“Prodigy”. “Genius”. “Exceptional”.
That’s how newspapers introduced a 16-year-old Ambati Rayudu to the realm of Indian cricket in 2002. After all, it was an exceptional entry. He overnight became the next big thing for Indian batting after the Guntur born cricketer slammed an unbeaten 177 to help India Under-19 beat their English counterparts in their own backyard.
The successful exploits in England was a precursor for greater things to come at domestic and international level. In the following Ranji Trophy season, teenager Rayudu slammed a double ton and then a century in a same match against Andhra Pradesh. And then later went onto lead India's U-19 side to the semi-final of the World Cup in 2004 in Bangladesh.
For those, who still haven’t managed to grasp the buzz that wrapped around his name must look at it as the early 2000s equivalence of the Prithvi Shaw type hype. Rayudu was touted by many as the rightful heir to Sachin Tendulkar.
“His mentor Vijay Paul, who played for Andhra Bank, introduced Rayudu to me," told former India cricketer Venkatapathy Raju to Firstpost. "I saw him at Gymkhana. He was hitting on-drives like any professional cricketer at the age of 14. I cannot forget the match against Andhra when he went on to score a double hundred and a century in the same match. I remember the knock that he played in England at the age of 16. The knock of 177. He always had the talent.”
He was destined to be a great. Yet, 17 years later Rayudu rode off into the sunset with mere 55 ODIS and six T20Is against his name.
Shikhar Dhawan, Suresh Raina, RP Singh and Dinesh Karthik who played under Rayudu in 2004 have gone on to make bigger names for themselves. But destiny had something else in the mind for Rayudu, or should we say, the Hyderabad cricketer never wanted to be destiny’s child. He wanted to take charge of his destiny.
Despite initial success, Rayudu quickly shifted base from Hyderabad to Andhra Ranji team, only to make a comeback soon. All this in the midst of having run-ins with coaches, umpires, and authorities.
But the biggest change was him, the then 21-year-old, joining the Indian Cricket League League in 2007, a rebel T20 competition which would push back his foray into international cricket by years. BCCI wasn’t kind on rebel players but its amnesty offer provided Rayudu a new lease of life.
He soon became the toast of cricket carnival IPL’s evening with numerous match-winning innings for Mumbai Indians. The career-graph which had plummeted to rock bottom started rising again as after over a decade of baffling one and all with his sublime strokemaking, Rayudu finally made his India debut in 2013 against Zimbabwe, making unbeaten 63.
The international career, however, didn’t really take off despite impressive beginning as Rayudu constantly kept circling around the revolving door. At the same time, Rayudu also earned the tag of a troublemaker with his involvement in spats on and off the field.
Rayudu was part of the 2015 World Cup side but didn’t get to play a single match, however, the biggest tryst with blue jersey was still some years away. With one year left for the next edition, the latest and last fling with the destiny began. India desperately needed a No 4 and in came Rayudu.
He got runs. India got victories. Captain Virat Kohli was delighted and backed the new No 4. But as has been the case with Rayudu, the marriage wasn’t acceptable to the cricketing Gods. Maybe it was fate’s way of getting back to Rayudu for being a rebel. After bossing the position for almost a year, Rayudu’s purple patch turned blue just ahead of 2019 World Cup.
Vijay Shankar was selected by MSK Prasad-led committee for the showpiece event instead of Rayudu, owing to the all-rounder’s ‘three-dimensional’ attributes. The ignored retorted back in his own style with the not-so-subtle “Buying 3-D glasses to watch the coming World Cup” tweet.
That was followed by injuries to Shikhar Dhawan and Shankar during the World Cup but ‘standby’ Rayudu didn’t find his name as replacements. And then on 3 July came the final move. In a mail to BCCI, Rayudu communicated his decision to retire from all forms of cricket.
“He has done well in whatever international cricket he has played. Rayudu stopped playing the longer format last year to prolong his ODI and T20I career. First, he was told, he was on standby for the World Cup but when he has not been picked as a replacement, probably he felt his career is over,” Raju said explaining what could have prompted Rayudu’s decision.
“It’s very difficult to find motivation in such a case. When you have already represented the nation and you come to a point where you feel nothing is going to come to you anymore, then it becomes difficult.”
For a player, who has earned the image of impatient and troublemaker over years, the decision may look like a product of instinct but a closer look shows it was an expected move by a rebel.
“He has his own identity and probably that has helped him to do well at the highest level for so long. People sometimes misunderstand others,” added Raju.
Indian cricket has more money coming into it than ever before. Cricketers are raking more moolah than ever before with IPL despite not playing international cricket. And yet, instead of staying back and collecting the riches, Rayudu has decided to walk away.
It fits the pattern. Rayudu has been all about playing on his own terms. He never waited for the upshot to be written by someone else. He always made the move. His departure though leaves a bitter aftertaste of unfulfilled promises. But maybe it wasn’t meant for him. Sometimes, life doesn't serve us a happy ending. Still, you can't hold it against him. He tried.
He was a genius, albeit an imperfect one.
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