It was the solitary T20I on India's 2014 tour of England.
Chasing 181, the Men in Blue needed 17 off the last over with MS Dhoni on strike. The first ball of Chris Woakes' final over went sailing over mid-wicket for six. 11 were then required off the final five balls. A couple came off the next delivery. The third ball was a short of length slower one. A mishit from Dhoni dragged it to mid-wicket.
The mighty finisher denied the single.
At the other end was Ambati Rayudu.
Despite a four from Dhoni off the second-last ball, England won the match by three runs.
Rayudu was in the team as a specialist batsman. He had every right to think, "Am I not good enough?"
“I Am Good Enough”
Four years later, the two players shared the crease again during the fourth ODI against West Indies in Mumbai.
Rohit Sharma had just departed after a blistering 162. Ambati Rayudu was on 85 when the once mighty finisher took guard.
After Dhoni nudged it for a couple of singles, Rayudu converted a wide yorker from Kemar Roach into a full toss and swept it for a maximum over mid-wicket. MS Dhoni looked on from 22 yards.
A couple of overs later, Rayudu brought up his 3rd ODI ton.
At the other end was MS Dhoni.
The entire dressing room was up on its feet. Rayudu raised his hands to acknowledge his teammates and the Brabourne crowd, more in relief than joy. The relief of going from "Am I not good enough?" to "Yes, I am good enough."
After scoring his century, Rayudu then punched gloves with the man who in a way had engineered his comeback into the Indian team.
Sidelined by the Mumbai Indians franchise, Rayudu could have easily gone into oblivion but it was Dhoni who realised his potential. He slotted him to open the batting for CSK along with Shane Watson. A move that not only paid rich but instant dividends.
"Even before IPL started I knew I had to make space for Rayudu, because he is somebody I rate him very highly. He can play both the fast bowlers and spinners very well. Most teams look to exploit the opener with spin bowling. He is someone who doesn’t look like a big hitter but almost clears the field every time he plays the big shot." - MS Dhoni on Ambati Rayudu during IPL 2018
Ending the IPL 2018 as the season’s fourth highest run-getter with 602 runs, Rayudu staked his claim to don the blue jersey again. However, the India call-up was succeeded by a heart-rending 'Yo-Yo' speed breaker. His dream to be on the flight to the UK received a premature blow.
It could have been very easy for someone else to sulk over the misfortune. Rather, he decided to take it in his stride and win over it.
The Ideal Number Four
The adaptable batsman was then given a look-in in the 2018 Asia Cup as an opener. He scored at an average of almost 45 on the low and slow UAE pitches where shot-making was no child's play. Continuing his run of form against Windies at No 4, the 33-year-old has covered some distance in becoming the crisis man of the Indian ODI side.
His century in the 4th ODI was quite a rare development in Indian cricket. This was only the third century at No 4 by an Indian batsman since the 2015 World Cup.
The last time that a batsman batting number four or below had scored a ton for India was in January 2017. On the contrary, India’s top-three have scored a whopping 29 centuries in this period.
It may come as a surprise that many talented batsmen like Manish Pandey, KL Rahul, Shreyas Iyer and Dinesh Karthik could not make the No 4 spot their own; but for good reason. No 4 and 5 are the bridge between the top order and lower order which makes it a very tricky batting position. If you bat at No 4, you must have the ability to walk in at 22-2 in the 7th over or at 222-2 in the 40th over. This calls for a game rich in both stroke-play and stealing singles. And Rayudu ticks both the boxes.
The CSK batsman is street smart and has the potential to shift gears effortlessly. Most importantly, he has the ability to churn the strike in the middle overs and hold the batting together. An attribute much-longed by the side for the last two years.
The most striking feature about his batting is that he plays within his abilities and this is what makes him consistent. The Guntur-born is among a handful of Indian batsmen who average 50 or more in ODI cricket.
Has The Team’s Backing
After impressing his skipper at CSK, Rayudu has managed to draw out the same response from the current men-in-charge. While he saved Kohli the embarrassment of eating his words after the captain had publicly spoken to back Rayudu till the 2019 World Cup, he also repaid Rohit’s faith right from the Asia Cup. Both Virat and Rohit echoed each other after the Mumbai ODI.
"Hopefully, he (Rayudu) has solved all the mysteries of No 4. I guess till the World Cup there will be no questions on No 4... We have known Rayudu for a long time and he can produce the kind of innings that he did today. That’s probably the reason we got him at No 4, and he hasn’t disappointed. He has done well in whatever opportunities he has got. He came back in Asia Cup and now he has grabbed the opportunity with both hands." - Rohit Sharma, Vice-captain - India "Rayudu has taken his opportunity with both hands. We need to back him till that big World Cup and give him more confidence. He is feeling good about his game and he is a very confident man. He reads the game really well, so we are happy that someone with intelligence is batting at number four." - Virat Kohli, Captain - India
The statements of the Indian captain and vice-captain inspire confidence. But given India's recent track record of 'hire and fire', just one thing is feared: a knee jerk reaction in case of an occasional failure is the last thing a reviving Indian middle order requires. That aside, India's incumbent No 4 is here to stay... at least till the 2019 World Cup.
(Saksham Mishra is a budding sports journalist, a student of Radio and TV journalism at the Indian Institute of Mass Communication, New Delhi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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