Left-arm seamer T Natarajan is "confident" with his rhythm as he prepares to return to top-flight cricket in the second leg of IPL 2021 in the UAE, after undergoing a knee surgery in April. The 30-year-old had sustained the injury during the Australia tour and aggravated it during the first chunk of the IPL in India.
"I was very happy coming into the [Sunrisers Hyderabad] team after a long time," Natarajan told ESPNcricinfo. "Working with my old team-mates with that same feel made me happier. I made good progress by having a lot of bowling sessions at the NCA (National Cricket Academy) and that was helpful. So, coming from the [NCA], the first session in the UAE was slightly easier for me.
"I think at the NCA, I didn't have much control in the first two sessions, but once I kept bowling more overs, I kept improving and gained confidence from that. That preparation gave me the confidence that I can do anything at any time. I had a lot of bowling sessions at the NCA. After coming here [to the UAE], I worked on my strength training and also my variations with the ball. So, I'm confident going into the IPL."
A fit-again Natarajan's return comes as a significant boost to the Sunrisers, who are languishing at the bottom of the points table, with just one victory in seven games. Natarajan admitted that the pressure will be on Sunrisers to turn the tables, but he backed his side to hit the ground running in the UAE.
"The pressure is always there," Natarajan said. "If we start winning initially, there are chances that the table might change. Yes, the pressure is there, but we will go in with the motive of winning a number of games at the start."
Natarajan, however, won't be in action in the T20 World Cup, which will also be hosted by the UAE, and Oman. India's chief selector Chetan Sharma said that although Natarajan's name came up for discussion during the meeting, his injury had pushed him down the pecking order. Natarajan himself said he hadn't expected to make the cut, given his recent time on the sidelines. His last competitive game was for Sunrisers against Royal Challengers Bangalore in Chennai in April and he subsequently missed the Tamil Nadu Premier League (TNPL), which was also held in Chennai.
"I didn't have any disappointments [at not being selected for the T20 World Cup]," Natarajan said. "I knew it was hard to reach there in a short period of time. A lot of people have told me that I would make the squad, but I didn't expect to be picked in the 15-man squad. I knew I was coming back from injury; I hadn't played competitive cricket for five or five-and-a-half months.
"If maybe the [World Cup] selection was after the IPL, I would have had a chance to make the squad. You can't expect to be picked in the squad without match practice. I thought of at least going [to the World Cup] as a net bowler. I had ambitions of being a net bowler, but I didn't expect to be in the 15 at all. My mindset was just to recover from the leg injury, play the IPL, and the rest will happen automatically."
The quarantine in the UAE provided Natarajan a chance to reflect on his breakout IPL in the UAE in 2020. He emerged out of the bench that season and bowled 71 yorkers, which ultimately vaulted him into India's squad across formats.
"Last year I had a bit of fear and some confidence of doing well," Natarajan recalled. "I had proven myself, and this year I'm more confident of doing well than I was in 2020 because I've learnt a lot by watching and practising with India players. I did think of my 2020 performances when I was in quarantine and mostly I'm very confident. Yes, I had a bit of fear last year, but I've overcome that and looking to focus on what I can do for the team."
Natarajan isn't the only bowler from Chinnappampatti (Salem) in the Sunrisers camp this IPL. His protégé G Periyaswamy, who is bit of a TNPL sensation with his slingy yorkers, is travelling with the squad as a net bowler. Back in the day, Natarajan and Periyaswamy used to hop from one village to another in Salem, in share autos, to play tennis-ball gully cricket. Several years later, the pair opened the bowling for Tamil Nadu in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy and now they are sharing dressing rooms at the IPL.
During his injury-enforced break, Natarajan had also travelled from Bengaluru, where he was training at the NCA, to Chennai to watch Periyaswamy face up against V Gowtham, another product from Natarajan's Cricket Academy, in the TNPL. Gowtham has also had a taste of the IPL, having been a net bowler for Chennai Super Kings over the past couple of seasons.
"I'm very proud," Natarajan said of Periyaswamy's progress. "I was also very proud when we opened the bowling together for Tamil Nadu. It was a big deal for us - coming from a small village and opening the bowling for Tamil Nadu. As far as I'm concerned, that itself is a big achievement for us. He will get more experience by practising alongside myself in the IPL. He will get to know the IPL atmosphere - he was with KKR as a net bowler last year. That would have been a good experience and since I'm here with him now, he will feel more confident. If he keeps doing well in the upcoming Syed Mushtaq Ali, there are chances of him progressing to the next stage.
"I was looking forward to watching the TNPL. Three of my academy boys were in TNPL sides this year - [G] Aravindh my Lyca Kovai Kings team-mate, V Gowtham (Madurai Panthers) and Periyaswamy (Salem Spartans). Aravindh didn't get a chance to play, but we wanted to see the game where Gowtham and Periyaswamy faced each other. So, I planned with Jayaprakash (Natarajan's mentor) anna (brother) and friends to come and watch them play for the first time in the TNPL. Looking from outside, it was a super feeling for all of us."
Natarajan is also excited at reuniting with Bhuvneshwar Kumar, who has had a strong influence on his career. "I've been with the SRH team for three-fours years. We've shared a lot of things with each other," Natarajan said of his relationship with Bhuvneshwar. "When I didn't get a chance to play for two years, he encouraged me that my chance will come, but advised me to keep working on my bowling without any expectations. He said he has also been on the bench, so asked me not to get disheartened.
"Often at the nets, I ask him about the field setting and match-related inputs, he always tells me to go with what I'm confident about and not to worry even if that goes for runs. When I'm confused, I ask him for inputs and he has shared his experience. So, he has asked me to call him anytime. So, this journey with him I'm so happy."
Natarajan - and Sunrisers - will first run into the Delhi Capitals in Dubai on September 22. Natarajan carved out his own identity when he bowled yorker after yorker and kept nailing them against the Capitals in the league match in 2020. A lot has transpired since then and Natarajan is now back to the scene of his emergence, this time to relaunch his career.