For someone who was touted to be the next big thing in Indian cricket circuit, Ambati Rayudu has had an underwhelming career so far.
However, the stars seem to be finally aligning for him. On Sunday, in the eleventh edition of the Indian Premier League (IPL), he scored his first-ever Twenty20 hundred to guide the Chennai Super Kings into the playoffs.
The 32-year-old began his first-class career at the age of 16, was called up for India 'A' side the following year and captained the U-19 side at the ICC World Cup in 2004. With India making it to the semi-finals in the 2004 U-19 World Cup, Rayudu's ascension into the senior team was just a matter of time.
However, it took Rayudu nine more years to make his ODI debut in the national colours, where he scored an unbeaten half-century against Zimbabwe to become the oldest Indian debutant to score a fifty.
A stint at the 'rebel' Indian Cricket League (ICL) did his reputation no good and it was the IPL that brought him back into the reckoning after a string of all-round performances for his first franchise, Mumbai Indians.
Doubling up as a wicketkeeper for the Mumbai Indians since 2010, Rayudu had an impressive first season that saw him score 356 runs at a strike rate of 144.71.
He continued his good form with the bat and gloves as he scored more than 300 runs in 2011 and 2012. Not to forget, Rayudu won the IPL title with Mumbai in 2013. After strong domestic performances in the Ranji Trophy, he was named in India's ODI squad to Zimbabwe.
Rayudu was included in the squad when India toured Australia, West Indies, South Africa and New Zealand in the next couple of years, but didn't get to play many matches on tour.
Rayudu's cameos in the Asia Cup 2014 was negated by his poor run with the bat in the subsequent tour of Bangladesh. His maiden ODI century came against West Indies at Ahmedabad.
Eleven years after captaining the U-19 side, Rayudu was named in India's 2015 World Cup squad but did not appear in any matches.
After being an automatic choice for the second-string team that India sent to Zimbabwe in 2015 and 2016, Rayudu dropped out of reckoning once again.
Throughout his on and off involvement with the Indian limited-overs side, the one constant in his career was his stint with the Mumbai Indians in the IPL. Rayudu was an integral part of the three-time champions Mumbai till 2017.
This year, he was snapped up by the Chennai Super Kings for Rs 2.2 crore.
In retrospect, this was one of Chennai's smartest and most effective buys as Rayudu has already breached the 500-run mark for the first time in his IPL career at an average of 48.63 and an impressive strike rate of 152.9.
On Sunday, Rayudu was adjudged the man of the match for his unbeaten century against Sunrisers Hyderabad, one of the best bowling attacks in this edition's IPL.
In the post-match presentation, CSK skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni was effusive in his praise of the right-handed batsman from Hyderabad. He said, "Right from the start, I rated him as someone who can give a good start. He can play both the fast bowlers and spinners very well. He is someone who doesn't look like a big hitter but clears the field everytime he plays the big shot."
And big shots is what Rayudu has been playing with extreme ease in the company of Shane Watson at the top. His 134-run opening partnership with Watson in Sunday's clash against Sunrisers was the first 100-run stand against an effective SRH in this season.
On Sunday, Dhoni also revealed that opening the Chennai innings with Rayudu and Watson was a pre-season decision. Rayudu began his Chennai stint with a quickfire 22 and 39 in his first two matches. He dropped down the order to make way for Murali Vijay and was runout after a strokeful 49 in the clash against Kings XI Punjab.
Once again promoted up the order in the match against Rajasthan he edged out early in the innings and in the next match had to make way for Faf du Plessis at the top of the order. However, walking in at No 4, Rayudu smashed a blistering 79 off just 37 balls, falling to a runout 34 runs short of the target, which was then surpassed by Dhoni and Suresh Raina.
This innings against Sunrisers was the start of the consistency that was missing from Rayudu's career.
Back to the opening slot against Royal Challengers Bangalore, his 82 off 53 laid the platform for Dhoni to go berserk with his unbeaten 70 off 34 balls to chase down 205 at the Chinnaswamy stadium. After scoring a quickfire 46 against Mumbai Indians in a losing cause, he once again made way for du Plessis at the top and walked in at No 4 to score yet another fast-paced 41. And for the third time this season, he was run out.
In the reverse fixture against Bangalore, he was the top scorer for Chennai in a low-scoring game with yet another 30-plus score. Rayudu's consistent batting performances for the CSK earned him an Indian ODI team call-up for the England tour.
After brushing off a rare failure with the bat at the top of the order in the match against Rajasthan Royals, he celebrated his comeback into the limelight with a blistering century on Sunday.
True to Dhoni's words of Rayudu being a player who plays all kinds of bowling and has the ability to go for the big ones, the 32-year-old has tackled the powerplay, battled the middle overs and provided the proverbial late flourish in the death. His 29 sixes this season is just two short of Rishabh Pant who leads the six-hitting pack with 31.
Rayudu is enjoying his stint at the top and believes that if a player is good at 4-day cricket then playing at any position wouldn't be much of a hassle.
Talking about his comeback into the Indian team, Rayudu said, "I am really happy to be back in the Indian team, hopefully I will do well there."
Considering the dynamic nature of India's limited overs side, the ability to be an asset at any stage of the game will hold Rayudu in good stead when the Virat Kohli-led Indian team embark on a mission to conquer an all-important frontier.
A month earlier, Rayudu's name wasn't even mentioned in the same breath as the England tour.
Such are the vagaries of cricket and the unpredictability of the shortest format that makes heroes out of players in obscurity.
In 2014, Rayudu was part of the Indian team that overcame the ignominy of the 3-1 Test defeat by winning the ODI series by the same margin.
After four years, in yet another tour of England, Rayudu gets the opportunity to stake his claim in the playing XI.
However, Rayudu's job with the CSK is far from over as Dhoni and Co are well on course for winning their third title in their comeback season.
And if there is anyone in the CSK team that knows about winning three IPL titles and more importantly knows about a comeback or two, it is Ambati Rayudu.
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Updated Date: May 14, 2018 15:16:22 IST