Ambati Rayudu: Tenacious, tireless, tougher

The CSK batsman’s impressive form in IPL 2018 has been rewarded with a spot in the India side for the One-Day series against England in July.

Ambati Rayudu after reaching his century in Pune on Sunday.   -  PTI

In an under-19 inter-college cricket tournament in Hyderabad in the early 2000s, chasing 156 to win, Ambati Rayudu notched up an incredible 152 with 10 sixes for Bhavan’s Ramakrishna College as the non-striker could only look on at the sensational onslaught. Later that day, on a call to the landline at his home to confirm the scores — those were days when mobile phones were not so common — he described his innings in simple terms: “I did not give the strike to my partner!”

Rayudu is an enigma, his brand of cricket distinct. There is an air of excitement every time he walks to the middle, and the class and authority that he wields with his willow are talents that few in the cricketing world possess.

“From the early days, I always believed that this boy is very, very special,” the late Vijay Paul, Rayudu’s first coach, had said about his protege. Paul, arguably the best cricket coach that Hyderabad has had after the great Eddie Aibara, described the batsman as “an impulsive stroke-maker who can play all the strokes against any bowler.”

One characteristic of Rayudu’s, which came about perhaps as a natural outcome of his intense competitive drive, or maybe because of his innate talent — as many gifted players are wont to — is his temperament. This has often landed him in trouble, an early example being an unsavoury brawl with former Hyderabad team-mate Arjun Yadav in a 2005 Ranji Trophy match in Anantapur when Rayadu was playing for Andhra Pradesh.

But Rayudu has always come back strongly from such emotional outbursts. Incidentally, at the start of last season, Yadav was the coach when Rayudu captained Hyderabad to victory at the first two major domestic events, the Moin-ud-Dowlah Gold Cup in Hyderabad and the Buchi Babu Trophy in Chennai.

“What happened was in the past. We were young then and the circumstances different. We have to move on. There is no animosity at all between us,” said Yadav, recalling the Anantapur incident. Rayudu, true to his character, described it as one of those things that should be left behind. “That is the past; let us look ahead,” he said.

“Aggression has been one of my strengths and I am channelising it with a positive intent.”

 

A long wait

There were days when Rayudu did not dare go anywhere near the Gymkhana Ground. He’d signed on for the rebel Indian Cricket League in 2007, and he only returned to playing for Hyderabad in 2009 after the ban on ICL players was lifted thanks to an initiative by Shivlal Yadav, who was then secretary of the Hyderabad Cricket Association and vice-president of the Board of Control for Cricket in India. Rayudu returned to play for Hyderabad under S. L. Venkatapathi Raju, under whom he’d made a double century on his Ranji debut against Andhra at the very same Gymkhana Ground in 2002.

“We very rarely come across such immensely talented cricketers in Indian cricket. There is an old world charm about his batting, and he can play strokes on either side of the wicket with ease,” Raju recalls about the first time he watched Rayudu play. Still, he had to wait 11 years for a call-up to the Indian side, making his debut in an ODI against Zimbabwe in July 2013. In that match, at 27 years and 304 days, Rayudu became the third oldest Indian to score a fifty on debut. “I have learnt to be patient, master the art of performing under pressure and be a complete professional in whatever I do,” Rayudu said recently.

In the ongoing Indian Premier League season, the batsman has flourished under the inspirational M.S. Dhoni at the Chennai Super Kings, which he joined this year after being left out by the Mumbai Indians despite being a significant contributor to the team’s success in previous editions. In a testament to his performances, India captain Virat Kohli recently stated publicly during the Twenty20 tournament that Rayudu should be a strong contender for a place in the national squad. A fitting reward for the Hyderabad player was his subsequent selection for the One-Day series in England in July.

Rayudu last played an ODI in June 2016 — in a low-scoring match against Zimbabwe that India won by 10 wickets and in which he didn’t get a chance to bat — and the forthcoming England series might be a trial of sorts for him. But Rayudu is a much-hardened cricketer, both physically and mentally, today; a fighter with an indefatigable spirit and the urge to be in the thick of the action, with the bat and in the field; a batsman who puts the team’s interests first, coming in at whatever position he’s needed to.

“Can anyone dispute his talent?” was a frequent response from Nagesh Hammand, who, along with Paul, helped mould Rayudu in his early days, every time there was a debate about his abilities. At 32, Rayudu feels he is in his prime. “I personally believe that the best years for a cricketer, especially a batsman, are between 28 and 35. So, my gut feeling is that my best years are ahead of me. I have been very consistent in recent years and feel that I am at my peak as a batsman,” he told this reporter last season.

Extending his roaring IPL form to the One-Day series in England could be just what Rayudu needs to lend some permanency to his spot in the Indian side.