Tamil Nadu Premier League 2021: The return of the big-ticket season

TNPL finds uncapped talent and offers a promising stage to make their entry into IPL, vouch coaches, players and scouts

After a year-long gap, owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, the fifth edition of the Tamil Nadu Premier League will be underway from today at the MA Chidambaram Stadium in Chennai. Due to the challenges posed by the coronavirus, organisers are forced to not take the tournament to the districts, for the first time since its inception. It is, of course, just a local league that is shorn of its most high-profile players this year, namely the likes of R Ashwin, Dinesh Karthik, T Natarajan, Washington Sundar and Varun Chakravarthy. What is the fuss then, you may ask?

The league’s USP lies in its ability to find new talents every season. Natarajan and Varun, for instance, owe their emergence as international players, largely, to the opportunity that the TNPL offered them. They were in obscurity until they burst onto the scene in the TNPL, prompting the big and powerful franchises of the IPL to show interest in their game. The IPL teams went on to show more than mere interest, ready to engage in fierce bidding wars for the duo.

Mutual benefits

M Shahrukh Khan, who will captain Lyca Kovai Kings in TNPL-5, got a chance to live the IPL frenzy, this year, after he went to Punjab Kings for a whopping `5.25 crore. While he grabbed the right attention after some eye-catching displays for Tamil Nadu in white-ball cricket over the last couple of seasons, the 26-year-old sees himself as a beneficiary of the exposure that the TNPL has provided.

“TNPL has been producing players for the IPL every year. One or two match-winning performances can put you in the spotlight and people start looking at you. Players grew because of the TNPL and the TNPL will continue growing because of the players. We complement each other,” the big-hitting, middle-order batsman puts it succinctly.

While Shahrukh made his TN debut in the shorter formats as a lanky teenager in 2014, it is only in the last three years that he has come into his own. He found his career to be at the crossroads when TNPL 2018 came along, struggling as he was to nail down a place in the TN set-up. But a productive season for Kovai Kings — racking up 325 runs at a strike rate over 140 to finish among the top five run-getters was instrumental in the blossoming of the towering presence we see at the crease today.

“Because of the league, a lot of players including myself have got attention. There will be new talent coming in as well. I have no doubt,” says Shahrukh.

Scouting talent

The emergence of players of the calibre of Shahrukh, Natarajan and Varun has made IPL franchises observe proceedings in the TNPL with a microscopic lens, keen as they are to steal a march on their rivals by finding uncapped talent from every nook and corner of this gigantic cricketing landscape. While IPL teams were perhaps gauging the standard of cricket on offer in the inaugural TNPL season, they quickly realised that the league is worth spending time on. It was Natarajan who made big gains in the first season, his unerring ability to execute yorkers at the death making him an X-factor.

Soon, the IPL teams started sending their talent scouts to the different venues to watch the action from close proximity and the scouts in return would send their feedback about the players who stood a chance of excelling at a higher level.

This season, of course, provides a challenge in that exercise as the pandemic may make IPL scouts reluctant to travel. Although the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association (TNCA) has made it clear that the tournament will be played behind closed doors, it has left the door open for scouts to attend the matches at Chepauk.

“We haven’t had any communication from the IPL teams yet, but if scouts want to come and watch, they can do so,” TNCA secretary RS Ramasaamy says. Delhi Capitals may be at an advantage in this regard as their performance analyst and talent scout, Sriram Somayajula, is also the coach of Kovai Kings. While his team doing well will be foremost on his mind, notable performers in the other teams are bound to catch his fancy too.

“As a talent scout with Delhi Capitals, there is extra responsibility on me to look out for promising young talent. I was told some of the IPL scouts are coming to watch. The TNPL is playing a phenomenal role. To be a feeder to the biggest league in the world means that a lot of talent is being produced at the TNPL,” enthuses Sriram, offering the names of Sai Sudharshan and E Srinivasan as players to watch out for in the Kovai side.

While Sriram will have a ringside view of the action, scouts who aren’t able to make the journey will be able to tune in with ease on television due to Star Sports’ comprehensive coverage. The broadcasting giant has been on board right from the inaugural year and has played its part by telecasting the games on its English and Tamil channels.

“Star is a big network. People are always watching Star because there is some cricket or the other going on. If TNPL was not on Star, I don’t think it would have been that big a hit,” Shahrukh notes. While that can be debated, what you can be certain about is that the latest edition of the TNPL will throw up some interesting new names to get excited about.