Twice in the last week, Virat Kohli has endorsed Ambati Rayudu as India’s elusive No.4 in the ODI batting line-up. On the eve of the first ODI, the Indian captain spoke about the Hyderabad batsman as the “right person” to “sort out that particular slot”. Then after Rayudu’s 73 in Vizag on Wednesday, Kohli praised him for having been “professional” and reiterated how the team management were looking at the right-hander as a “permanent number four”. Not for the first time in his career, a captain had shown confidence in Rayudu, and not for the first time, he’d repaid him in kind.
Some five months ago during the IPL, MS Dhoni had talked up the 33-year-old’s importance to his Chennai Super Kings team. “Even before IPL started I had to make space for Rayudu, because he is somebody I rate very highly,” the former India captain had said.
As he finished as CSK’s highest run-getter with 602 runs in a highly memorable season, it looked like India had erred by not making space for him more consistently in their line-up. And just as they looked to make it right by bringing him for the England tour, Rayudu went ahead and failed his yo-yo test. It’s learnt that he had asked for the test to be put off by two weeks so that he could recover from the IPL fatigue — even attempting in vain to get in touch with Kohli to procure an extension. But to no avail. Not for the first time in the 16 years since he made his first mark in Indian cricket, Ambati Rayudu’s career had hit an unexpected roadblock, just when it seemed on the cusp of that ultimate breakthrough.
Rayudu is no stranger to receiving an anointing or then subsequently falling under its power. It’s been the story of his cricketing career. Few cricketers have gone from being a prodigy to the prodigal son more frequently than he did. He was identified as a rare talent and touted to be a future star as far back as 2002, back when Kohli was still in school and Dhoni was still not known outside of Ranchi. He was India’s under-19 World Cup captain in 2004 and led the likes of Shikhar Dhawan, Irfan Pathan and Dinesh Karthik, all of whom played for India well before him. Though his incessant batting skills kept turning heads-journeyman cricketers would travel far and wide with tales of having sighted the next thing-his chronic penchant for trouble when he wasn’t batting then left them shaking in repeated disappointment. There were run-ins with the Hyderabad Cricket Association (HCA), an ugly spat with a teammate and an unwarranted ban courtesy an even more unwarranted stint in the rebel Indian Cricket League (ICL). Along with it came a reputation ranging from problem child to bogeyman to temperamental tantrum thrower as he turned from Hyderabad mainstay to journeyman – trying his luck at Andhra and Baroda – before returning home last year.
The inevitable India call-up did come finally, almost a decade after it seemed destined, but Rayudu the trouble magnet kept finding ways of getting himself into situations and scenarios that always seemed to overshadow Rayudu the special batsman. There were more spats on the field and off it – including an unsavoury video of him allegedly assaulting a senior citizen in Hyderabad that surfaced last year.
Like with many before him, it was Rayudu’s ability to assault bowlers of high calibre that caught Harbhajan Singh’s eye the first time the two shared a dressing-room. It was during the 2010 season when the right-hander had just returned from his ICL ban and been roped in by the Mumbai Indians. “I have not seen many young batsmen look comfortable against Anil Kumble. But once in an IPL match, I saw the little youngster dominate Anil bhai, stepping out and hitting him over covers and driving him and rotating strike at will. To step out against Anil bhai’s pace you need something special, but he would do it with ease, I realized he was special,” he tells The Indian Express.
The veteran off-spinner also would go on to spend the next 8 years in the Mumbai dug-out with Rayudu before making the switch together to Chennai earlier this year. And Harbhajan believes if not for the constant switching of batting positions, his longstanding IPL teammate would have hit the consistency that he did with CSK many seasons ago in the T20 format anyway.
“The first year he played all the matches along with Saurabh Tiwary in the top-order and was very consistent. After that somehow, every second game or season he was batting at a different position. It was difficult and hard on him to continue to deliver. But he never said no. At CSK, he was clearly happier in the top-3, because if you look at his record, whenever he’s batted there, he’s always scored runs,” he says. While Rayudu’s cover-driving and inside-out hitting has always been an attractive trademark, he’s developed into an all-round batsmen with the ability to not just dominate the bowlers but to manipulate them. Harbhajan goes a step further calls him a “perfect batsman” and one who looks at ease against fast bowling and against spin, even when “it’s turning a lot”.
“He has so many skills that he doesn’t need to do anything except see the ball and play it. He’s got all the shots and knows how to score runs. The only time he gets out is kabhi hadbdahat mein jaldbaazi karke. If that doesn’t happen, then as a bowler I can tell you, he’s among the most difficult to bowl at,” says Harbhajan. CSK teammate Shardul Thakur reveals how a determined Rayudu had gone to Chennai well before the rest of the team gathered to prepare for this year’s IPL. He also talks about his teammate’s innate confidence in his own ability to deal with difficult challenges. Like when Rayudu spoke about handling Afghanistan’s Rashid Khan before going on to score his maiden T20 ton.
“During the team meeting before our game against Sunrisers, he said that we will find unique bowlers like Rashid Khan even in local cricket. These bowlers will bowl great lengths but will give at least one loose ball to hit, and how as a batsman you need to cash in on it. And whenever Rashid got his googly a bit short in that game, Rayudu hit him for six. Woh bolke nahi karke bhi dikhaya,” says Thakur.
Harbhajan isn’t too bothered about Rayudu’s tendency to lose his temper on the field on occasions, or rather often. He’s been privy to it after all. The two had got into a rather ungainly confrontation after Rayudu misfielded a ball off Harbhajan’s bowling a couple of years ago. Harbhajan recalls how his younger teammate knocked on his door that night and apologized profusely and repeatedly. In his opinion, Rayudu’s white-line fever or angst has to do with his fiery determination to win and how wired he is in terms of intensity on the field.
“Fielding position idhar udhar ho jaata hai and he’ll get angry. If he sees someone not putting in the effort required in the field, he’ll lose his cool. But when I think of a ‘team guy’, Rayudu is the first name that comes to mind. He’s always we and never me. He’s also equally involved when it comes to giving suggestions to bowlers or even MSD,” says Harbhajan. But when you’re Rayudu trouble’s never too far away, like when in 2014 his attempts to bring some home-made biryani for some of the Indian cricketers led to the CSK team having to shift their hotel, after the staff there refused to allow “outside food”.
The intensity is carried forward to practice sessions, where Rayudu satiates his incessant appetite for batting in the nets, and is always the first person on the bus for even “optional” practice sessions. What those who’ve shared dressing-rooms with Rayudu find surprising, if not amusing, is the Jekkyl & Hyde nature of his personality when it comes to on and off the field.
“At time after practice, you’re not sure if he’s in the same hotel as the rest of the team,” says Harbhajan, revealing the extent of Rayudu’s reserved nature, “He hardly leaves his room. And it doesn’t help that he never uses a phone.” So much so that, Harbhajan & Co ensured that Rayudu stepped out of his room, even if only on two occasions, and even socialized with his fellow CSK players. In what he describes as a near-coup, Harbhajan even managed to get the reticent batsman on his talk show, Bhajji Blast, though not without having to convince him.
“I went and said ‘we’ll have to speak for 30-45 minutes’. He said ‘Paaji what will I say?’ I told him, ‘That’s what I fear, that you and I will just sit quietly for half-hour and the time will pass’ But it was nice for him to come,” quips Harbhajan but then recalls how Rayudu did open up “a little bit” for someone who barely talks. But barely interacting hasn’t stopped Rayudu from gaining unique popularity amongst his teammates. One in particular, English fast bowler Mark Wood, even pen down a few lyrics on him and got the entire Durham dressing-room to sing along after Rayudu scored his century against the Sunrisers. It goes, “When I see Chennai, I know I’m on my way. I just can’t get enough, I just can’t get enough…all the things you do to me and all the things you say, I just can’t get enough, I just can’t get enough. Because when you cut and drive I just can’t get enough of Du Du Du Du Du Du…Ambati Rayudu..”
And Wood isn’t the only CSK player who “can’t get enough” of Rayudu either. Harbhajan is pleased at his latest comeback too. Perhaps never before has Rayudu seemed as close as he does to finally living up to his promise, and it’s difficult not to agree with Harbhajan when he says, “I want his time to come because he’s a top-class batsman. He got dropped when he was averaging 50 in ODIs. I wasn’t able to understand. I hope they continue with him, and like Kohli said he could be your answer for No.4.”