Virat Kohli's statement on Ambati Rayudu after the batsman slammed his third One-Day International century against the Windies in Mumbai was in some ways a mixture of relief and vindication.
Relief, because at long last after trying multiple options, India finally seem to have unearthed a suitable contender for the No.4 position a few months ahead of the 2019 World Cup. Vindication, because Kohli's prophecy ahead of the Windies ODI series that Rayudu is suited for the No.4 slot has come true.
In a lot of ways, Rayudu is your quintessential middle-order guy. He has the technique to come in when the team is 10/2 and needs someone to graft it out or at 200/2 when the need of the hour is big hits from the get-go.
This was on display perfectly during the fourth ODI at the Brabourne Stadium on Monday. Coming in at 101/2 with his captain back in the shed, Rayudu knew he could ill-afford throwing away his wicket at such a stage. With Rohit Sharma going great guns at the other end, he took his time to settle down, rotated the strike at every given chance and once he got the hang of the surface took on the Windies bowling so much so that he managed to outscore his partner in the 211-run partnership.
Rayudu raised his century off just 80 balls, which included 8 fours and 4 massive sixes further repaying the faith his captain put on him. Why this century carried an even greater weightage was because it was the first by an Indian No.4 batsman since January 2017!
Rayudu essentially has all the shots in the book, is a busy player, can play both spinners and pacers equally well and when asked to accelerate can do that with relative ease. But then at 33, one does wonder why the Hyderabad lad with such sound technique and temperament has not been able to nail a spot in the Indian starting XI. What further accentuates this mystery is his average of 51.67 in the 44 ODIs since first turning out for India in 2013.
The answer to the questions lie in the flamboyant right-hander's career-graph. He led India to the semi-finals of the Under-19 World Cup in 2004 scoring runs by the bucketful and was immediately touted as the next-big-thing in Indian cricket. But, frequent clashes with authorities, scuffles off the field, playing different leagues all garnered more headlines over the next five years or so than his cricket abilities. His rocky career got a fresh lease of life after he accepted BCCI's amnesty offer to return to recognised Indian cricket and was picked up by Mumbai Indians in the IPL 2009.
He made sure he grabbed the opportunity with both hands as he churned out consistent performances one after the other enough to catch the eyes of the selectors. He made his debut in an ODI series against Zimbabwe in 2013 making a half-century in his very first game. The following year he recorded his maiden century - a 118-ball 121 against Sri Lanka in Ahmedabad. But despite all this, he failed to cement his place in India's middle-order with the likes of Manish Pandey, Shreyas Iyer, Ajinkya Rahane and KL Rahul often getting the nod.
A major reason for this was considered to be his strike-rate, which still stands at 79.72, notably lower than what the modern-day batsman would ideally want especially with scores of 300 plus becoming the norm. In fact, Rayudu is infamously remembered for not being given the strike by MS Dhoni in the last over of a T20I against England in 2014 when India needed 16 to win, which they eventually fell short by 3 runs.
Rayudu though seems to have finally shed his demons and over the last couple of years has come out a much more free-scoring player. He had a successful season with the bat for Hyderabad scoring runs at a nifty rate in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy and Vijay Hazare Trophy. But what really tilted the scales in his favour was his stint with the Chennai Super Kings in this year's IPL. Floating in the top four of the batting order, the 33-year-old amassed 602 runs in 16 innings striking at a belligerent 149.75 to finish the tournament as the fourth-highest run-scorer. He smoked three fifties and one century during the competition and was a huge reason behind Chennai lifting the trophy for the third time.
His impressive stint got him into the squad for the England ODIs in June before his luck rank out once again as he failed to clear the dreaded Yo-Yo test, which has been made mandatory by the BCCI for all players. The Rayudu of old, might have given up and resigned to his fate, but Rayudu 2.0 battled, cleared the fitness test and was selected in India's squad for the Asia Cup, where in the absence of Kohli, he made a mark giving evidence enough that he was the man to save India's middle-order crisis.
What also came a relief was the security cover given by Kohli ahead of the Windies ODIs where he made no fuss in admitting that Rayudu was "designed" for the middle-order role and that team was indeed looking at him till the 2019 World Cup.
"The only position we were trying to figure out was number four for a long time. We tried many players who unfortunately could not capitalise or cement their places in a way we wanted," the Indian skipper had said before the series kicked off.
"With Rayudu coming in and playing well in the Asia Cup, it's about giving him enough game time till the World Cup so that the particular slot will be sorted for us. The team felt there, and I also watched him, that he (Rayudu) is designed to play that middle order batsman's role. We feel that our middle-order is more or less balanced now."
With the confidence of his place in the side not in question, Rayudu has looked a different batsman in the four ODIs so far in the ongoing series against the Windies. He crafted a fine 73 in the second game in Visakhapatnam before giving a good account of himself in the fourth ODI with a sublime century.
"I think [it's a] very important [knock]. Hopefully, he has solved all the mysteries of number 4. I guess till the World Cup, there won't be any talk of number 4," Rohit said of Rayudu at the post-match presentation ceremony.
At 33, Rayudu is certainly not a long term prospect for the Men in Blue in the 50-over format but he is doing the job for the side and that is all that matters at the moment with the World Cup just a few months away.
ambati rayuduCricket World Cup 2019HyderabadIndiaIndia vs West Indies 2018rohit sharmavirat kohliWest Indies
First Published: October 30, 2018, 3:32 PM IST