Two retirement announcements from Chennai Super Kings players dominated the airwaves this year. Both MS Dhoni and Suresh Raina received their deserved accolades, but it would be fair to say it was difficult to imagine either of them in an India shirt again. Compare that to a shocking announcement last year that failed to create a ripple.
Ambati Rayudu should have been in England last July if it hadn't been for the whimsical decisions of the national selectors and the team management. He had proven over 20 innings in six months that he was the man for the role in India's middle order. He averaged 43 and struck at 84 in this period. He showed he could rebuild, he showed he could tackle spin, and he showed he could dominate when dominating was the need of the hour. Especially promising was his 90 to help India win from 18 for 4 in seaming conditions in their penultimate series before the World Cup. As it turned out, a similar scoreline against the same opposition knocked India out of the World Cup.
Three lean scores in the next series, and Rayudu was dropped to accommodate KL Rahul, a player too good to leave out from many a side, but someone who wasn't yet ready to play that middle-order role. Rayudu eventually was left out of India's World Cup squad.
Then Vijay Shankar, the "three-dimensional" player that led to Rayudu's legendary "3d glasses" jibe at chief selector MSK Prasad, got injured. Surely you thought this was time for Rayudu? Apparently not. Then Shikhar Dhawan was ruled out of the World Cup. And India still found a way to keep out the one player who had proved himself in that specific middle-order role. He had lost out to a dashing wicketkeeper-batsman and another opener. Neither of them was 3D.
Rayudu had had enough. In a huff, he announced he was retiring from all formats of cricket. He was 34 at that time, and wasn't dealing with a career-threatening injury. There is no way a cricket employer should accept such a retirement from all cricket before giving the player proper counselling. This was the year 2019, not 1969.
Not long ago, Jimmy Neesham, a cricketer who found redemption at the same World Cup, thought he was done with the game. When he informed his players' association that he had had enough of cricket, they convinced him to take a break from the game and then make a considered decision. During the break, he rediscovered his love for it and made a successful comeback. Rayudu didn't have a player association to talk to, and his bosses at BCCI accepted the retirement with one sentence of appreciation.
Rayudu has perhaps paid the price for his temper and his high emotions throughout his cricket career. While his outburst against Prasad's selection of an unproven allrounder - nothing against Vijay Shankar - was refreshing in a cricket ecosystem where dissent is fraught with danger, you wonder how much part it played in his non-selection even after two vacancies showed up. India's preferred No. 4 had gone to being persona non grata in one series before the big World Cup. Knowing Rayudu, that retirement call was not surprising.
It is good, though, that Rayudu chose to make a comeback. A private person if ever there was one in Indian cricket, Rayudu has not credited anyone for influencing that rethink. Knowing the number of bridges he has burnt along the way, it is hard to see anyone outside that Super Kings set-up influencing that change of mind. If indeed it took an outsider. Rayudu just said he realised he loved the game too much to stop playing when he was still young and fit.
On the evidence of Rayudu's first big match back, he has made the absolute correct call. He walked in at 6 for 2 with the ball swinging and seaming, and then successfully took on Jasprit Bumrah and eliminated the threat of spin even before the dew came in to make their job even tougher. His 71 off 48 in a low-scoring match was head and shoulders above anyone involved in the game. The value of his innings is evident from how ESPNcricinfo's Smart Stats adjust his absolute strike rate of 142.55 to a Smart Strike Rate of 157.32.
Rayudu made sure Faf du Plessis's anchor role didn't hurt his side. His long stay at the wicket, and his favourable match-up against left-arm pace, meant Mumbai were forced to delay the return of Trent Boult to such an extent that Boult was left to bowl at the death, where he doesn't usually do well. Rayudu's coach at Super Kings, Stephen Fleming, put his comeback in perspective.
"The last year was a difficult year for a number of players on the fringe of that World Cup squad," Fleming said. "That occupied a lot of minds. Certainly with the form of some of our players this year, it is very much total commitment to CSK. Rayudu has been an emotional player throughout the years for us. He has been nothing short of fantastic. Again today he turned the game around. His experience, and also his skill set, was a major part for us to win today."
This was an innings of a free man. Someone who didn't have to bother about the selectors and their thought process. It needn't be so. Rayudu will only be 35 by the time the T20 World Cup rolls into India, Covid-19-permitting, next year. This IPL, where he will be the main man for Super Kings in Raina's absence, is a great opportunity for him to leave the selectors and the India team management an uncomfortable poser. At least force them to come up with a new reason.