VVS Laxman: T Natarajan could be India's 'X-factor' bowler in T20 World Cup

T Natarajan stretches with a resistance band Ron Gaunt / © BCCI

T Natarajan is only on his first international tour, but VVS Laxman, his mentor at Sunrisers Hyderabad, sees him as a potential X-factor player during India's T20 World Cup campaign at home in October 2021. Laxman believes Natarajan's left-arm angle and ability to bowl at the death separates him from the rest of India's pace options.

"With the T20 World Cup scheduled next year - if you look at the Indian team, it requires someone good at the death," Laxman told The Hindu. "It is great to see the likes of Mohammed Shami and Navdeep Saini bowl with such confidence in the death. Natarajan being a left-armer will be the X-factor."

From not playing a single game for the Sunrisers in IPL 2019 to getting picked for India, Natarajan's rise has been remarkable. Having plotted and planned with David Warner, his IPL captain, he could now be lining up against him in Australia.

The reason why Natarajan has been talked about so highly is his ability to hit the blockhole. Natarajan learned to bowl the yorker while playing tennis-ball cricket in his hometown Salem, when he realised the only way to prevent the soft ball from losing pace after hitting the clay surfaces he played on was to go full. The delivery has now brought him widespread acclaim.

Natarajan bowled 71 yorkers in IPL 2020, the most in the tournament as per ESPNcricinfo's ball-by-ball data. The second bowler on that list, Kartik Tyagi, only sent down 28.

Overall, Natarajan picked up 16 wickets in the IPL and finished with an economy rate of 8.02, which is impressive considering 131 of the 377 balls he bowled during the tournament came in the death (last four) overs.

"He has been doing well right from the practice matches before the IPL began in the UAE," Laxman said. "The kind of confidence level he showed right from the start was amazing.

"That is the reason why we gave him the chance ahead of Khaleel Ahmed and once Bhuvi (Bhuvneshwar Kumar) was ruled out with an injury, he became an important cog in the attack."

While the yorker was his calling card, Laxman believes Natarajan has many other variations too. "Natarajan was always known for those yorkers - even in the TNPL (Tamil Nadu Premier League). But, I must say he's got a lot of variations which he didn't use in the IPL. He has a sharp bouncer, slower one, offcutter, and has the wicket-taking ability with the new ball.

"Essentially, Natarajan has the mindset and the confidence of executing yorkers which we generally believe to be the toughest to deliver. And, he has done consistently and exceedingly well through the IPL, the pick of them being the dismissal of RCB's AB de Villiers under pressure."

Natarajan's rise is remarkable because it's unusual for the selectors to pick an uncapped 29-year-old. The last two fast bowlers to make their international debuts for India after 29 were S Aravind in 2015 and Pankaj Singh in 2014. Prior to that, you'll have to go back to 1994, when Bhupinder Singh Snr. made his ODI debut, and then all the way back to 1958, when Ghulam Guard played the first of his two Tests.

"Natarajan is a hard-working cricketer who never missed a training session and is always wanting to work on his skills to be a much better bowler every day," Laxman said. "He has been doing really well in the TNPL, he was part of Kings XI Punjab, he did well consistently for Tamil Nadu in Ranji Trophy.

"He didn't get too many opportunities in SRH (in 2018 and 2019) because of the likes of Siddarth Kaul, Sandeep Sharma and Bhuvneshwar Kumar being the frontline bowlers."