The 2004 Indian Under-19 side was a strong one. It lost to eventual champions Pakistan in the semifinals, but members of that team – Shikhar Dhawan, Robin Uthappa, Suresh Raina, Dinesh Karthik and RP Singh – had gone to have careers with varying degrees of success. Ambati Rayudu, who led the side, however, seemed to have fallen by the wayside.
Rayudu started playing first-class cricket for Hyderabad in 2001-02. An immense talent. One for the big time. Rayudu’s future seemed to have been secured well before he had crossed his teenage years. But from 2004-05 onwards, all the way to 2010-11, Rayudu’s story was almost like a lesson in how not to plan a big, international career. There was a feud with the Hyderabad Cricket Association, the infamous scrap with Arjun Yadav, Shivlal Yadav’s son, the shift to Andhra, then the association with the Indian Cricket League.
Rayudu was not necessarily to blame for all of it, but he certainly hadn’t done his prospects of an international career any favours by being part of each successive episode. And the years were running out.
The turnaround started after that. Rayudu seemed desperate to make up for lost time and did well more often than he did not, when he turned out for Mumbai Indians in the Indian Premier League and for Baroda, his new domestic team. So much so, that he couldn’t be kept out of the Indian team – at least the limited-overs teams – when the spot for a reserve batsman opened up just over a year ago. With Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma/Ajinkya Rahane, Suresh Raina, Yuvraj Singh, Manoj Tiwary and others vying for those four middle-order spots, Rayudu was mostly the injury choice – in when one of the regulars was out.
As it is, many of those regulars are now out. Yuvraj has fallen out of favour. Tiwary has gone down the pecking order. And Rahane has moved to the top of the order in Rohit’s injury-forced absence.
And now, Rayudu has a place in the Indian ODI team. And in the second game against Sri Lanka on Thursday in Ahmedabad, Kohli gave him the opportunity he seemed to crave – a chance to bat at No. 3, a chance to build an innings, a chance to make a difference.
“It’s about recognising the batsmen who can bat through and Rayudu is one of those players, who has a different set of skills to bat the full 50 overs and take the team through. And the people coming in the middle order can bat around him. It was a great show of temperament, character and class that he possesses,” said Kohli on Saturday (November 8) afternoon in Hyderabad, on the eve of the third ODI.
Kohli was clear that he was just trying out something different. For all teams, the period between now and the 2015 World Cup is one for trying to find the formula that suits them most, and to fine-tune their final plans. For the Indians, that period might just be between now and early January, because they play a tri-series against Australia and England in Australia from January 16 to February 1, and it’s unlikely that the squad that travels for that will change dramatically before the World Cup.
From India’s point of view then, this series against Sri Lanka is the final stretch before the Australian summer. The men who do well here will be tough to keep out of the flight to Australia. For someone who scores a match-winning century then, there’s reason to hope.
“This (scoring an ODI century) is probably something he should have had ten years ago,” said Kohli with a smile. “I think he is very hungry to prove himself and all we wanted to do was give him enough time to do that. We all know he is a special player and a special batsman, and we want to build on that and keep him confident. A player like him, if he is confident, can face any bowler in any part of the world. He is a gutsy fellow. It’s about backing him and making sure he remains in a good, comfortable space.”
The action has shifted to Hyderabad, where it all started for Rayudu many summers ago. Whether he bats at No. 3 again or not, and whether Rohit and/or Yuvraj return to the Indian ODI squad for Australia or not, Rayudu should feel that he has done enough after 21 ODIs (Avg – 48.58, S/R – 77.11, 100s – 1, 50s – 4) to at least merit a place in the squad. He hasn’t set the world on fire yet. Not by a long shot. But he has taken the few, sporadic, chances that have come his way moderately well.
Could he have done better? Certainly. Could he have done worse? Yes, definitely. As far as the future is concerned though, Rayudu can be sure that he will be in the fray. Kohli is clearly backing him and, by extension, that means the team management – including Dhoni – is behind him. That could well be the sense of security that Rayudu needs – now, and in the near future – to finally live up to the reputation he had built for himself a decade ago.