It was a slightly morose Ambati Rayudu who turned up for a chat with Sanath Kumar in 2011 in Baroda. Kumar was the coach and Rayudu the captain, and suddenly the talk swerved to his India aspirations. "Sir, my goal is to play for India. If that won't happen, I will quit the game in couple of years." An alarmed Sanath remembers cajoling him then, and in subsequent chats, and urging him to carry on. "Of all the talented cricketers we have had in India, he is for sure one of the unluckiest. He was good enough for Tests, now he won't be even in the ODI team," Sanath says. It's a sentiment that seems to gel with many cricket fans who have outpoured their sympathy and support over the last few days since Rayudu lost out on a World Cup spot.
Frank, honest, emotional, competitive, impulsive, at times self-destructive, short-tempered, shy, loyal-a roller coaster of traits has been attributed to Rayudu. He is at a crucial moment in his career, yet again. Just as he was reaching out to his biggest dream of playing for India in a World Cup, his hands have closed on thin air.
It remains to be seen how he shall react to the latest setback. People who know him well say he will come out firing on the field. There is no doubt that his temper has got him into a few situations-from a road-side traffic brawl to fights with umpires, at times team-mates, but above all, the things that several of his team-mates remember is his innate goodness and how quickly his temper dies down.
His one-time Ranji team mate, Munaf Patel, recalls an otherwise ordinary day of cricket at the Moti Bagh ground in Baroda. A few stray dogs, long-time residents of the arena, jog behind Rayudu. A few stray fans, occasional visitors to the arena, ever-alert to comic possibilities shout out, "Rayudu, kutta!" (Rayudu, dog!). Rayudu wasn't amused. He charged to Yuvraj Singh, who was batting, demanded the bat that he intended to carry beyond the boundary-ala Inzamam ul Haq. Yuvraj called out to Munaf Patel for help. "Voh bola, samjha yaar isko, ask him not to do anything silly," Munaf recalls amidst fits of laughter. "I told him, 'Calm down bhai, they are just joking'. But he went to the boundary line to tell the fans what he thought of them. Later, I got a couple of people from them crowd and Rayudu apologised to them!"
Munaf still remembers the incident fondly because that morning, before the play began, there was a discussion in the Baroda dressing room on who got the most competitive and heated in the middle. Munaf and Yusuf Pathan had chosen Rayudu, while Irfan Pathan and Rayudu had picked Munaf. "That evening in the dressing room we were all laughing. Rayudu said, "Bhai, it's me only!".
"He is like that. Moof-fat (speaks his mind), gets angry quickly but his anger vanishes just like that," Munaf says. "He is a really good person, helps a lot. I remember he helped the young players in the nets with their batting. Always a team man."
Sanath Kumar takes that forward. "Rayudu would give me bats and shoes for any deserving player that I saw in the camps. In fact, even now, wherever I am, if I come across deserving young players in need of help, I call up Rayudu who never says no."
He probably never says no because of his early days and the situation at his home, according to his friend and childhood coach Vijay Paul's son Aaron. His father, who worked as a junior official at state archives department in Hyderabad, found it tough to raise the batting prodigy at home. The meagre salary didn't help. Rayudu’s mother would keep aside the chicken pieces from biryani for the son. "No one else would eat it, the chicken pieces were for him for protein. They would eat the gravy, " says Aaron who has known Rayudu from the age of 9. They also studied in the same school. "My father, who is no more, would be amazed at his talent. I also remember, even as a nine-year old, he would be smashing 15-year old bowlers."
Only one thing was constant then: validation of his talent from his peers and coaches. Irfan Pathan, former India bowler and a team-mate of Rayudu in the U-19 days and later with Baroda, had no doubt about the class. "I thought he would be the first one to play for India from the U-19 batch in 2000-02," says Irfan, who would win the race to Indian dressing room. "I still remember his knocks against England junior team in 2002-a 177 in particular: classy, full of strokes, and I really thought he would make it to Indian team in a year."
The confidence that came from being labelled as a prodigy can be seen in him to this day. He is a batsman who backs himself in any situation and is always confident that he can counterattack his way out of trouble-and all that dates back to his developmental days when it was considered a given that he would be a big India player one day.
Faiz Fazal, another team-mate from those days who years later would again share a dressing room when Rayudu turned out for Vidarbha in Ranji Trophy, too is a Rayudu admirer. "Even as a teenager, he would play the pulls and those on-the-up drives through covers. He was all class. Fiercely competitive, and he hated losing, and I thought not just ODIs, he would also play Tests for India."
Back to more personal stories. "Rayudu is an emotional, sensitive person who always looks out for people around him," Irfan says, rolling out a story from U-19 days when he wasn't fluent in English. "Like if someone would ask me, like it happened in New Zealand on a junior tour, where I am from; I would say, ‘I am. India.’ Parthiv Patel would pull Irfan's legs. Parthiv had studied in English school, I came from a Gujarati school and he would laugh, of course in light-hearted manner but Rayudu would come to my defence. 'As if you were born in New Zealand, come on don't make fun, he is trying to learn'."
But he also liked to wind Irfan in his own ways. "He loved giving me the chaabi. He would say yaar, you can't hit a six straight away. And once I remember he said this just before I went out to bat in a U-19 game in Lahore against Pakistan. I smashed a six right away, looked up and he was the leading the wild celebrations in the dressing room."
Fazal remembers the hours spent together where the normally reserved Rayudu would open up and talk about life. But he wasn't always serious or intense as he comes across in the field. "This one time I remember in Sri Lanka during a U-19 tour, we also had Robin Uthappa who was quite a mild good boy then. Rayudu wore ghost masks and went to his room in the night. Poor Uthappa...!"
There have been times when Rayudu's temper has benefited him too. Sanath Kumar cues up an incident from a Baroda game against Gujarat when he was on 90 and resting on the physio table at lunch-break. "You know there is a hole where you keep your face on that table? A player put his hand through and tapped him on his cheek and Rayudu was so angry! We had to push him out as play was about to begin and he went down the track to the seamer and smashed him for two sixes. Next break of play, he ran in and thanked that player, saying if not for him he might have hung around longer for that 100!"
Rayudu, a foodie, also fancies himself as an architect. Aaron recalls, "Oh, the times he has had alterations to his house. He would read something in some book, come back and ask the guys to break down a room or something and re-build it. It took years for him to finish the house!"
Aaron also remembers the schooldays where Raydu would turn up unprepared for pre-final exams and still kill it. "His classmates would be tensed and he would go, 'chill-ra, just understand the concepts and write it out in your own words'. He would be one of the first guys to come out of the exam hall and would surprise everyone with how well he would do. A big favourite of teachers too, everyone liked his personality and approach. He had this confidence in himself -be it in studies or cricket."
That confidence would be put to a severe test in Hyderabad Ranji team. Following problems with Rajesh Yadav, the Hyderabad coach in 2004, he had moved to Andhra for a year. Not that the problem with Yadavs stopped. There was an on-field spat with Arjun Yadav, son of Rajesh, when he was playing for Andhra. Arjun had uprooted stumps threateningly at him on the field and Rayudu raised his bat; both were fined. Rayudu was left despondent about the treatment.
A year later, he came back to Hyderabad when Vivek Jaisimha, son of legendary Hyderabad cricketer ML Jaisimha, became the coach. A knee injury sidelined him and a poor glut of form ensued. Jaisimha thought that a combination of poor form, hurt at being considered a flash in the pan, past politics in the state, and the injury had consumed Rayudu.
"He is a very, very competitive guy, very aggressive. But then he started having problems with umpires and with things that were not in control. He never could control his emotions, let's say, to his detriment. He would allow things to affect him. He was always finding something to crib about; he was never at fault," Jaisimha said.
The coach chatted with him a lot but according to him, Rayudu would slide back to trouble. "We would have heart-to-heart discussions. He would say the right things, everything would look alright, but on the ground, he would go back and do the same thing, showing little respect to the team plan.
"I would say everybody could have a bad season or two. That was probably his. No shame in running into bad form, but he started to play victim there. He needed to stop finding reasons elsewhere," Jaisimha said.
Rayudu saw it very differently. Politics in the cricketing system in Hyderabad and selectorial indifference has moulded his character to a large extent. When one first spoke to him in 2007, just after he had deflected to the non-BCCI rebel league, Indian Cricket League, he was shy and even as Hyderabad cricket fraternity was lamenting his decision, Rayudu had enough with the politics in cricket.
"I am talking about the bigger picture. The system is wrong. There is no proper method to track players," Rayudu said then. "We were not getting selected for higher grades. If you were playing for Duleep Trophy or India A, it’s a different thing. But this is our chance to play against quality opposition for three years and it will also be telecast on TV. People will hopefully see me perform." He kept talking about how the ICL games would be on TV and the world would realise how good he was. All he wanted was a platform to showcase his talent. "Some recognition, some adulation, and a few cheers," he said.
His coach Vijay Paul had once talked about the ICL days. "He probably didn't trust Hyderabad anymore, didn't feel his teammates 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," he told Hindustan Times. "Whenever I asked him, he would say 'leave it, sir'."
Back in Hyderabad, Aaron, his coach's son, says Rayudu will bounce back strongly. "That's his character. He will go and prove on the field. Don't you worry." Irfan is hopeful of the same. "He must not give up. This selection is hard of course, but he is still playing in IPL and you never know when the doors open again. What if there is an injury or something?" Sanath Kumar thinks he will be down for couple of days but that "fiery competitive streak he has" will help him bounce back. "He is still just 33, not the time to give up his dream. He should fight on."
Those who know him well say that his wife C Vidya would coax him on and help him through the testing times. A college friend, they had married on Valentine's day in 2009 just after the ICL ended and before the BCCI gave amnesty to the players. So reclusive was he that, on the 2013 tour of South Africa, other Indian players' wives didn't realise she was there. She has been his emotional recliner, guiding him through the ICL comeback.
By the look of things, though, Rayudu has retained his sense of humour. A day after chairman of selectors MSK Prasad had said Vijay Shankar was preferred over Rayudu as he is a three-dimensional player (batting, bowling, fielding), Rayudu let it rip: "Just Ordered a new set of 3d glasses to watch the World Cup."
Like many, Munaf Patel is surprised at Rayudu missing out from the World Cup team. "Why would they want a No.4 to also bowl like an all-rounder? Hope he bounces back".
Perhaps, the last word should go to Roger Binny who in 2007 said something about Rayudu that probably holds good to this day. "The selectors should have picked him right after his under-19 stint (around 2001). He needed to be guided properly."