He was on the fast-track to realising a dream millions of Indian teenagers chase —playing cricket for India. But the slide was so steep he was given up as a lost case. But this dream refused to die. Welcome to the world of Ambati Rayudu.
The batsman and part-time wicketkeeper has survived so many twists and turns in his career that his World Cup selection is as much the end of a roller-coaster ride as it is a new beginning. But considering what he has been through, it is surprising he is even playing, leave alone finding himself in a bunch that will chase the biggest prize in the game in a fortnight.
One of Indian cricket’s dark moments was Gujarat paceman Rashid Patel chasing Delhi opener, the late Raman Lamba, with a stump in the Duleep Trophy final in 1990-1; the other was Harbhajan Singh slapping S Sreesanth in IPL, 2008.
But few would remember Rayudu’s dark moment on the field. Hounded out of the Hyderabad Ranji side, and forced to switch to Andhra for 2005-6, there was still friction when the two teams met in a Ranji match in Anantapur. Hyderabad player Arjun Yadav, son of former India spinner and association president, Shivlal Yadav, got into an altercation with Rayudu and threatened him with a stump. Rayudu responded with words and raised his bat. Both were fined.
It left the son of a junior official in the state archives department feeling even more lonely.
The situation had been anything but dire two seasons earlier, when he was captain for the U-19 World Cup in 2004. Many of those he led — Suresh Raina, Robin Uthappa, Shikhar Dhawan, Dinesh Karthik and RP Singh — went on to play for India long before he came into contention. He eventually joined them last year, making a quiet One-day debut against Zimbabwe at the age of 28.
A Hyderabad Cricket Association administrator, who wished to remain anonymous, explains what he went through initially. “Rayudu’s early success didn’t go down well with the ruling faction that included Shivlal and his brother Rajesh, who was the Hyderabad coach. Rayudu was targeted. In an under-19 match against Tamil Nadu, he was replaced as captain at the last minute. It shocked him. As a junior, he would be constantly bullied, on and off the field.”
Everyone knew Rayudu had been pushed to the brink when he made a potentially disastrous move — join the rebel Indian Cricket League.
Vijaya Paul, former Hyderabad skipper and Rayudu’s mentor, says: “He probably didn’t trust Hyderabad anymore, didn’t feel his team mates were backing him. After he joined ICL, I asked him to be patient and continue playing. Maybe he made the move because of insecurity as there was much more money than domestic cricket. Whenever I asked him, he would say ‘leave it, sir’.”
Late 2008 was an uncertain phase as the ICL got into a muddle. With the BCCI yet to grant him amnesty, Rayudu went through the toughest months of his life, deprived of any competitive cricket. The bowling machine became his best friend.
But 2009 brought good tidings. On Valentine’s Day, he took the plunge with C Vidya, a college friend he had been dating for four years. Rayudu’s father, A Sambasiva Rao, says the marriage changed his fortunes. “They tied the knot after the ICL had ended and before the Board amnesty. It had a positive impact on him. She knew what was happening with Rayudu and was a pillar of support.”Says Vidya: "It was a difficult phase, but we never lost hope. His parents and friends ensured there was a positive environment around him." They complement each other.
Vidya is not interested in cricket. “He doesn’t talk much and I am talkative. We don’t have many things in common. In fact, I follow the game only when he plays, and he doesn’t like to talk about the game off the field.”
Maybe it was his sense of isolation, but few in the India team even knew he was married. “I went with him to South Africa in 2013 and other players’ wives didn’t even know I was there. In New Zealand, they got me to go out with them,” says Vidya.
Rayudu is very reserved, says Paul. “He doesn’t talk or share much. But the impression he is short-tempered or arrogant is wrong.”
After the BCCI amnesty, he was picked by Mumbai Indians and joined Baroda. He acknowledges the role both the teams have played in rebuilding his career. Former India stumper Kiran More, who played a key role in the move to Baroda, says: “He came to us. I have known him as a junior, so I knew his talent.”
It wasn’t easy for Rao to meet the expenses to for his son’s cricket. “I got him an English willow bat for the first time when he played for the state U-13 team. It was very expensive. I took a lot of loans, sometimes more loans to repay the older ones,” says the proud father.
The frail, soft-spoken man neither boasts about his son’s success or wealth. And no controversial questions please. His son has endured enough negativity.