It is 11 o’clock on a Saturday morning. Ambati Rayudu has just returned to his hotel in Puducherry after a long training session. The 36-year-old batter has signed up to play for Baroda, and in a bid to be fully ready for the grind of the Indian Premier League next year, wants to play the entire domestic season.
During IPL 2022, Rayudu posted a tweet announcing his retirement from the league at the end of that season. He admits that the tweet, which was deleted later, was put out in haste and insists that there were no issues with anyone in the Chennai Super Kings, the team he plays for. Rayudu scored just 274 runs in 13 matches (average: 24.91).
He wants to leave no stones unturned in his quest for success and has even spoken to M. S. Dhoni about the road ahead.
He is happy to be back at Baroda where he had played for a number of years early in his career. Gearing up for IPL may be a priority, but he also wants to work closely with the young cricketers of Baroda and help them chase their dreams of playing for India.
In a frank conversation with Sportstar, Rayudu opens up on his mindset, how he overcame disappointments in his career, and looks ahead to the upcoming season.
Q. What was the reason behind taking up a new assignment with Baroda, and what are the targets you have set?
A. I wanted to play the full domestic season before the IPL. The idea was to get a lot of cricket under my belt because after the IPL, you aren’t playing much, especially as you are not allowed to play anywhere else. It is a challenge. Even Baroda was keen on having someone senior to guide the team, so I thought it was a great opportunity.
I have played for six years for Baroda and I played for the Indian team from Baroda, so that way, I have a really good connection with the association and all the people there, so I thought it’s a good way to contribute to Baroda.
Could you could talk about your role as a senior player with Baroda?
It’s mostly to get the mindset right for the players and get the team’s goal right in terms of qualifying and winning. The mentality shift is very important in domestic cricket - whether you win or lose, you keep coming back to play another season, so the mindset can get a little stagnant. It is really important to embrace new challenges. Baroda has always been a successful cricket team, so it is important that we do well as a unit. Also, the youngsters need to have higher inspirations and look at playing for India.
What does a full-fledged domestic season mean for Indian cricket?
Full-fledged domestic season is really important because you get to play six to seven months of cricket. Otherwise, you just play the IPL and you are doing absolutely nothing for the next 10 months. It’s really difficult to get into the groove.
Even for the youngsters, a full-fledged season is important as the national selectors and the team management will be looking at their longevity, their fitness, and how they are coping with various situations. A lot of good things happen when you have a long domestic season.
Over the years, the number of games in domestic cricket has increased. Players now need to be fit and agile if they wish to play all three formats. Keeping that in mind, what are the physical and the mental aspects of the game you are working on pre-season?
For the pre-season, we are in Puducherry and we also went to play in Raipur. I have made up my mind that this time I will play the full season as we used to play earlier. I thought this could help me be in touch with the game and be much more prepared when the IPL comes around.
It’s a great challenge for me to work with the youngsters of the team and make them better. I also want to share my experiences on how to play for India. Having Varun (Aaron), Krunal (Pandya) and Hardik (Pandya) around as and when they are available will help the youngsters a lot. It’s quite exciting for me.
In 2019, you hastily quit the game soon after being dropped from India’s World Cup squad. Even though you came out of retirement later that year and played for Hyderabad, things did not go the way you would have probably wanted. Then you shifted to Andhra and now you are back again in Baroda. How challenging have the last three years been for you?
After 2019, I came back properly and wanted to play good cricket for CSK (sic). But because of COVID-19, we did not get [to play] much domestic cricket. You did not know when the tournaments would be held and that way, in the 2020 season, there was just a tournament after the IPL (Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy). Since it was held right after the IPL, I was exhausted.
I think that the split IPL 2021 season was good, the season we won. Last year, it was not a great season for the whole team. So going forward, we really want to make it a good season with everybody putting in their best efforts.
Last season, in the middle of the IPL, you tweeted that it was your last season in the league. Even though you deleted the tweet later, it led to a lot of speculation. What made you put out that tweet?
At the end of the day, we were not doing well and there were a lot of things going on in my head. It was done in haste and there was nothing more to it, to be honest. We all were always on the same page with regards to where the team was going and I had no issues with anybody. It was just one of those phases in my mind (sic).
Now that you are set to play for Chennai Super Kings in the next season, what is the realistic target that you have set for yourself?
Personally, last season was very frustrating. I could not have a proper build-up to the season because I had fractured my index finger. The wires were removed only a couple of days before the IPL, so I had to play for three or four weeks without any batting under my belt.
I am that sort of a guy who loves to be fully prepared in terms of batting, training and fitness. This season, more than just focussing on my batting, I am looking at being more involved with cricket, being on the ground and improving match fitness. That way, it is like falling back to your old routines. Old routines had earlier gone haywire due to COVID-19 and lack of cricket, so I’m looking to get my rhythm back.
In the times of franchise-based cricket, players hardly get any time to regroup. How do you handle disappointments and overcome those phases to make sure that it does not affect your mental health?
Personally, I feel that it is your mental health that affects your form rather than the other way round. For a cricketer like me who has gone through so much in terms of my career, it is no more about failure or success. It’s just that what drives you is very important. At this point in my career, it is a challenge more than anything else.
Talking about last season, when you are playing at the same venue and staying at the same hotel for so long, when things go down, it is very difficult to pick yourself up. Generally, when you have a bad patch, you travel to a different venue or play a game at your home ground and that gives you a breathing space.
But last year, if you noticed, it was just one-way traffic. A team that did well was on a roll, while the ones that struggled kept struggling. There was no comeback. It was that kind of a season.
When batting was clicking one day, fielding was not. People were dropping catches, something I had never seen before. But such things happen in cricket. We had won the IPL just about five months earlier, so it wasn’t as if people had changed or their games had changed, but it was one of those odd years.
As far as my performance is concerned, I think when you are struggling, it is important to go back to basics and think about what made you successful. That way, I am pretty decent in handling all those things. Maybe, I am hasty at times, but in hindsight, I generally go back and think rationally. Then I come back and play properly (laughs).
When you go through a bad phase, whom do you fall back on? What inspires you to come out of a bad phase?
The biggest advantage is that I have always had a life apart from cricket. My personal life, friends, work or whatever I do [takes my mind off] cricket. That way, I have been lucky because when you go into that phase, nobody talks about cricket and even you yourself forget that you have to come back and play the game again.
When you switch off, you recover and rejuvenate. The love for the game is always there but your desire to come back and do well again is something I derive a lot from the phase when I am away from cricket.
I don’t think about the game so much when I am struggling because there is no point in doing that. Sometimes the game is such that no matter how much you try, it still depends on several variables.
You may have prepared well, slept well, eaten well and trained well, but there is no guarantee that you will go out there and score a hundred. It doesn’t work like that. You can do whatever is in your control and after a point, you have to take things in your stride with a smile.
You have always stayed away from the limelight. Off the field, you are hardly visible in social gatherings or other events. Have you taken such an approach consciously or is it the way you are?
That’s how I am. I have always believed that cricket is a part of my life, but it is not everything, so I do a lot of things other than cricket. People don’t know this, but I am actually quite busy with a lot of other work (laughs).
For me, cricket has always been a sport and I have always enjoyed playing it. But I don’t see anything beyond that when it comes to cricket. I play it on the ground and once I am out of the ground, I have zero interest in what is happening around the game. I have always been like that (smiles).
When you look back, do you feel happy about how your career has panned out? Are there any regrets?
I am that sort of a guy who doesn’t look back that much. I have had really good memories with my team-mates and I am very happy. That’s why I have zero regrets.
I have enjoyed playing the sport on my own terms. I have always been very happy with the challenges that have come my way. I don’t plan things and I am not the kind who would say that I would do this or I would do that. For me, it is just about going on the ground and playing the sport…
I still enjoy playing the sport and that’s why I have taken up this challenge of playing for Baroda again. I am looking forward to playing in the next IPL so that I am prepared for the upcoming season in terms of fitness and other aspects.
You spoke about how you don’t believe in looking back. But do you feel that you should have been part of that 2019 World Cup team?
Personally, it was definitely a very hard moment for me. At the end of the day, the selectors must have taken those decisions in the best interests of the team. I won’t fight with that because that’s ultimately their job. As long as they are doing it with a good intention and thinking of the good of the team, it is fair enough.
People miss out, but personally I thought if they had not taken me, they should have at least pursued some other senior guy who could handle the No. 4 position, maybe Ajinkya (Rahane) or someone.
Perhaps they could have had somebody who could be the bridge between the top order and the lower middle order. That bridge was missing. If not me, they could have picked somebody who could do the job better.
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You mean to say that they should have opted for a like-for-like replacement and gone for someone senior?
Yes, someone who is a little more experienced and somebody who has played enough cricket to do the job.
You are 36, while your old friend Dinesh Karthik has made a comeback at 37. Does Karthik inspire you in making a comeback to the Indian team again?
(Laughs) No, for me, the main aim is to do well for CSK at the moment. I am very clear about that and at no point have I thought of making a comeback to the Indian team. There are zero thoughts about it, to be honest. Currently, all my focus is on Baroda and CSK.
I am happy for DK, he has been doing really well, but I don’t see myself even pursuing that for the Indian team. I am very clear.
Since you spoke about CSK, I am curious to know what your conversations with M. S. Dhoni have been after the dismal show in IPL 2022?
I obviously had a chat with Dhoni bhai regarding how I can get better. We have had a clear chat about what he expects from me and what he expects from the team.
After a season like that, you don’t analyse too much. It is not that there was a lack of effort from the players. It’s just that things did not work out. It happens with any team. We both have been very clear that if I get more cricket under my belt, it will help me. He is quite happy with me playing the whole season.
What’s CSK’s target for IPL 2023?
I don’t think CSK has ever had a target for a season. CSK has a process that it does when the team is doing well or it is struggling. It is the same process and the same team. Nothing has changed and it will remain the same. It is a great organisation and I am sure good times are in store for us.
Lastly, do you think the BCCI should allow Indian cricketers to play in other franchise leagues in the days to come?
The BCCI is quite wise in terms of what they are doing. Because of the IPL, there are so many good things that are happening to Indian cricket. There are so many players who are now ready to play international cricket; you have about 30-40 guys who are good enough to play for the team. It was never the case before, so that way, things are going so well.
It does not make sense to give approval just because a few guys of my age want to play overseas leagues. It could affect other domestic players, because they might just play two years of domestic cricket and then go and play other leagues. It will affect Indian cricket as well if people are allowed to play outside leagues. I don’t think it’s a wise thing to do keeping Indian cricket’s best interest in mind. There are a lot of youngsters who should ideally be playing domestic cricket and have some good seasons of Ranji Trophy under their belt before playing for India. Otherwise, playing the IPL is not enough. Only when you play three or four seasons of domestic cricket do you develop concentration, focus and cricketing discipline. If you don’t have this experience, you wouldn’t be able to deliver in crunch times. So, you need to be seasoned.
AMBATI RAYUDU - CAREER AT A GLANCE
|2001-02||Makes first-class, List A debut for Hyderabad|
|2004||Leads India to the semifinals of the U-19 World Cup|
|2005-06||Switches teams, signs up for Andhra|
|2007||Participates in the Indian Cricket League|
|2009||BCCI grants amnesty to players who played in the ICL|
|2010||Starts IPL career (with Mumbai Indians), signs up for Baroda|
|2013||Makes international debut for India at Harare|
|2014||Makes T20I debut for India at Birmingham|
|2014||Scores maiden century, against Sri Lanka|
|2016||Signs up for Vidarbha|
|2017||Joins Hyderabad again|
|2018||Purchased by Chennai Super Kings in IPL auction|
|2019||Announces retirement from all cricket after not being picked in India's World Cup squad|
|2019||Announces he will step out of retirement|
|2020||Signs up for Andhra|
|2022||Announces he will retire from IPL after IPL 2022, but takes back his statement|
|2022||Signs up for Baroda|