Indian skipper Virat Kohli was quite candid when he spoke of the confidence that he drew from Ambati Rayudu’s batting in the two last two one-day international games in New Zealand. “When he starts playing like that, you start feeling more confident,” he said on Monday after India wrapped up another series win.
Deep down, he would be relieved that the man he has backed for so long to come good at No. 4 has regained the touch that makes him an asset to the side. The lack of competitive matches over a couple of months when India played Tests and he retired from first-class cricket meant that Rayudu took his time to find the wonted touch.
He seemed to lose his way a bit in Australia, being dismissed second ball in the first ODI in Sydney and wasting a review. He struggled to find his touch in the second ODI in Adelaide, where he made a scratchy 24 off 36 balls. Subsequently it made Kohli and Ravi Shastri drop him for the final ODI in Melbourne. Rayudu returned for the series in New Zealand and has repaid the tour selectors for their faith.
Rayudu did not have much to do in Napier when India comfortably won a low-scoring game by eight wickets and it was in the two games at the Bay Oval in Mount Maunganui that he came into his own. He appears to have met the challenges laid down for him and reassured himself and his backers that he was the best bet for the No. 4 slot.
On Republic Day, he played his role in ensuring that India would have wickets in hand going into the final 10 overs when batting first. He contributed a solid 47 at nearly a-run-a-ball pace by the time he fell in the 46th over. MS Dhoni and Kedar Jadhav powered the team past the 300-mark and left New Zealand with a mountain to climb.
And, on Monday, in which appeared to be a tricky chase as the track slowed down during the second half of the match, Rayudu showed a calm maturity to see India home with Dinesh Karthik after the team lost Rohit Sharma and Kohli in quick succession. It is this sensible approach to steer the innings, something that India would expect from Rayudu in each game.
Some would argue that he has been given more opportunities than others, but it would seem that the think-tank made up its mind quite a few months ago. And it is now up to him to ensure that he does not have to go searching for the touch that makes him a useful batsman and a key part of the team’s scheme of things.
Somewhere along the line, Manish Pandey got left behind. Having scored a century in just his third ODI innings, he managed but one half-century in the next 15 knocks. He remained unbeaten in five of these innings, four of which came when India successfully chased totals and the half-century coming when the team batted first against Sri Lanka in Colombo in August 2017.
Let us consider some facts that can serve as indication of the team management’s thinking.
Jadhav has played more ODI games than either Rayudu or Karthik since the last-named returned to the squad. And, in this time, he claimed 14 of his 24 wickets that his off-spin bowling has fetched him. That alone may be a factor that the think-tank would consider when having to pick the XI. And, Rayudu cannot be bowling in international cricket for a while now.
Significantly, the trio figured prominently in India’s Asia Cup campaign in September 2018. Since then, Rayudu has played in 10 of India’s 11 ODI games. Having suffered an injury in the Asia Cup final in Dubai, Jadhav has been part of the XI in six matches since while Karthik played just four matches.
Let us return to see how Rayudu has got his nose ahead of the others in the race. With the top three – Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan and Virat Kohli being well established and in line to play their second successive ICC Cricket World Cup tournament in the same order – he is most favoured to take the No. 4 position because of his adaptability.
Dinesh Karthik, back in the ODI team in July 2017 with a more dynamic mindset tuned to batting in the middle-order and finishing games, has not had many opportunities to ply his trade but it would appear that Kohli and Shastri are happy to keep him battle-ready just in case Dhoni pulls up injured or one of the other batsmen loses form. He would be a reliable fallback option.
Jadhav’s unbridled creativity with the bat in the final overs has been of use to the team. The fact that rival batsmen have been troubled by his off-spin bowling seems to have pegged him over Karthik. Should the team need him to send down a handful of overs quickly, he has been more than willing to deliver.
With Kohli heading back ahead of the last two ODIs in New Zealand, it is possible that the team continues to give this trio the chance to keep performing to potential. It would help the three of them sharpen their skills and the team to flaunt the depth in its middle-order, even if that has taken shape after quite some time since the ouster of the likes of Suresh Raina and Yuvraj Singh.