Hyderabad cricket has been hit hard by the Indian Cricket League. Nine players vanished. We know why they left: first-class careers that were leading to cul-de-sacs, a chance to rub shoulders with international stars, grudges against the system. And money. Lots of money.
It's a free world and everyone makes their own choices, but how are these former Hyderabad players doing three months after they signed off their state caps - and in the case of one, Ambati Rayudu, a possible India cap?
Cricinfo spoke to five of them at a plush resort off the NH7 Hyderabad-Mumbai highway, where some of the ICL boys currently are for a camp. Rayudu and the others - Anirudh Singh, D Vinay Kumar, Ibrahim Khalil and Kaushik Reddy - were understandably hesitant to open up beyond the standard answers of how everything is great, the future rosy, and the ICL the best thing to have happened to them. Look beyond the platitudes and the jargon, though, and you perceive in the answers the wish to seek fresh starts to their careers.
Rayudu's decision is the most difficult to understand. "Rayudu was touted as India's next great batting hope ever since he started training at the National Cricket Academy in 2001," his Cricinfo player page says. "... However, his batting since then hasn't matched initial expectations; he has failed to earn a call-up for the national team and has been overtaken by several of his U-19 team-mates, including Irfan Pathan, Suresh Raina and Dinesh Karthik." Why would such a player, at 21, decide to burn the bridge that could have led to the Indian team?
Vivek Jaisimha, Hyderabad's coach, who worked with Rayudu during the 2006-07 season, thinks it was the wrong call. "Of all the players who went there, I think his is the most tragic case. He was knocking on doors, just a couple of big innings away into getting into real form, but he has been playing a victim too long. The bat was always in his hand, he should have gone out there and proved his talent. Silence the critics. But he didn't make the big scores in the last few seasons. He would threaten to get a big score but then throw it away."
Rayudu's troubles started in the 2004-05 season . He entered the year on the back of a healthy 45.55 average the previous season and a stupendous run for India A in Kenya , where he averaged 152. Things were looking bright. Then, suddenly, the lights went out. He averaged 11.92 that year from 13 innings, with 36 as the highest score.
Rayudu points out that not many understood that his low scores were coming in low-scoring games on a wicked track in Hyderabad. "The Gymkhana was a uneven and seaming track," he says. "All the opposition teams too were getting 150 and we would score, say, over 200. There were five home games and we won all."
Jaisimha agrees that it was indeed a brute of track. The scorecards provide additional evidence. Only twice did teams touch 300 (Hyderabad did it once); 13 times sides were shot for under 200 (including three scores of under 100). Five victories came for Hyderabad from seven games. "I thought that was what should have counted," Rayudu says. "I was happy that the team was doing well. Tell me how can you rate batting on that track on the same par with something elsewhere?"
He is quick to add that he was very grateful to his Hyderabad selectors, who understood the situation and didn't think about dropping him. "They were very supportive and I would like to thank them. But I am talking about the bigger picture. The system is wrong. There is no proper method to track players."
The average of 11 doesn't cut ice with for Jaisimha, though. "Look, I was not the coach then but I feel he could have scored more than that - though I see his point. Also, I would say everybody could have a bad season or two. That was probably his. No shame in running into bad form, but he started to play victim there. He needs to stop finding reasons elsewhere."
Following problems with Rajesh Yadav, the Hyderabad coach at the time, Rayudu moved to Andhra the following season in search of better luck. He averaged 35.11, with a top score of 87, for them and then returned to Hyderabad to play under Jaisimha the next season. As it happened, Hyderabad moved out of the Gymkhana ground and started to play at the new stadium in Uppal that year. But as luck would have it, Rayudu was sidelined with a knee injury and played only two games. Jaisimha thinks the situation - a combination of lack of runs, hurt at being considered a flash in the pan, and the injury - made Rayudu claustrophobic.
"He is a very, very competitive guy, very aggressive," says Jaisimha. "But then he started having problems with umpires and with things that were not in control. He never could control his emotions, let's say, to his detriment. He would allow things to affect him. He was always finding something to crib against; he was never at fault."
Did Jaisimha speak to Rayudu? "Many times. We would have heart-to-heart discussions. He would say the right things, everything would look all right, but on the ground he would go back and do the same thing, showing little respect to the team plan."
Things came to a boil in mid-2007. In April that year, during the Inter-state Twenty20 tournament against Andhra in Vishakapatnam , Jaisimha appointed Rayudu, who had recovered from injury by then, captain and dropped Anirudh Singh and Arjun Yadav for lack of commitment. Rayudu responded by hitting 75 and led his team to a victory.
Cut to the KSCA All India Invitation Tournament in Bangalore in August and to a game against Air India where, allegedly, all hell broke loose in the dressing room after Rayudu came back after getting out cheaply. A newspaper said he threw a tantrum and that Jaisimha upbraided him, leading to a brawl. Both Jaisimha and Rayudu say nothing of the sort happened. Jaisimha says he only made clear his disappointment with the performance of the top order.
He had decided to drop Rayudu for the next game, against Chemplast. "I was going to "rest" him for the next match to give him chaabi (wind him up). I told the selectors about it." Vinay Kumar, the captain says that was when he stepped in to his friend's defence. "I told them [the selectors], 'If you drop him, you will have to drop me also.' Both of us got hundreds in the next game. We had made our point." Jaisimha says that if he had known about this solidarity earlier, he would have dropped Vinay Kumar too.
The team management felt Rayudu was missing the point. In their eyes, he had thrown his wicket away again after getting to the hundred. They were unhappy with his body language, and feared that the old habits would kick in again.
This [ICL] is our chance to play against quality opposition for three years and it will also be telecast on TV. People will hopefully see me perform. And I want to perform for my own personal satisfaction
"He had taken it easy again," says a source. "He had proved his point and I could tell from his body language that he had taken it easy again. I just knew that he wouldn't score much in the next game." Rayudu made 4, in what has turned out to be his last innings for Hyderabad since.
Jaisimha still believes in Rayudu's talent and wishes he had more time to work with him. "He is a unique player, very special, he just needs to get his attitude right. I saw him as an India potential. I hope he gets what he wants in the ICL - such a talent should not go waste."
Roger Binny, the former India player and former junior coach, has already gone on record with his disappointment at how the Rayudu story has unfolded. "In a [junior] match in England in 2000, we were chasing a modest target," he told the Indian Express. "But it rained and because of the Duckworth-Lewis revised target we lost the match. He started crying in the dressing room. He didn't want to lose; he was very committed.
"They [the national selectors] should have picked him right after his under-19 stint. He needed to be guided properly."
Rayudu, for his part, admits he missing playing in the Ranji games that are on currently, but says he is trying to move on. "We are available to play but they have banned us.
"I didn't want to play ten years of domestic cricket and feel that I have not played any international-quality opposition. We were not getting selected for higher grades. If you were playing for Duleep Trophy or India A, it's a different thing. But this is our chance to play against quality opposition for three years and it will also be telecast on TV. People will hopefully see me perform. And I want to perform for my own personal satisfaction."
"This is my reality check," he says. "I am very focused on doing well here and improving my cricket. Hopefully things will fall in place. I would love to play for India one day." Could that still happen? Rayudu's story is one that has had plenty of twists and turns. No one can predict how it will end. We just have to keep tuning in.