Boys next door to household names
Long before they walked under the shade of the flapping Indian flag arm-in-arm, there was a moment on the Brisbane field that captured the very essence of the men who made their debuts during the Test series in Australia. It was an innocuous moment, occurring in the lull between one ball and the next.
Sometime during T Natarajan’s first spell in Test cricket, after the debutant left-arm seamer had just bowled a ball to Marnus Labuschagne on the first morning at the Gabba, he turned around at the completion of his brisk follow-through and was met by Mohammed Siraj, who had jogged up from his position at mid-off.
For the rest of the short walk back to the top of the run-up, Siraj had an arm around Natarajan’s shoulders, whispering advice into his ears, possibly listing out the batsman’s weaknesses that he had exploited since making his own Test debut in Melbourne. But just before he reached his destination, Natarajan stopped nodding and flicked Siraj’s arm away from his shoulder with a thumb.
On air, Mark Waugh giggled: “Thanks buddy, but no thanks. I got this from here,” said Waugh, in his role of a mind reader. On the ground, Siraj, who had stopped in his tracks, patted the bowler’s posterior and jogged back to his fielding position.
That was the entirety of the moment. But it revealed everything about the new generation’s character and essence – that of a quiet confidence blended with immense pride.
Here was Siraj, two Tests old, seamlessly slipping into the role of the spearhead and inspiring his future competition to do better. And here was Natarajan, two overs and some old in Test cricket, indicating to his senior partner that he knows what he is doing. In the end, that’s what it took for these extras to become household names by creating history at the Gabba: Confidence and pride.
Siraj wouldn’t have even been on this tour; shortly after landing in Australia, he found out that his father – once a rickshaw driver in Hyderabad – had passed away. But he stayed on, despite knowing that there was no place for him in a full-strength bowling attack in Test cricket. But an injury to Mohammed Shami in Adelaide handed him his first Test cap in Melbourne; an injury to Umesh Yadav in Melbourne made him a new-ball bowler in Sydney; and an injury to Jasprit Bumrah in Sydney saw him become India’s spearhead for Brisbane.
That progression reached its zenith in his final bowling innings in Brisbane, where he claimed his first five-wicket haul, a wicket that also made him India’s highest wicket-taker in this Border-Gavaskar Trophy with 13 – two more than Mitchell Starc and four more than Nathan Lyon, both of whom played all four Tests. Young, fast and with a spring in his step, the 26-year-old's impact is such that he has made it very difficult for the team management to drop him, even if all of India's vaunted first-choice pacers are available.
Natarajan wasn’t even in any of the three squads to Australia when they were first announced. He was a net bowler – an extra’s extra. But an injured Varun Chakravarthy first brought him into T20I reserves, and he ended up playing three games. His six wickets in the shortest format gave him an entry into ODI cricket, marking his only game in Canberra with two wickets.
Still, the thought of representing India in Test cricket would’ve felt a dream too far, even for a man whose life has been marked with achieving several such dreams. The 29-year-old’s incredible journey from playing tennis ball cricket in Chinnappampatti – a satellite village to Salem where his parents struggled to make ends meet – to the lower rungs of leather ball cricket in Chennai, to Ranji and the IPL have been well documented. But his 43-day journey from net ball bowler to making his debut across formats in Australia is just as momentous.
Natarajan wasn’t the only debutant to take three wickets in the first innings in Brisbane. Washington Sundar also scalped as many, and so did Shardul Thakur, whose appearance in Brisbane may well have been a second debut, given that he bowled just 10 balls against the West Indies in Hyderabad in 2018. While growing up, neither Sundar nor Thakur faced the economic hardships that Natarajan and Siraj did. But their cricketing journeys to the top were just as fraught with shortcomings.
Thakur is not the tallest fast bowler, standing at 5’9”. This explains why isn’t blessed with the pace of some of his ilk. And Sundar is a limited off-spinner, especially when compared to his Tamil Nadu colleague, R Ashwin. But what they lack in talent, they more than make up with their heart. That undying will to excel was especially witnessed during their seventh wicket partnership in the first innings in Brisbane, where their 123-run stand (India’s second best for any wicket in the series) denied the Australians a heavy lead. The hard-hitting Thakur made 67, the top score of the innings, and the perfectly balanced Sundar scored 62.
Thakur followed that up with his best bowling performance too. But in an innings where he took four wickets and Siraj five, it was Navdeep Saini’s wicketless spell that won the crowd over. Saini, the Sydney debutant, bowled five long overs in the second innings in Brisbane with a groin pull, just so his friends in the attack could rest their tiring shoulders.
Sundar, Saini, Siraj, Natarajan and Thakur, they all stood out. But Shubman Gill dazzled, making him possibly the greatest find from a series full of great finds. Five of his six scores of 45, 35*, 50, 31, 7 and 91 tell you most of the story – that he hardly looked out of place as an opener since making his debut in Melbourne. But without his elegant essay with Cheteshwar Pujara in the final innings at the Gabba, Rishabh Pant would not have had a platform to launch his assault from.
Without Gill, there was perhaps no win, and he was rightfully handed one of the stumps as souvenir. As he walked with it in one hand in the lap of honour, Gill would perhaps have been assured of his career-swing from rookie to regular. While the same can’t be said of the others, there remains a certain beauty amid the sadness that the eleven players who created history at the Gabba may never feature together as a playing eleven again.