Twin tales of toil turning to IPL treasures
This is a story you have heard many times before. Rags to riches. The rise of the underdog.
Seam bowlers T Natarajan and Mohammed Siraj have been underdogs for most of their lives. But, when the 2017 IPL auction ended up becoming their biggest payday, their lives, as they have known them, have probably changed irreversibly. Left-armer Natarajan, 25, earned 30 times his base price of INR 10 lakh to become the highest-paid uncapped Indian player, while the 22-year-old right-arm quick Siraj attracted a bid of INR 2.6 crore.
Born to Thangarasu, a daily-wage worker in the weaving industry and Shantha, a wayside meat seller, Natarajan hails from Chinnappampatti, a hamlet 35 km from Salem in Tamil Nadu. The eldest of five siblings, Natarajan was consumed by cricket right from the outset.
Siraj's obsession with the game began after he won an inter-school tournament on Independence Day while in class seven. The son of an autorickshaw driver in Khaja Nagar, Banjara Hills in Hyderabad, Siraj would gladly bunk classes to play cricket.
Neither Natarajan nor Siraj had seen much of the cricket ball before turning 20. To them, cricket meant hurling a tennis ball at great speed at the batsman. Natarajan's love for the game was stoked by his neighbour, Jayaprakash anna, who ran the Chinnappampatti Cricket Club. His ability to nail the inch-perfect yorker was burnished at this club.
"I remember winning a game in the Super Over in one of the matches," he told ESPNcricinfo. "I bowled three balls and took two wickets with two yorkers. I won many trophies with the yorker."
Jayaprakash, though, wanted Natarajan to replicate the same skills with the cricket ball. He encouraged his younger colleague to move to Chennai and test himself in TNCA's competitive leagues. Long before his skills grabbed eyeballs, he struggled with the cricket ball. "I didn't know anything about gripping the cricket ball and found it difficult to control initially, but later got used to it."
Siraj, on the other hand, had no such teething troubles. "It didn't seem different when I played with the cricket ball. I just wanted to bowl fast," he said. "I am a natural inswing bowler - I never learnt it or anything. I haven't done anything [to develop the outswinger or other deliveries] till now. It's on the back of my mind that if I change something my pace will drop. I will keep bowling my stock line."
In 2015, even as Siraj's reputation grew with the tennis ball, a friend gently chided him for not making better use of his talents. "He said there was a friend of his who played at Charminar CC, and asked me to come to the nets there." Siraj turned up and did what he liked best - bowl fast and bounce the batsmen - and it didn't escape the attention of Hyderabad's cricketing circle.
"I was taking five wickets match after match. How do you ignore someone whose name appears in the papers all the time?" he said. "They included me in the senior zonal side before being named in the probable of the state Under-23 side. I took five wickets in my second selection match. That changed my life."
Conversely, Natarajan's life-changing moment came in the shortest format via the Tamil Nadu Premier League last year. He claimed 10 wickets in seven matches for Dindigul Dragons at less than 7.5 runs an over. Against eventual champions Tuti Patriots, Natarajan sent down six consecutive yorkers and successfully defended 12 runs in the Super Over.
If the IPL scouts watching the game weren't impressed enough already, he practically dared them to ignore his performances in the 2016-17 Ranji Trophy. Along with Aswin Crist and K Vignesh, Natarajan was part of a formidable pace pack that played a major role in Tamil Nadu's run to the semi-final. For someone who had to endure the trauma of being reported for a suspect action after his first-class debut in 2014-15, Natarajan, by now bowling with a remodelled action, claimed 24 wickets in eight matches, including six in the quarter-final against Karnataka.
Like Natarajan, Siraj, too, played only one game in his debut season, in 2015-16. In his first full season, however, he finished as the third-leading wicket-taker with 41 scalps in nine games at 18.92. Such rich numbers were rewarded with a call-up to the Rest of India team in the Irani Cup, where his persistent bouncers hassled Gujarat's batsmen.
Last week, Siraj was selected in the India A squad for the warm-up game against the touring Australian side, but didn't feature in the playing XI. In three days' time, however, the auction would bring him rewards of proportions he might not have anticipated.
A few days before the auction, Siraj spoke about how he awaited his remuneration from the Ranji Trophy, so that he could ask his father to quit driving autorickshaws and stay at home. "If he doesn't listen to a cricket player, who will he listen to?" he said with a chuckle. After the death of his oldest brother in a drowning accident more than a decade ago, Siraj wanted to ensure he was always there for his parents and older brother, an engineer.
"The death of my brother affected my parents the most," he said. "He was after all the first child. Now, they get a lot of happiness out of my success in cricket. I don't want to let them down, and hopefully I play for India and will play in the IPL with their blessings."
Natarajan, too, hoped that the IPL windfall would help boost his family's financial health. "Romba romba sandhoshama irukken (I am very, very happy now)," he said. "I never expected to be picked for such a big price. From Chinnappampatti to Kings XI Punjab...I don't have words to explain the journey. My family is extremely delighted. I will repay our loans with this money. I am now leaving for Chinnappampatti where my family members and friends are waiting to celebrate with me."
For Siraj, the celebrations in his neighbourhood have been a constant for some time now. "Humare mohalle mein to mela hi chalta rahta hai (there is always some festivity surrounding my performance in my neighbourhood)," he said. "I want to be an example for people around me, that someone can rise up through passion and hard work."
Siraj, who lives in a one-bedroom house, admitted to being dazed by the luxuries on offer at the star hotels while touring during the domestic season. "It was the first time I had stayed in hotels like those. Just the lavish spread at breakfast, lunch…I have no words to say."
Natarajan, though, was aware of the expectations that came with a hefty pay packet. "It brings a lot of pressure. I have to somehow prove my worth and do my best for Kings XI Punjab."
Siraj and Natarajan would do well, however, to dodge two pitfalls that have swallowed several careers before they even took off: the pressure of the price tag and the seductive charm of overnight riches and spotlight.
Arun Venugopal is a correspondent at ESPNcricinfo. @scarletrun
Deivarayan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo