Chennai: On a hot afternoon in May, 26-year-old cricketer Thangarasu Natarajan, who has just finished his first season of the Indian Premier League (IPL), is relaxing on a couch in an apartment in Chennai.

Three months earlier, he had sat on the same couch and watched the televised auctions for players. It was a stressful experience. He called his mentor, Ashok Kumar Jaiprakash, and other friends from back home, Chinapampatti, a small village about 36km from Salem.

His teammates from the Dindigul Dragons, part of the Tamil Nadu Premier League (TNPL), were confident he would make it, as was Jaiprakash, whom Natarajan considers an elder brother.

“It was just too much pressure," he recalls. “In my head I knew I would make it but the final bid price was a bit of a shock."

The left-arm fast bowler was picked by Kings XI Punjab for Rs3 crore after an intense bidding war.

The Indian Premier League, founded in 2007 in the heady days and weeks following India’s epic win in the first Twenty20 World Cup, had just scripted one more rags-to-riches story. The popular Twenty20 league inspired a rash of me-too leagues, including the TNPL. Natarajan had made a name for himself in the TNPL for his ability to bowl yorkers. And he had been noticed.

“Obviously, TNPL and IPL are better platforms compared to state clubs and local tournaments because you get noticed on television and through other media," says Natarajan. 

The Chennai apartment where this interview takes place is in Thoraipakkam, near the city’s IT corridor. He and a few other cricketers live there courtesy the Chennai cricket club, Jolly Rovers, which they represent in the local league.

It takes an average player four-five years to graduate to the first division but success came fairly quickly to Natarajan who did it in less than two

It is a storied club.

In 1966, K.S. Narayanan, then managing director of India Cements, took over the reins of the club from S. Rangarajan of The Hindu. In 1977, Narayanan’s son N. Sankar, then managing director of Chemplast (now deputy chairman of the Sanmar Group, which owns Chemplast), stepped in to take control of Jolly Rovers. He has been at the helm since.

Natarajan joined Jolly Rovers in June 2014, after moving to Chennai in 2011. Between 2011 and 2014, he played for various state clubs. In the fourth division of the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association (TNCA), he was the opening bowler for the BSNL Club. In the second division, he played for the popular India Cements second-division team. In 2013, he graduated to the first division team of India Cements. It takes an average player four-five years to graduate to the first division but success came fairly quickly to Natarajan who did it in less than two.

In 2014, Jolly Rovers hired him to play for the team and also offered him a full-time job (paying Rs50,000 a month) at Chemplast.

That was a good year for him. He was subsequently selected to play for Tamil Nadu in the Ranji Trophy. In the Ranji Trophy a player typically gets paid Rs30,000-40,000 per match.

Then, just as things were going swimmingly, adversity struck. Natarajan was called out for suspect action and suspended for a year.

The village green

Natarajan was born to a sari weaver, S. Thangarasu, who worked in Ilampillai (known for its weavers) about 8km from Chinapampatti, and earned Rs1,500 a week.

His mother Santha still sells chicken and beef fry in a tiny shop in their village, earning a meagre Rs300 a day.

Natarajan is the oldest of five children. The family lived in a single-roomed semi-pucca—thatched roof and brick walls—rented house.

Natarajan has vivid memories of the poverty and desperation that characterised his early years.

“We all understood that there was a lack of resources in the house. Our family got rice through the public distribution system. During school terms we survived on midday meals," he says.

As the children grew older, things became tougher. “Everything was a problem—food, health, water, trouble at school," says Natarajan.

Nobody comes with the expectation of financial comfort, it all depends on how much focus you give to your performance- Thangarasu Natarajan

But they looked out for each other, he says. And even though he was the eldest, the others were usually the ones taking care of him.

And he had cricket.

Gully cricket and village tournaments pretty much dominated Natarajan’s life till he turned 20.

In cricket season, a typical day would begin at 8am. He would play in about six villages (each match was six overs long) . He would usually be back home by 7pm. Natarajan has nearly 150 trophies from playing in these local village tournaments. And memories.

Natarajan fondly remembers a match he played in Mecheri. It was the semi-finals; the match went into a super over and he was asked to bowl. The opponents needed four runs to win. Natarajan bowled a dot ball and took two wickets off consecutive deliveries.

No matter how well he performed in these local tournaments, though, the prize money of Rs25,000 would always be split between the whole team, he recalls. The money was crowd-funded by the people of the village.

The cricket craze in Tamil Nadu’s villages can best be described as “time pass", says Natarajan.

“It’s great to watch and play but it’s not considered a viable career option." Still, it’s this “time pass" that’s made TNPL and IPL popular in rural Tamil Nadu.

In 2011, Natarajan moved to Chennai.

IPL ahoy

In 2014, when he was called for improper bowling action, Naratajan thought it was the end of his career. “I couldn’t believe it was all coming to an end so soon."

But he persevered. In 2016, his bowling action was cleared. In 2016, TNPL was launched. It was, Natarajan says, a turning point. “It was my chance to regain full confidence."

A year later, this February, IPL, Kings XI Punjab, and Rs3 crore came calling.

When Natarjan first met his IPL teammates from Kings XI Punjab at Radisson Blu hotel in Indore on 2 April, he says he felt as intimidated as he had when he first met city kids in Chennai. After the first match, he says, Virender Sehwag, the team’s coach, asked him to cut a cake. “Sehwag has been very encouraging. When he met me for the first time he said, ‘Give your best and do your best’," says Natarajan.

Before joining Kings XI Punjab, Natarajan spoke no Hindi. During matches, he communicated with his teammates in sign language and English. However, now he has picked up phrases such as “Kya chal raha hai?" (how are you?) and “Khaana kha le" (eat the food).  

He also loves dancing to Punjabi numbers, says Mohit Burman, co-promoter and director of Kings XI Punjab, who believes Natarajan is “very talented" and “always hungry to learn more and make the necessary improvements in his style of bowling to suit the circumstances and the pitch".

Natarajan has nearly 150 trophies from playing in local village tournaments

“His first wicket in IPL was surely a special moment for all of us at Kings XI Punjab. He was very happy that through IPL he got a chance to showcase his skills," says Burman. Natarajan’s first wicket was that of Pune Rising Supergiant’s opener Ajinkya Rahane, a regular in the Indian team across formats. 

Natarajan played six matches in IPL 10 and bagged two wickets.

The greatest difference in IPL is the level of players, says Natarajan. “It’s a lot more challenging to play with national and international players," he adds.

Natarajan is yet to decide how to invest the money he has made in IPL. He wants to own a car at some point but doesn’t know how to drive. “My wish is to see my parents live comfortably. I don’t want them to work but they want to continue on their own. They don’t wish to move to Chennai because they feel the lifestyle won’t suit them."

In 2016, he moved his family into a proper three-bedroom house, not far from their old one.

His parents don’t really think much of cricket, Natarajan confesses.

“Even now they don’t have high respect or regard for cricket. I don’t expect them to realize or change their viewpoint," he smiles.

For the kids in his village, though, he’s an inspiration. “The kids ask me for advice about cricket, they all want a chance, a break, to prove themselves."

Natarajan acts as a scout to notify teams in Chennai about potential talent back home. “IPL was instrumental in doing that for me and I will give that chance to many others," he says.

“Every now and then I look at where I’ve come from," he says. “Nobody comes with the expectation of financial comfort, it all depends on how much focus you give to your performance."

Natarajan isn’t thinking too far ahead—like representing India.

“If it happens, we’ll see," he says philosophically.

But, in many ways, he has already made it.

New sports leagues such as the Indian Premier League (cricket), the Indian Super League (football), and the Pro Kabaddi League (kabaddi) have changed the lives of scores of young people across the country. In a three-part series, Mint profiles some of these young people.

Part 2: Jackichand Singh’s journey: From Manipur village to Mumbai City FC

Part 3: Ajay Thakur: At the forefront of kabaddi’s big leap