How and why did Ambati Rayudu fail to secure a spot in India's World Cup squad? How did someone who, only six months ago India captain Virat Kohli said had put an end to the never-ending hunt for the No.4 batsman, was the right buffer in the middle order who could offer balance and experience, slip out of contention?
Going by pure numbers, Rayudu is the fourth-highest among runs since making his return to the Indian dressing room during the Asia Cup last September. Between then and the home series against Australia earlier this year, India played 24 matches, and Rayudu featured in 21. In this period, he scored one century and four fifties.
He played only two ODIs on the tour of Australia, but was the highest run-getter for India in the ODIs on the tour of New Zealand, with 190 runs in five innings at an average of 63.33 and a strike rate of 82.25. In 20 innings since his comeback, Rayudu batted at No.4 on 14 occasions, scoring 464 runs at an average of 42.18 and a strike rate of 85.60.
Clearly, then, you might assume Rayudu was not exactly struggling. However, scratch beneath those numbers and you begin to see some cracks. Of the 20 innings he has played since 2018, he has been dismissed below 25 on nine occasions. In fact, his 90 against New Zealand on a seaming pitch, which came in challenging conditions, was the only half-century he got outside the subcontinent.
Even the Indian think tank seemed to have doubts. In January, Kohli said the team was looking to "solidify" the No.4 slot. The certainty about Rayudu had begun to slowly thin. Then Rayudu was dropped for a few matches during the home series against Australia. Even though MSK Prasad, the chairman of the Indian selection committee, said that IPL form was not factored in, Rayudu has managed just a solitary fifty in the tournament so far, though he has had to bat on slow pitches in Chennai.
As Rayudu's form wobbled, the selectors, by accident, found a favourable alternative in Vijay Shankar. The Tamil Nadu allrounder impressed the selectors not just with his fluent technique, batting in the middle order, but also bowl medium pace. Add to that his fielding, which was a weak point for Rayudu; he was dropped after being selected for the limited-overs leg of the UK tour last year because he failed the yo-yo fitness test.
Just Ordered a new set of 3d glasses to watch the world cup ..— Ambati Rayudu (@RayuduAmbati) April 16, 2019
Also, Rayudu has not bowled since his action was reported during the ODI series in Australia. So, overall as a package, Vijay offered more than Rayudu did.
"It's not anything that went against him," Prasad said on Rayudu's absence from the World Cup squad. "It's only the thing that went in favour of Vijay Shankar because he adds a bit more dimensions to that role and with his fielding and bowling abilities. That's where he scored ahead of him."
As convincing as the reasoning goes, it is hard to figure how someone who had been drummed up as a key player in the batting order could be left out? Were the Indian think tank, along with the selectors, too hasty in reaching conclusions about Rayudu last year?
Rayudu is bound to feel disappointed. He was initially picked for the UK tour last year, based on his powerful form in the 2018 IPL with Chennai Super Kings, who won the tournament. In between, he had given up playing first-class cricket for Hyderabad to focus all energies on fulfilling the desire of playing at the World Cup. A year later, with his form patchy, his confidence low, he finds himself at a crossroads.