IPL 2020: Ambati Rayudu, more than a 3D cricketer with CSK
IPL 2020: Ambati Rayudu, more than a 3D cricketer with CSK

August 2002. Sourav Ganguly’s Team India were in the English shores for the tour that went on to be a part of history. Around the same time, India’s Under-19 side was touring the same country. A 16-year-old from Indian U-19 contingent had made a penchant for the headlines. The buzz was that this teenager from Hyderabad was destined to be the next Sachin Tendulkar. An innings at Taunton reaffirmed that Ambati Thirupathi Rayudu belonged to a different league.

Chasing 306, India U-19 slumped to 137 for six. Opener Rayudu held one end, and all he required was someone to stay at the other end. He found some support from tailender Kuldeep Rawat.

Those who watched the match live couldn’t help draw parallels to the Kapil Dev magic at Tunbridge Wells in 1983. Rayudu slammed 177 not out from 114 balls to see his side home with a one-wicket victory.

In the next few years, his teammates from that game – Irfan Pathan and Suresh Raina (both retired) would make it big in international cricket. Rayudu would lead India U-19 in the 2004 World Cup. His lesser illustrious teammates from the tournament – Shikhar Dhawan, Dinesh Karthik, Robin Uthappa, Raina, RP Singh and VRV Singh would go on to earn the national caps before him.

Where was Rayudu?

He was stuck in the complexities of the extremes. He remained inconsistent, picked fights (even physical), switched teams, earned a ban for signing ICL before making a return. Oscillating between his temperamental extremes of shyness and overtly aggressive, the contrasting trait that would also define his on-field performances.

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With the BCCI welcoming back the ICL players, Rayudu would go on to have his first tryst with the mega league in 2010. A call from Tendulkar would land him into the Mumbai Indians (MI) setup, an association that would go on to last for eight seasons that saw the side win three titles and two Champions Leagues.

In 2011, Mumbai would beat Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) at the latter’s den courtesy an unbeaten 110-run stand between Tendulkar and Rayudu. Tendulkar was quick to share the award with Rayudu, saying, “It will be bad if I don't share this with Rayudu. It was a brilliant innings from the young man. It was a special stuff.”

From being perceived as the next Tendulkar in the previous decade to being backed by the maestro himself, Rayudu would have to make up for the lost time.

In 2013, at 27, Rayudu would eventually make his international debut. Between the sporadic appearances, he remained a vital cog in the MI system – playing as a floater, sometimes opener and often donning the gloves when required. Yes, he was more than a three-dimensional cricketer for Mumbai. This term would go on to impact his career adversely.

And in between came moments like these.

Mumbai’s third IPL title (in 2017) was defined by a Rayudu catch at deep extra cover to dismiss Steve Smith in the final over. He was the only fielder manning that region.

This went on to be Rayudu’s final appearance for MI. Chennai Super Kings (CSK) would go on to secure his services for the 2018 season.

The rise, fall and now

CSK returned to IPL after missing two seasons. They picked a squad with most players being on their other side of 30s. The daddy’s army as the fans joked, went on to win the tournament. Rayudu, who had never breached the 400-run mark in the tournament, slammed 602 runs in the tournament, emerging as CSK’s highest scorer. From opening the batting to providing stability at no.4 to finishing games, Rayudu would do it all for the yellow brigade.

During the same time, Team India looked at viable options at no.4 for the upcoming World Cup. Rayudu would make a return to the national side. From the Asia Cup 2018 till the tour of New Zealand, Rayudu would amass 606 runs at 50.5 and a strike-rate of 86.4. There was little doubt on who would bat at no.4 for India in the 2019 World Cup. Adept against spinners, good with building innings and ability to accelerate at will made Rayudu a success and an automatic choice for the World Cup.

What happened then?

Once India returned home, Rayudu would suddenly lose touch. He got 67 runs for Hyderabad in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy at 16.75 and a strike-rate of 89.3. He would then manage only 33 runs at 11 against the visiting Australian side in the ODI series. Then came the IPL and Rayudu was reduced to a pale shadow of the illustrious year he had in 2018. He managed just 282 runs at 23.5 at a disappointing strike-rate of 93.

Rayudu was dropped from the World Cup squad to accommodate a ‘three-dimensional player’. This led to a hurting Rayudu’s ‘3d glass’ jibe on social media. Shikhar Dhawan and ‘3d’Vijay Shankar injured midway, but Rayudu wasn't the replacement. Right or wrong, not for the first time the Indian selectors had failed to provide clarity to a cricketer.

Known for letting his emotions get the better of him, Rayudu retired from all formats abruptly. He could be counselled. Or maybe, the board had enough of his mood swings. To add to the complexities, Rayudu soon came out of his retirement only to skip Ranji Trophy for being unhappy with cricket politics in Hyderabad.

In a career spanning almost two decades, Rayudu's temperamental persona has led to the burning of many bridges. Thankfully, the CSK bridge, one consisting the wisest of men, remained strongly cemented (no promotion of India Cements). With Raina pulling out of the tournament, Rayudu's role was set to gain more prominence. In a perfect setting, in Indian cricket's biggest game post-pandemic, Rayudu walked out to bat at six for two in the second over against his former franchise – Mumbai Indians.

On a surface where some of the bigger names found challenging to flex their muscles, the unretired Rayudu produced batsmanship of the highest order that made many minds wonder if this was the missing link to Team India and the 2019 World Cup triumph.

Rayudu stabilised the innings, ensured Faf du Plessis’ strike-rate didn’t hurt enough, used his feet against the spinners, used the pace of seamers and not for once got intimidated by Jasprit Bumrah rather counterattacked him.

CSK coach Stephen Fleming was quick to shower praises on Rayudu.  “Last year was a difficult year for a number of players to earn that spot in the world cup squad. That occupied a lot of minds and the performances of a number of our players. This year, without that, there has been total commitment to CSK. Rayudu has been an emotional player through the years but for us, he has been nothing short of fantastic. He turned the game around with his experience and his skill set was a major part of that,” said Fleming.

Without making an emotional statement or gesture, Rayudu has said many words. Will he be a contender for the T20 World Cup next year? That’s too early to assess. One thing for sure, in Raina’s absence and on the dustbowls of UAE, the batting of CSK this season will revolve around Rayudu. Perhaps the mercurial cricketer’s true dimensions are righty men explored when he’s in the calmer and wiser company of the likes of MS Dhoni and Fleming.

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