket match haul on his debut.

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 ability to extract bounce. He 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 Saini 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 his bowling.

Shardul Thakur

Thakur was included in the Test squad as Shami’s replacement. He made his Test debut against the West Indies in 2018, which remains his only Test yet. A fully-fit Indian fast-bowling unit comprising Jasprit Bumrah, Ishant Sharma, Shami and Umesh leaves no vacancy for squad players. In Australia, however, the Indian pace pack is severely depleted.

A domestic cricket stalwart with 62 first-class matches and 206 wickets, the 29-year-old can swing the ball both ways at decent pace (around 135kph). He can reverse the old ball as well. Thakur provides an all-round option in terms of attack and defence.

T Natarajan

As Vasu said, he could be better used as a restrictive option. 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 pitch assists spinners as the match progresses.

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