That was the day when Sanjay Yadav and T Natarajan put their hometowns on the cricket map, following the Indian Premier League 2017 player auction.
Sanjay, the 21-year-old allrounder, was picked up for Rs 10 lakh by Kolkata Knight Riders. Natarajan went for 30 times his base price of Rs 10 lakh as Kings XI Punjab snaffled him for Rs 3 crore – the highest in the auction for an uncapped Indian.
The price tags might be different, but the very fact that both made it to the IPL makes it the biggest turnaround of their lives.
Their stories are similar; both were born into families that faced economic hardships but rose through all the challenges to make it to the IPL, via the Tamil Nadu Premier League.
Sanjay was born in Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh to Ram Singh Yadav, a daily-wage painter, and Maya Devi, a home-maker, in 1995. Some five years later, the family shifted to Hosur, with Ram Singh seeking work opportunities.
Cricket was neither a tradition in Hosur, nor was it an affordable sport for the Yadavs. Being a family of six with only one earning member, there were far more pressing issues to tackle.
Sanjay, however, developed a passion for the sport which came out in the form of tennis-ball cricket in school. And as is the case with most kids from small towns, he had no roadmap or even a clue that there was more to the game than just playing tennis-ball cricket for fun.
Until Premnath, who would eventually turn Sanjay’s coach and mentor, entered his life.
“I have two sisters and a younger brother (Sonu, who also played in the TNPL),” Sanjay tells Wisden India. “My father couldn’t afford my cricket expenses, so I had no money to play serious cricket in school. I was playing with tennis balls for ‘jolly’ and had no serious plans. My PT (physical trainer) sir saw something in me and introduced me to the leather ball. Seeing that, Premnath sir asked me to join his academy (Future India Cricket Academy), and that’s where it all started.”
Even as his cricketing career began to take shape, tough realities at home threatened to nip it in the bud. The family’s financial woes forced Sanjay to quit the academy but fortunately for him, he had a firm helping hand in Premnath.
“I left the academy because I didn’t have money,” begins Sanjay. “Premnath sir saw me in school and asked me why I wasn’t going to the academy, and I explained that I couldn’t pay the fee. He offered to coaching me for free and asked me to return to the academy. Since then, he has taken care of my cricket expenses. Anni lendhu ippo varaikkum, elaame avanga thaan (ever since that day, he is everything).”
It helped Sanjay that his father, despite all the problems, gave his sons the freedom to do what they liked. With developing cricket skills and a pathway in front of him, Sanjay rose through the ranks and soon shifted to Chennai to pursue his dream. Cricket also earned him a seat in Loyola College, where he is currently pursuing a course in statistics.
Sanjay plays in the second division of the TNCA league, and his big break came in the TNPL last year. Representing VB Tiruvallur Veerans, Sanjay didn’t exactly set the tournament on fire but played crucial cameos, as his strike-rate of 140 suggests. A spot in the Tamil Nadu squad for the Syed Mushtaq Ali Triohy tournament followed, before the bigger break in the form of an IPL contract.
“I wasn’t expecting anything, but I was following the auction in my college with a few friends,” he remembers. “I was elated to be picked. My first call after being picked was to Premnath sir.
“Till now, I’ve never interacted with any India (national) cricketers. It has always been a dream, and now it’s a reality in front of me.”
Not too far away was Sanjay’s teammate with a similar – if not more stirring – story, nervously watching the auction. In many ways, it was the biggest day of Natarajan’s life. At least for monetary possibilities, which has always been an issue for the 25-year-old.
His father, Thangarasu, is a daily-wage labourer at a saree factory, while his mother runs a small snack-shop in Chinnappampatti. Being the oldest of five children, Natarajan would also do odd jobs including working at construction sites during holidays to support his family.
I was watching the auction alone in my room in Chennai,” he begins, the nervous elation still evident in his voice. “Initially, there was pressure because no team was bidding for around 50 seconds. And then when they started bidding and went till Rs 95 lakh, I was very happy that I was picked.
“But they continued bidding again and as the amount increased, I felt big pressure again. I didn’t know what to do. On one side, I was happy, but there was also a bit of panic as the amount increased. I didn’t expect this much. But I’m not thinking about the money now – it’s all so sudden and I’m yet to come out of it.”
Unlike in Sanjay’s case, there was a bit of certainty around Natarajan being picked, given that he was called for trials by five franchises. Nothing could have, however, prepared him for the reception he would get; while his phone would just not stop ringing, the party had already started in Chinnappampatti.
“Nobody in my family saw the auction. They had no idea about it. They don’t understand it, they don’t know cricket at all,” says Natarajan. “After someone told them about it, they were very happy. Soon, a lot of people started coming to my house. There were a lot of TV channels to interview my parents, it was completely new.”
The scenario was so overwhelming that Natarajan left Chennai for his village on the night of the auction to be with his people.
“I decided to surprise my family. I didn’t inform anyone at home that I was coming, so they were extremely elated when I arrived suddenly. Unfortunately, I couldn’t see it all for one full day. I couldn’t even talk to them over phone because my phone was constantly ringing,” he laughs. “So I decided to go there myself.”
It was only fitting that Natarajan would be in Chinnappampatti to celebrate his biggest day. The village has no facilities for the sport, but it was here that Natarajan learnt the ropes, playing tennis-ball cricket through all his difficulties.
“I never touched a cricket ball for 20 years,” he says. “I initially thought tennis ball was the biggest thing in cricket, I had no idea about leagues in Chennai or anything.”
But just like a Premnath for Sanjay, Natarajan found a mentor in Jayaprakash, a ‘senior’ on the tennis-ball circuit.
“Jayaprakash anna helped me move to Chennai,” says Natarajan. “Initially, I was very scared of shifting to Chennai. The city itself scared me and I knew nobody. I used to travel from my village to Chennai on the eve of the match and return as soon as the game ended. The journey would take around eight hours by bus. Once I started playing first division, I started staying in the club’s guest house. Now, I’m used to the city.”
Natarajan has held a cricket ball for only six years now, but he quickly rose through the ranks. He encountered an obstacle of a different kind in 2015 when his action was reported and he was out of the game for nearly a year.
“I was very, very upset. I had no idea how to get out of it,” he concedes.
But he did, and made a dream comeback in 2016 when he shot into the limelight in the TNPL before playing a crucial role in Tamil Nadu reaching the Ranji Trophy semifinal.
Now, Natarajan has turned an overnight hero through the state with stories of his rise through struggles, and videos of his pinpoint yorkers in the TNPL going viral on social media. He is also being called the Mustafizur Rahman from Tamil Nadu after a reporter spotted the similar bowling styles and uncanny resemblance.
“I had no idea I would be compared with Mustafizur. I knew it only after the reporter told me. It’s all because of him,” he laughs. “Once that story was out, people started talking like that. I never imagined myself that way. Mustafizur is in a different range altogether, I’m just starting. Avar enga, naa enga (where is he, and where am I?).”
In less than 45 days, both Natarajan and Mustafizur will be in the same place, sharing the same platform and performing similar roles for their teams. In that lies the beauty of the IPL, and sport in general.
Source: Wisden India