T Natarajan and Washington Sundar: a tale of friendship and freakish Test debuts

T Natarajan celebrates with team-mates after dismissing Matthew Wade AFP via Getty Images

India Test cap No. 300: T Natarajan (Age 29)
India Test cap No. 301: Washington Sundar (Age 21)

Growing up, they were separated by age and by physical distance. But over the years, the careers of left-arm seamer Natarajan and allrounder Washington intersected several times - so much so that they became good friends. And then a freakish chain of circumstances saw them make their Test debuts, improbably, in India's historic win at the Gabba.

The early years
When Washington was a kid, he and his elder sister Shailaja, who has played for Tamil Nadu women, would hop into their dad M Sundar's scooter to play cricket at the Marina Beach in Chennai. Sundar, a former Tamil Nadu prospect and long-time coach, then trained Washington and Shailaja at the Chepauk 'B' ground, with Washington seamlessly ticking off several boxes along the way: Chennai first-division league, age-group cricket for Tamil Nadu, and Under-19 cricket for India.

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As for Natarajan, who grew up in Chinnappampatti, a village about 370kms away from Chennai, cricket was escapism from poverty. You might be familiar with his backstory by now.

Natarajan and his protégé G Periyaswamy, who is playing for Tamil Nadu in the ongoing Syed Mushtaq Ali T20 tournament, would hop into share autos to the neighbouring towns and villages, yorking oppositions.

Natarajan soon became a tennis-ball star in Salem, as did Periyaswamy, but Natarajan didn't play red-ball cricket until 2010 or thereabouts. He hadn't even heard about league cricket in Chennai until his tennis-ball cricket team-mate and now godfather Jayaprakash helped him get a gig with the BSNL fourth-division team there.

TNPL 2016
By 2016, Natarajan had risen through the ranks in Chennai like Washington, although belatedly. In the 13th match of the inaugural season of the Tamil Nadu Premier League (TNPL), a nerveless Natarajan delivered six yorkers back-to-back in a Super Over, turning the heads of the IPL scouts. Guess who was one of the batsmen facing him? Washington kept out two of those yorkers, including the last ball.

However, as the tournament progressed, Washington seized his other chances - both with ball and bat - himself attracting the attention of the IPL scouts.

Who writes your scripts, Natarajan and Washington?

IPL 2017
Stephen Fleming, the then Rising Pune Supergiants' coach, liked what he'd seen of Natarajan, and the franchise made the opening bid for the left-armer at the 2017 auction. The Supergiants' management tussled with the Kings XI Punjab until the bid was escalated to nearly INR 1 crore (approx. US $136,936) from the base price of INR 10 lakh (approx. US $13,693). As it turned out, the Kings XI went all out for Natarajan and scooped him up for INR 3 crore (approx. US $410,809).

The Supergiants didn't get Natarajan, but they got Washington as a replacement player after R Ashwin had suffered an injury. Washington fronted up to take the new ball in the powerplay and helped them to within touching distance of winning the IPL title.

As for Natarajan, he had a tougher initiation into the IPL and was perhaps weighed down by the price-tag pressure. He struggled to nail his yorkers like he had in the TNPL and tennis-ball cricket. The IPL jackpot, however, enabled him to realise his dream of establishing his own cricket academy in Chinnappampatti. Washington was among the chief guests Natarajan had invited to launch his academy after IPL 2017, but seemingly he couldn't make it in the end.

Who writes your scripts, Natarajan and Washington?

Battling injuries
Washington made his ODI and T20I debuts for India in 2017, while Natarajan returned to domestic cricket. Injuries didn't help Natarajan either, with an elbow complaint forcing surgery in November 2017. It was around this time that Natarajan placed greater focus on his fitness. He went on a meat-heavy diet, bulked up and came back to become Tamil Nadu's lead seamer.

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On India's tour to the UK in 2018, Washington suffered a freak injury while playing football. He had hurt multiple ligaments in his ankle, and although he didn't need surgery, he was bed-ridden for several weeks. He then underwent rehab at the National Cricket Academy (NCA) in Bengaluru and eased his way back into the state side, before returning to the national reckoning.

Who writes your scripts, Natarajan and Washington?

IPL 2020
Natarajan was picked by the Sunrisers Hyderabad for INR 40 lakh (approx. US $54,774) in the IPL 2018 auction, but didn't get a single game in that season as well as the following one. Washington, in contrast, got more game-time at the Royal Challengers Bangalore in IPL 2018 and 2019, but couldn't quite replicate his 2017 performances at the Supergiants.

Both Natarajan and Washington, however, enjoyed their breakout IPL seasons in 2020 in the UAE. While Natarajan emerged as the league's new yorker specialist, Washington re-emerged as the new-ball powerplay expert.

Who writes your scripts, Natarajan and Washington?

Natarajan unites with Washington in the India team
Washington was subsequently selected in India's T20I squad for the Australia tour, with Natarajan, who was originally picked as a net bowler for that tour, joining his good friend in the T20I side after an injury to Varun Chakravarthy. For the first time ever, Natarajan and Washington were in the India team together, with Washington even reeling off a song from Rajinikanth's blockbuster Tamil movie Padayappa on social media, to celebrate Natarajan's call-up #friendshipgoals.

Who writes your scripts, Natarajan and Washington?

From net bowlers to Test debutants to match-winners
Hours before the start of the ODI series in Australia, Natarajan was added to the ODI squad too as injury cover and later even made his international debut in the third match in Canberra. Washington wasn't part of the ODI squad, but you could spot him in the huddle during Natarajan's maiden cap-presentation ceremony, cheering his friend.

In the subsequent T20I series, Natarajan showed that there's more to him than the yorker while Washington did his thing in the powerplay, as the pair helped India to a 2-1 series triumph.

Through a chain of unprecedented circumstances and injuries to several frontline bowlers - including Mohammed Shami, Umesh Yadav and Ashwin - Natarajan and Washington then made their Test debuts together when the series was on the line in Brisbane.

Both Washington and Natarajan were merely picked as net bowlers for the red-ball leg, but they showed they belong to the biggest stage, coming away with three wickets each in the first innings.

Washington snaffled his former Supergiants captain Steven Smith down the leg side for his maiden Test wicket and was then part of another thread that connected him with Natarajan. After Marnus Labuschagne pulled Natarajan to deep midwicket in the 66th over, Washington fumbled there, allowing a second where there could've just been a single. The next ball was a dot and coincidentally the subsequent one resulted in Natarajan finding Labuschange's top edge.

Washington torched the Gabba with the bat too, pulling off an outrageous no-look six off Nathan Lyon and topped it with a hooked six off Pat Cummins in the chase. Just like that, the two debutants helped India to a series victory for the ages.

Who writes your scripts, Natarajan and Washington?