Ambati Rayudu couldn't have asked for a better international debut. The diminutive right-handed batsman remained unbeaten on 63 after skipper Virat Kohli smashed his 15th ODI ton - 115 off 108 balls to guide India to a six-wicket win over minnows Zimbabwe in the first ODI at Harare yesterday.
For Rayudu, scoring the winning runs - a four off Tinotenda Mutombodzi in the penultimate ball of the 45th over - could have been the icing on the
cake. After being on the national selectors' radar since his under-19 days, the 27-year-old finally experienced his dream moment of earning the India cap yesterday. "He has waited for a very long time.
Enough opportunities came his way when he was 22-23, but the Indian batting line-up was so strong that he couldn't be accommodated. Everybody knows his potential and talent, but he was just not lucky," said former India spinner and national selector Venkatapathy Raju, currently vice-president of Hyderabad Cricket Association (HCA).
Rayudu's struggle to the top perhaps makes for a spicy Bollywood script. Although he was a prolific scorer in U-16 and U-19 cricket for Hyderabad, the cricketing fraternity only took notice of his talent after his maiden India U-19 call-up. Immediately after his first-class debut for Hyderabad in the Ranji Trophy pre-quarter-final against Himachal Pradesh in 2001-02, Rayudu was drafted into the national U-19 team to tour England.
He smashed a magnificent 80 against hosts England U-19 at Taunton in the second ODI and followed it up with a blazing, unbeaten 177. He seemed to carry forward the success in England into the new Ranji Trophy season as he smashed his maiden first-class double hundred in the first innings and 159 not out in the second dig against Andhra. He was immediately touted as the next big thing.
Rayudu patiently waited in the wings even as his other India U-19 teammates like Suresh Raina, Irfan Pathan and Dinesh Karthik managed to get their international call-up. The quiet wait seemed endless. He moved to Andhra after a disappointing 2004-05 season and a few issues with HCA. He, however, returned to Hyderabad in the next season. By then, his consistency had deserted him.
A frustrated Rayudu, who was desperate to take his career to a new level, joined the rebel Indian Cricket League (ICL) in 2007. It was in a way a backward step as it put his international prospects on hold for a couple seasons. Realising his mistake, Rayudu did not hesitate to accept the BCCI's amnesty in 2009.
He was impressive (356 runs in 14 innings) in his first season for Mumbai Indians in 2010. In the next Indian Premier League season, he was even better, scoring 395 runs in 16 matches. A few good outings in the IPL and impressive run after joining Baroda in the 2010-11 season put Rayudu on the fringe of the Indian team once again. He was included in the 30 probables for the 2012 World T20 in Sri Lanka, but missed out on making a cut in the squad of 15.
He was also included for the two-match T20 series against England, but again could not make it to the final XI. Rayudu was named a replacement for skipper MS Dhoni for the recent tri-series in West Indies, but was restricted to the bench. Yesterday, the big moment finally arrived and he made most of it. Raju expects some more big scores.
"Now that he has finally got an opportunity at the international level, he should capitalise on whatever comes his way. There are just one or two slots vacant in the middle order in the Indian team. He has to consistently score big to cement his place," said Raju.
Skipper Kohli, who received man-of-the match for his century, lauded Rayudu's contribution to the win. "Congratulations to Ambati Rayudu, he's got an India call-up after a long time and he's grabbed his opportunity very well," he said in the post-match presentation.