The genius and chaos of Ambati Rayudu

Ambati Rayudu was a genius against the spinning ball, a rebel, frequently retired, overlooked, and a winner. With his talent he could’ve been a better cricketer, but few players have ever packed in as much as him.

The genius and chaos of Ambati Rayudu
Ambati Rayudu has the joint-most IPL titles in history

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Ambati Rayudu is not playing well. In this league, he is one of the big stars. He is the Indian player that has to sell tickets. The Indian player making runs is Rajagopal Sathish, a journeyman from Tamil Nadu who couldn’t always get in his own domestic team. Rayudu was a child prodigy, an under-19 captain and a future Indian star.

Rayudu might be the most talented player in modern cricket who has not been an international success. He is one of the world’s best players of spin, a master of the open and closed bat face, and has six IPL titles spread across the dynastic IPL sides. 

Yet when he was in the Indian Cricket League's low talent pool, a journeyman outshone him. Bharat Sundaresan calls him a genius batter. But so were Matthew Elliott, Mark Ramprakash and Graeme Hick. When you wanted Rayudu to be the star he was born to be, he wasn’t. But as a journeyman himself, he was the greatest third-tier star on a team. 

Had he not gone to the ICL, he still could have been anything. In 55 ODIs, he averaged 47. 

“Ambati Rayudu, if you finish this and ride into the IPL sunset on the back of this, it will be a story to tell.”

These were the words of Ian Bishop from the commentary box as Ambati Rayudu hit six, four, six against Mohit Sharma in the Final of the 2023 IPL. Rayudu would be dismissed off the next delivery, walking off in tears as he couldn’t quite finish it off for CSK.

This is the story of Rayudu. There is always something happening, good and bad, that never seemed to matter. When facing a spinner in the middle overs, he was in complete control, in every other part of his career he was all over the place. 

Way back in 2002, at 17, Rayudu made all the headlines when he smashed a double century and a another hundred for Hyderabad against Andhra in a Ranji game. The youngest Indian to do so. It’s not often you see players hit more that 300 runs in a single first class game, let alone a teenager in his second season of senior cricket. The talent was dripping off him, and as with any prodigy, a lot of expectations were there too. 

It didn’t take long for him to be added to the India A side, where he played a significant number of matches in 2003 as they toured England and the West Indies.

Runs flowed off his bat wherever he went so it came as no surprise when he was appointed as the captain of the India Under 19s for the 2004 World Cup. India were dominant in the tournament, their only loss in the group stage coming at the hands of South Africa by just three runs. 

This was an Indian side with some players who would go on to make it in international cricket. With a top five of Shikhar Dhawan, Robin Uthappa, Ambati Rayudu, Suresh Raina and Dinesh Karthik, they were certainly looking like one of the favourites.

Unfortunately for Rayudu, a code of conduct breach for persistent time wasting in India’s group game against Sri Lanka resulted in a one-match ban. The game he would miss was the World Cup semi-final against Pakistan. This was the first of a few public disciplinary issues he would have throughout an interesting career. 

Rayudu didn’t have a big tournament, but India missed him in that semi-final. They ended up getting just 169 - the guy promoted to number three in his absence, Praful Waghela,  got a first-ball duck. Pakistan won the game by five wickets and eventually the title as well, beating the West Indies in the final a couple of days later.

Domestically, all was not well. Rayudu was having issues with his Ranji team. He didn’t see eye to eye with the Hyderabad Cricket Association, particularly the Secretary of the HCA, Shivlal Yadav. Rayudu alleges his son Arjun was receiving special treatment. He briefly switched to Andhra in 2005/06 and actually had a run-in with Arjun when they faced Hyderabad. 

Surprisingly, he returned to Hyderabad in the 2006/07 season, but things just weren’t working. He was frustrated and unhappy with the treatment he received. He was labelled hot-headed and emotional, and it’s a label that kind of stuck through his career. 

This is part of the reason - also having not already got an Indian cap  - that when the call from the ‘Rebel’ Indian Cricket League came in 2007, he jumped at the opportunity in spite of the fact that it came with a BCCI ban. He wouldn’t be able to play domestic cricket, so he would not qualify to play for India. His dream was to play for the national team. But at that point, he was so frustrated by what was going on in Hyderabad, that he didn’t care anymore. Imagine this: a former India U19 skipper, who’d already played for the India A team, decided to shelve his dream of playing International Cricket at just 22.

Joining the ICL came with its own challenges. The BCCI refused to sanction it, and the ICC and other boards followed suit, making it nearly impossible to recruit top-quality, current players. All the Indian internationals gave it a miss, but that also meant more opportunities for the likes of Rayudu. We did a whole piece on the tournament just last week; you should probably go read it!

In an interview with Ranveer Allahbadia late last year, Rayudu said that the ICL had a huge impact on his career. One huge resource the ICL had was the top-quality coaches they managed to rope in. 

For Rayudu, working with Steve Rixon in the Hyderabad Heroes setup, was a game changer. Rixon had already been at the helm at New Zealand, New South Wales and Surrey by then, so there was a lot that he brought to the table, especially for the youngsters who were willing to learn and Rayudu was definitely one of them. 

The Hyderabad Heroes emerged Champions of ICL 20s Grand Championship in 2008. Rayudu was one of the youngest members of the squad, as the ICL was basically a veterans league. But despite struggling, he was the player of the match in both games of the finals series. 

Picture Credits - ICL

The ICL lasted just two seasons, but Rayudu was still known well enough to be headhunted for the IPL scouts. When the BCCI granted amnesty to players who had participated in the ICL the next year, it gave the likes of Rayudu a chance at redemption and rebirth.

Three IPL teams came knocking on his door prior to the 2010 season. Deccan Chargers, which was based out of Hyderabad, so it would’ve been like his home team, Kolkata Knight Riders and Mumbai Indians. There was no auction, he had a choice to make. Deccan were the most recent winners, so there would definitely have been the temptation to pick the already successful side, but Rayudu chose MI. You could say he chose right.

This was truly a rebirth maybe even he wouldn’t have imagined possible. In the seven seasons Rayudu was with the Mumbai Indians, they would reach four IPL finals, winning three and claiming two Champions League titles as well. Five titles in seven years, a golden era for a hugely successful franchise.

He was at the centre of it all, yet never big enough to be a star, and he was released in 2017. Rayudu found himself going from blue and gold, to the yellow of CSK, a team which was no stranger to success.

It’s funny how despite all the instability he endured in domestic cricket - he’s revealed that he was close to quitting the sport altogether before the ICL came along - and being overlooked by India for so long, he found himself in two of the most settled environments in the IPL by a happy twist of fate.

He played just five matches for MI in 2017 as a result of injuries, but 2018, his first at CSK, was his best season in a decorated IPL career. 600+ runs at a strike-rate of nearly 150, he was right in his element. The wickets spin in CSK, you are putting players like him and Raina in their element. Fittingly, he hit the winning runs in the final against the Sunrisers to give MSD’s men their 3rd IPL title. It was truly a dream season to have for Rayudu and it only got sweeter because his run of form in the IPL and domestic cricket put him back in the Indian mix.

With a World Cup looming, this was a huge opportunity for Rayudu. Many will say he did enough to make it into the Indian squad for the 2019 World Cup - six months before the tournament, then captain Virat Kohli went public with the claim that their hunt for a number four was done. 

How did he go from that to not making the squad? He didn’t have the best of runs ahead of the tournament but the management opted for someone who wasn’t really a properly tested number four in Vijay Shankar. In the end, Rayudu didn’t have enough ‘dimensions’. 

He doesn’t tweet very often, but he did then. A snarky post saying he’s just ordered 3D glasses to watch the World Cup, a snipe at the selector's indication that Shankar was picked ahead of Rayudu because he was a three-dimensional player.

To make matters even worse, despite naming Rayudu as a standby player, India chose to go with a middle-order bat in Rishabh Pant to replace opener Shikhar Dhawan and an uncapped opener Mayank Agarwal in place of the injured 3D all-rounder Shankar.

Their number four position was a cesspool that tournament. Would he have helped under grey clouds at Old Trafford when New Zealand got on top? Who knows. 

The World Cup snub was the end of the road for Rayudu - he decided it would be so by retiring from all formats of the game, international, IPL, Ranji Trophy, everything. And then he changed his mind and was convinced to come back to his domestic sides. 

In fact, like he had with the ICL, he helped build another new precedent when it seemed like he was going retire at the end of a year, go off to play in another league, and then unretire for the IPL again. The BCCI worked out that this was on the cards and said that all players would need a two-year cooling off process. 

That was all worked out, and Rayudu stayed retired, but went on to play in the CPL and ILT20. So he changed the rules on retirement and has become the first major Indian player to be out in the world as a franchise guy. 

The lack of a long Indian career for someone so talented is how he is mostly remembered, but the IPL gives him other opportunities. He played in four more seasons for CSK and finished with two more titles, taking his overall tally to six—matched only by Rohit Sharma.

So, let us just recap for a moment, he was an underaged prodigy who missed the big game, got involved in an early scandal, a rebel cricketer who failed to make a mark, was ignored by India, retired, unretired, retired, became a franchise player, and despite getting to the IPL late, he has more titles than MS Dhoni and equal most ever. 

Ambati Rayudu was a genius against the spinning ball, a rebel, frequently retired, overlooked, and a winner. With his talent he could’ve been a better cricketer, but few players have ever packed in as much as him.