With three Ranji tons in succession, Natraj phir champion

It’s all coming together for the talented 25-year-old Natraj Behera, eight years after your sportoholic first saw him.

Natraj who? Well, he is quickly turning the batting mainstay of Odisha in domestic cricket. Natraj why? Because he is pulling off one David act after another against the Goliaths of domestic cricket.

What! Domestic cricket? Let’s say, we will go there every now and then to acknowledge up-and-coming performers, those unknown ones who grind it out with dreams in their eyes.

Most will not play for India, but they will certainly become better players while working towards that dream.

Natraj too has that dream. He does not like talking about it; blame it on an Indian’s avowed fear of the evil eye.

Odisha are the minnows in Ranji Trophy, but Natraj has earned his team two creditable draws, first against Delhi and then against Mumbai, in style.

Three centuries on the trot in December, two of them against Mumbai at the Wankhede in successive innings, herald a comeback of some substance for the young man who was dropped earlier in the season after a couple of indifferent performances.

Against Delhi, he had a big 158 knock at Veer Surendra Sai Stadium in western Odisha’s Sambalpur district. He faced a quality quick in Ashish Nehra and decent pace from Parvinder Awana.

Against Mumbai, he scored 130 in the first innings and followed it with an unbeaten 127 in the second dig.

“I am taking it one ball at a time,” says Natraj, trying to explain his success. He is in Ahmedabad, preparing for the next tie against Gujarat beginning December 22.

“Scoring against the heavyweight teams is very satisfying,” says Natraj, who is an opener. His unbeaten 127, however, came when batted at number 4.

Odisha does not have too much batting firepower, so this could have been a move from the team think tank.

Time travel to 2005 when Natraj broke through

Sportoholic would like to share the time when Natraj first flourished in local cricket at Odisha’s steel township Rourkela.

It was 2005, he was a 17. Those days, the town had a tournament played in coloured clothing. The crowd used to love the matting wickets and 30-over a side contests involving some of the best club teams in the state.

Natraj hit four consecutive half-centuries in tournament and also picked up useful wickets with his off-spin. He has given up on bowling these days.

The chief guest for the final was Ranjib Biswal, now the IPL chairman. He had been told about Natraj and made his own observations.

In three years, Nataraj made it to the Odisha squad.

He comes from a modest background and will not like it if we discuss the personal issues that hurt his rise. These days, he is a hero like no other Rourkela has seen.

Young cricketers look up to him and seniors he played with pull his leg. He takes the ribbing in stride.

Playing for his club Gymkhana in a local tournament after having made it to the state squad, he once let an easy catch fly past him in the slips.

“Oye star, you want to catch Kookaburra balls only,” thundered a veteran Gymkhana star. Natraj gave a sheepish look.

Odisha working hard to make presence felt

The state has produced three players who have represented India, two of them for a longer duration than one. There are states which cannot make that claim.

Despite being minnows, the Indian colours donned by Debashish Mohanty, Shiv Sunder Das and Sanjay Raul have made the state’s cricketers ambitious.

The state cricket association is also willing to match this ambition. The association had roped in former Australian cricketer Michael Bevan as the chief Ranji coach for 2011-12.

Bevan made a premature exit. A key player also faced disciplinary action for a drinking violation.

The team seems to have moved on. There are no stars, but all want to punch above their weight because they know that is the only way to stay relevant.

Natraj, on his part, is certainly making all the right noises. He has a job. He had a Kolkata Knight Riders contract once. What’s more, domestic cricket gives you a decent living these days.

He has so much to look forward to, but one ball at a time.

Be a sport. Keep playing.

Ipsit Mohapatra

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