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Cricket news - 'Experienced' Rayudu eases India's No. 4 worries

Rayudu rescued India when the visitors were reduced to 18/4 in Wellington.

Yuvraj Singh. KL Rahul. Kedar Jadhav. Virat Kohli. MS Dhoni. Manish Pandey. Hardik Pandya. Dinesh Karthik. Ajinkya Rahane.

Between August 2017 and September 2018, from Sri Lanka to England, India used nine different batsmen at number four in 25 ODIs. The team management was in experimentation mode and hoping to find an ideal candidate for the spot. You can take out two names from that list - Kohli, who is immovable at number three, and Dhoni, whom the captain wants to bat at number five.

The rest, one by one, fell by the wayside. For Yuvraj, time had simply run out. For others, it wasn't really an apt position. Rahul, for example, never found his footing batting lower order. Jadhav and Pandya, meanwhile, are better suited for aggressive roles down the order. Karthik, ever since his last-ball six in Sri Lanka, is the assigned finisher, whenever he gets to play. Rahane, despite a six-match run in South Africa, never made the spot his own. Pandey simply didn't get enough game time.

It was a royal merry-go-round as India struggled to find the optimal solution. At one stage, it made for wonderment if the team management even knew what they were looking for. So much so, with less than nine months remaining before the World Cup, that spot was till vacant.

And then, Ambati Rayudu entered the fray.

IPL 2018 was the first step in his comeback journey. 602 runs in 16 matches at an average of 43 and a strike-rate of 149.75 - among Indian batsmen that season, only Rishabh Pant and Rahul had better figures. And both were (still are) in contention for a World Cup squad. And so, it was inevitable that Rayudu would figure in immediate selection discussions.

But for that yo-yo fitness test failure, India would have been able to trial Rayudu in English conditions, a year before the World Cup. His chance eventually came in the Asia Cup. That started a run of 11 matches, wherein he scored 392 runs at average 56, including a hundred and three half-centuries. It was the longest rope any batsman had enjoyed at number four in the past two years, and to his credit, it was also the best return as compared to prior experimentation. As team India entered this World Cup year, Rayudu was firmly set in their plans.

At this juncture, the question begs, why him? What does Rayudu provide that others didn't? Experience, pointed out stand-in skipper Rohit Sharma, after Rayudu bailed out India from a precarious 18-4 at the Westpac Stadium on Sunday.

"He has played a lot of cricket, and he has been around for many years. He used his experience (to good effect) to stitch a partnership, which is always useful, never mind how many wickets you have lost. Using his experience (in this knock), it is a massive booster for him going forward. Ever since (the double header) in Bay Oval, he has been batting well and I hope he continues," said Rohit.

The reason number four is such a vital spot in ODI cricket is because it is a pivot around which the whole innings revolves, and whoever bats there, gets to experience nearly every situation possible in limited-overs' cricket. Whether it is a top-order collapse, moving things along in the middle overs, or providing impetus in the death overs, the number four batsman needs to be able to manoeuvre the bowling. He has to act like a bridge between the top and middle order, balancing the innings, and indeed transferring momentum, whether putting up a score or chasing down one.

A successful run in sub-continental conditions set Rayudu up for selection to the Australia and New Zealand tours. But he split opinion with a rusty start owing to his retirement from first-class cricket earlier this season. There is a school of thought wondering why the selectors couldn't, or didn't, persuade him against it, thus keeping up batting rhythm and match fitness ahead of a World Cup year.

It is no secret that Rayudu has had to work out his timing and shot selection over the past eight ODIs. At least on two occasions, he was stuck in the middle with the innings going nowhere, casting aspersions if India's number four search had really come to an end.

First, against Australia at Adelaide, wherein he arrived at the crease as India chased 299. Kohli was going great guns at the other end and upped the ante to allow Rayudu enough strike to get going. It didn't work out - he scored 24 off 36 balls struggling to time the ball - and Kohli had to ask him to slog in a bid to get the run-rate up, even at the risk of getting out.

The other instance happened in the second ODI against New Zealand at Bay Oval. It was an odd situation, wherein the top three did get runs but none of them went on to score a big hundred. The onus thus was on the middle order to push the scoring rate and get those extra 20-30 runs. Rayudu had found his sense of timing in his fourth ODI on tour, and in Kohli's company, he was batting in third gear, happy to play second fiddle.

Only, when Kohli got out, Rayudu was not able to bring out the acceleration. With Dhoni taking time at the other end, it was his responsibility as the set batsman to shift momentum to the lower end. Instead, he scored at a strike just over 70 off the 22 balls he faced in that partnership with Dhoni as India fell short of a 350-plus total.

These are two different situations. But on account of his experience, the Indian team management expects Rayudu to come up with the goods, thereby entrusting him with the number four job. It is why his failure in the Hamilton ODI was such a disappointment - on the rare occasion when Kohli-Dhoni were missing, and the openers failed, he couldn't get going.

As luck would have it, opportunity presented itself on a platter again. Coming in at 18-4, Rayudu's 113-ball 90-run knock can again be broken into two parts. First, wherein he batted with Vijay Shankar to dig India out of a massive hole and put on a 98-run partnership. He was happy to play second fiddle there, eating up deliveries and allowing Shankar the freedom to keep the scoring rate ticking.

When Shankar was disappointingly run-out, Rayudu upped the ante in the latter half of his innings. Batting with Shankar, he had scored 44 runs off 81 balls, while afterwards, he scored 46 off 32 balls, including six fours and two sixes. This changing of gears, this acceleration and this responsibility as the set batsman, is what set Rayudu's innings apart from any other he has played in the previous seven games.

"I was thinking we should take the game to the 30th over without losing another wicket. Our only play was to play the full fifty overs. For batters at four, five and six, we get opportunities only when the situation is tough," said Rayudu, after picking Man of the Match award as India sealed an emphatic 4-1 win over the Black Caps.

His last words have underlined where Indian batting stands today. For most part of potentially nine matches (plus two knock-outs) in the World Cup, Rohit, Dhawan, Kohli and Dhoni will be expected to do bulk of the scoring job. There will be moments, however, when the rest will be called into a plethora of different game-threatening situations.

Windy Wellington was one such rehearsal, and Rayudu, with a self-assured knock, has finally eased worries over the last major headache in this Indian middle order. With only five ODIs to go before that big tournament, it was about time too.

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