Captain of India under-19s, member of the India A team, recipient of the Castrol Junior Cricketer award for 2002-03, Rayudu’s career has been gathering momentum for some time now. In the first outing of the three-match odi series between India and England under-19 in 2002, he made 34. In the second, he made 80 from 75 deliveries. And the third match was mayhem. England scored 303. Rayudu, opening the innings, hit 177 not out off 137 balls and completed a 3-0 whitewash for India. "In Rayudu...India look to have unearthed a genuine star for the future," gushed the BBC.
The ‘Test’ series before that had gone rather poorly for him: 15, 9 and 13 in three innings. "I didn’t consider him for the third and final Test. The idea was to whet his appetite for runs and make him bounce back with a vengeance in the one-day series," says India Under-19 coach Robin Singh. Rayudu delivered.
Sunil Gavaskar is an admirer, even though, as an opener, Rayudu is much more Sehwag than Sunny. At the Castrol ceremony, Gavaskar, who was presented the lifetime achievement award, told a blushing Rayudu: "You’ve seen me take this award. I hope I’m there to see you when you take this award."
He already holds a world record, of being the youngest cricketer ever to score a double hundred and a century in a first-class match. He made a magnificent 210 (232 balls) out of Hyderabad’s first innings score of 353 against Andhra Pradesh, and then followed this with an unbeaten 159 from 161 balls in the second innings. "I’m so thrilled I can’t describe my joy," he had said then. "Like any youngster my age, I look forward to playing for India one day."
If he had been a few days younger than his 17 years and 55 days on the opening day of that match, Rayudu would have become the youngest double-centurion in the Ranji Trophy. The record is owned by Reetinder Singh Sodhi, who was aged 17 years and 16 days when he essayed an undefeated 200 for Punjab against Delhi in 1997-98. But Rayudu did become the youngest Indian to score a century in each innings of a first-class fixture, surpassing Nari Contractor, who notched up 152 and 102 not out, at the age of 18 years and 261 days in 1952-53.
One can spot the elegant Hyderabad gene of Motganhalli Jaisimha, Mohammed Azharuddin and Venkatsai Laxman in Rayudu’s positive batting style, the way he sends the ball racing to the ropes with a dexterous flick of the tensile wrist. Like most accomplished batsmen, Rayudu’s first movement is usually back and across his stumps. There’s footwork, there’s eyesight, and there’s beautiful timing: like Azharuddin, he plays the ball very late. "He has tremendous potential. He is a natural striker of the ball who loves to play his shots. He faces both speedsters as well as spinners with aplomb. His on-side in particular is very strong. He looks like another classy batsman with the unmistakable Hyderabad flavour," says Robin Singh.
"He is very hard-working. He takes care of his fitness. You will never find him idle for a minute even during practice sessions. He is a good listener and a willing learner. Even a cursory glance at him on the field, whether during the nets or matches, convinces you of his attitude and commitment," says well-known physio Arjunsinh Rana, a witness to Rayudu’s development at the National Cricket Academy and exploits in England.
What’s Rayudu’s downside? "He’s full of aggression," says India A coach Sandip Patil, but adds: "He’s one of those players who wastes neither time nor balls when at the crease. But I think he’ll be better off checking his aggression a bit. This will help him convert his 50s into 100s and more." A bit ironic, that. Patil could be talking about his own batting style.
Both Robin Singh and Patil agree that Rayudu needs to be "more consistent" in order to be in serious reckoning and, once picked, to seal his niche. "He has already played a few big innings in both forms of the game. But a batsman of his calibre should come up with such knocks more regularly," feels Patil. Right now, Rayudu scores more than 50 in every fourth innings he plays. Patil also feels that he should bowl his off-breaks more: "He should concentrate more on his bowling. It’ll enable him to emerge as a utility all-rounder and make his prospects brighter."
Rayudu has been at the National Cricket Academy in Bangalore. And fortunately, none of his coaches have tried to curb his natural game. The advice they gave was to follow his instincts while suggesting a few minor changes in his technique here and there. "We knew we were polishing a rough diamond," says an NCA coach. And the lustre’s growing.