A little recognition, a little adulation, and a few applause, Ambati Rayud once told this correspondent about his decision to join the ICL rebel league. The boy, who feared his days would end in obscurity, got all that and more when he returned to the official ranks. But whatever the case, it is in the T20 format, and the IPL in particular, that his star will shine. Unfortunately, his Indian dream faded when he wasn’t taken to the World 50-over Championship in 2019; he announced his retirement, got talked into it, had a couple more good years, and now announced that this would be his last IPL. The boy who was afraid to wait for good times is now leaving when the cricket world has appreciated his talent, but a sigh of what might have been will evaporate into thin air whenever his name comes up in the future.
I’m talking about the bigger picture. The system is wrong. There’s no right method of tracking players, Rayudu said at the time. We didn’t qualify for the higher ranks. If you were playing for the Dulip Trophy or India A, that’s another matter. But this is our chance to play against quality opponents for three years, and besides, it will be televised. Hopefully people will see my performance. He kept talking about how ICL games would be televised, and the world would realize how good he is. I’m not sure about the ICL, which has dissolved into a fog of fix-it mess, but the world has definitely seen and admired his talent in the IPL.
A most interesting character – flashy, quick to take offense and quick to calm down, he fought with rivals, sometimes with teammates, participated in road fights, and yet most figures in the cricket world speak of his innate kindness, loyalty, talent, fierce competitive streak and sense of humor. The world saw the last line when a day after former ICC Selection Board chairman Prasad said Vijay Shankar was preferred over Rayudu for the 2019 World Cup because he is a three-dimensional player (batting, bowling, fielding), Rayudu let his feelings run wild: Just ordered a new set of 3d glasses to watch the World Cup. Rayudu’s struggles with selectors have been perennial. Perhaps one of his former coaches in India A and ardent fan Roger Binney said this in 2007: The selectors should have picked him right after his under-19 performance (circa 2001). He should have been properly guided. Only CSU provided him with the kind of environment thathe glowed.
His character spawned so many stories.He could fill a chapter or two if someone wrote a book about him. One of the funniest incidents was told to this newspaper by his onetime Ranji teammate Munaf Patel, who recalled an ordinary day of cricket at the Moti Bagh ground in Baroda. The day began with an argument in the locker room about who was more testy: Munaf or Rayudu. Munaf and Yusuf Pathan bet on Rayudu, and Irfan Pathan and Rayudu bet on Munaf.
During the game, at one point, several stray dogs ran after Rayudu. A few stray fans, always ready for comic situations, shout: Rayudu, kutta! (Rayudu, the dog!). Rayudu was not amused by this. He went to batsman Yuvraj Singh and demanded the bat, which he intended to take outside the field of Inzamam ul Haq. Yuvraj turned to Munaf for help. Voh bola, samjha yaar isko, ask him not to do anything stupid, Munaf recalled amidst fits of laughter. I told him: Calm down, bhai, they are just joking. But he went to the boundary line to tell the fans what he thought of them. Later I called a couple of people from the crowd, and Rayudu apologized: It’s just me, bhai!
Lest this piece turn into funny stories about his character, I will say that it was his batting that first got everyone’s attention. In particular, his blistering strikes through the lids and bounces. Faiz Fazal, captain of the team that won the Ranji Trophy, recalled that even as a teenager, Rayudu stunned everyone with these strikes.Even as a teenager, he played pull-push and these drives to lift through the covers. He was awesome. Fiercely competitive and hated to lose, and I thought he would play for India not only in ODIs but also in Tests, Fazal told this newspaper. His friend Aaron Paul, his coach’s son, would say he saw nine-year-old Rayudu smash 15-year-old bowlers with such strikes.
I thought he would be the first to play for India from the 2000-02 U-19 team, Irfan Pathan, who won the race for the Indian locker room from that team, told this newspaper. I still remember his kicks against England’s junior national team in 2002 – especially 177: classy, full of punch, and I really thought he’d make the Indian national team a year later.
Over the years we have seen all those strikes in the IPL. One of the most successful and consistent counter-attacking players in this format, he along with Suresh Raina has been a mainstay of CSK in the middle order. His confidence in himselfe, which appeared after he was called a prodigy, is still visible in him today. He is a batsman who supports himself in any situation and is always confident that he can counterattack to get out of trouble — all back in his developmental days, when it was taken for granted that he would one day be a big player in India.
A career in India didn’t turn out the way he would have liked, but in the IPL, during countless summer nights, Ambati Rayudu found what he wanted: recognition, admiration and a few applause.