It was the summer of 2002, gloriously Indian in more ways than one. By a spectacular coincidence, three Indian cricket teams were in England playing international cricket, and lighting up Old Blighty all at the same time. For one wonderful fortnight in the second half of August, the Indian men, Indian women and the Indian lads all wowed and enchanted English audiences across the length and breadth of the country. It was payback time.
Yuvraj Singh and Mohammad Kaif had already provided a glimpse of young brave new India with their exploits at Lord’s in the triangular series final in July. It could have been the high point of the summer; instead, as it transpired, it was merely the springboard to greater things.
The dream Indian run was kick-started by a 19-year-old girl on her first tour of England, and playing only her third Test. After an inauspicious start to her career, a duck on debut against England, she had warmed up with 55 in her first Test innings overseas, in Paarl against South Africa. But when she arrived in Taunton in the August of 2002, Mithali Raj was still a bit of an unknown in cricketing circles even though she had made a century on her One-Day International debut, a good three-and-a-half years earlier.
By the end of that Test at the same ground where, three years previously, Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly had pulverised Sri Lanka in the World Cup, Mithali had worked her way into the collective consciousness of the Indian cricketing populace. In a tick under 10 hours at the crease, she danced her way to 214 – then the highest score in Women’s Test cricket. There was hardly a clap of appreciation from the England team, but young India had gone beyond the stage where it looked for approbation from the outside. Mithali had her team’s respect and affection, she had her compatriots’ support and backing. So what if 11 England players didn’t acknowledge her outstanding accomplishment.
A little over a week later, the English players and the English fans were all queuing up to applaud a wonderful display by the Indian men’s team at Headingley, the home of Hutton and Sutcliffe and Boycott and Trueman, and briefly of Sachin Tendulkar, too. In the most English of conditions, Ganguly chose to bat on winning the toss. The virtuoso trio of Dravid, Tendulkar and Ganguly all made hundreds to bury England under an avalanche of runs. Spin twins Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh then took over, sharing 11 wickets to send the hosts tumbling to a humbling innings rout. Oh, to be an Indian cricket reporter in England in August 2002!
But wait, the fun and games weren’t over yet. A painfully shy 16-year-old, Guntur-born and Hyderabad-bred, trained the spotlight on himself, a reluctant hero who reminded those that made their way to an Under-19 one-day match that there was more to Indian batsmanship than Dravid and Tendulkar, Sehwag and Laxman. The little fella answered to the name of Ambati Rayudu; it is one of the great tragedies that, for all his enormous talent and the immense potential that he showcased in his mid-teens, Rayudu has only played 40 times for India, and not once in flannels.
Rayudu had been largely anonymous during the Under-19 tour, making just 37 runs in the three Youth ‘Test’ innings and being left out for the final Test which India lost. But come the one-day games and, pushed up the order to open the batting, the young lad was in his element. Warming up with 34 in the first game, he made a half-century in the next, but quite clearly, he had saved his best for last.
Almost 15 years back to the day, India were chasing 303, and had slumped to 135 for 6 when Rayudu decided it was time to show who the boss was. Properly schooled, the English lads watched in astonishment as the small guy who packed a punch smashed an unbeaten 177, off just 114 deliveries, with 16 fours and a six. For the second time in two weeks, lightning had hit Taunton. For the second time in as many weeks, an Indian teenager had driven England to their knees.
We ran into him at Hyde Park, alongside coach Robin Singh, and couldn’t get a word out of him. He just smiled and smiled, his eyes lighting up when asked if he would like to speak to VVS Laxman, his hero then. During the brief, one-sided conversation, Rayudu blushed endlessly, barely managing a mumbled word here, a whispered ‘thank you sir’ there. It was charmingly endearing.
Mithali has gone on to bigger and greater things, the unquestioned face of India Women, the inspiration and role model, the leader and the captain. Rayudu has continued to occupy the fringes, there and thereabouts but not really an established player, a stunning paradox of the sweetest guy imaginable and the most easily provoked, too. The contrast is as stark as the bridge between potential and performance. Ambati Rayudu will be somewhere near the top of the list of Indian cricketing disappointments, even though he averages a remarkable 50.23 in 34 One-Day Internationals, and has been a crucial part of three successful campaigns for Mumbai Indians in the Indian Premier League.
In many ways, Rayudu is a child of controversy, several of his own making too. A rip-roaring start to his first-class career, a fallout with the Hyderabad Cricket Association, a stint with Andhra, a return to Hyderabad, then the switch to the Indian Cricket League in 2007. What are you doing, Rayudu? Do you even know what you are doing?
Fortunately, there appeared some light at the end of a seemingly endless tunnel when the BCCI offered an amnesty to the ‘rebel’ ICL players in 2009. Back in the teeming pool with time having seemingly passed him by even though he was still only 24, Rayudu soldiered on, the IPL allowing him to grow and mature as he occupied a dressing-room that included Tendulkar and Jayasuriya, Pollock and Ponting, Kumble and Harbhajan, Malinga and Bond. His India debut came in distant Harare in a low-profile ODI series in 2013, 11 years after that magical August day in Taunton. As if determined to make up for lost time, he made an unbeaten 63 in his first game. As many things Rayudu, this was also to prove to be a false dawn.
Rayudu’s inconsistencies with the bat in domestic cricket – he only averages 44.83 from 94 first-class games – have coincided with run-ins galore. With officialdom. With teammates. With opponents. And, it has emerged, with the common man, too. He has flitted from Hyderabad to Andhra back to Hyderabad, from the ICL with Hyderabad Heroes to Baroda in the Ranji Trophy, and now back to Hyderabad, whom he will lead this season. It ought to have been a happy homecoming. Rayudu’s international career may nor may not take flight again – his last appearance for the country was some 14 months back – but at least he was back where it all started for him. But can Rayudu be Rayudu without a dash of drama thrown in?
Videos have surfaced in the last 24 hours of a physical altercation involving Rayudu and at least one older gentleman on the roads of Hyderabad. Rayudu is seen getting off his SUV and entering into a verbal and physical argument not quite becoming of an international sportsman. It almost doesn’t matter what the provocation was, who was in the right and who was at fault. Rayudu should have known better. As a wise and seasoned 31 who has been there and seen most of it all.
In that sense too, Rayudu is far removed from the gentle, genteel Hyderabadis that have graced the cricket stage – the charismatic ML Jaisimha, the stylish Mohammad Azharuddin, the peerless VVS Laxman, the affable Venkatapathi Raju. Perhaps Rayudu’s inspiration is his more tempestuous mate at Mumbai Indians, Harbhajan. Or perhaps he is just wired that way – shy to a fault like during that phone conversation with Laxman, but quick to the touch when he believes he has been pushed to a corner. Either way, anger management courses won’t definitely be out of order for Ambati Rayudu, the new Hyderabad skipper.