The trinity that wrote CSK's script for their fifth IPL title
"With him in the team I will never win the fairplay award. But what I will remember him for is he always gives his 100%."
That was MS Dhoni on Ambati Rayudu in a nutshell. The angry, often testy and emotional character that Rayudu can be, was sobbing inconsolably after the winning runs were hit in the IPL final. Two days earlier, he had announced retirement and promised there wouldn't be any U-turns.
It was a glorious end to a career that had its fair share of moments in the sun and moments that had the potential to go out of hand. Like in 2018, when Rayudu went incommunicado for over two weeks after he had been withdrawn from India's squad over a failed yo-yo test.
Only a few months earlier, Rayudu had been front and centre of CSK's magnificent run to the title. He had made 602 runs in 16 innings while striking at 149.75. A World Cup dream was burning bright, but Rayudu was crushed by the manner in which he is believed to have been told, "no fitness, no World Cup."
Kasi Viswanathan, the CSK CEO and a calm man who players swear by for being a "voice of reason", stepped in to help Rayudu in a bid to get him back on track. A part of the exercise was to have him mentor young kids handpicked by CSK for an exchange programme in Yorkshire.
Viswanathan left no stone unturned in reaching out to Rayudu, who in Dhoni's own words "doesn't use a mobile phone much". And from being on the edge of walking away angry at the system and at himself, Rayudu came back reinvigorated. He thanked "Kasi sir" for helping him rediscover the fire. Two weeks later, he cleared the yo-yo test and forced his way back into contention, first with India A and then with the Indian team.
Rayudu is a man of few words. The anger he can show on the field can, at times, come as a shock if you're used to his polite off-field persona. He smiles more than he talks. His demeanour on Monday night was of someone emotional, yet satisfied with where he stood as he walked away a winner.
From being touted as one for the future in 2002 to playing in an Under-19 World Cup in 2004 to disappearing into the rebel Indian Cricket League (ICL) and then returning to the mainstream, Rayudu's career has been one of promise not entirely fulfilled. In Ahmedabad on Monday night, he was part of a sixth IPL crown, three each with CSK and Mumbai Indians.
"I can smile for the rest of my life," Rayudu said, wiping tears in the wee hours of Tuesday morning. "All the hard work for the last 30 years. I'm just happy that it finished on this night."
Rayudu's was a clutch contribution, without which it's entirely possible CSK may have not had the legs for the late heist. How someone who had barely batted in the tournament soaked in pressure and launched a sensational assault on one of the tournament's best death bowler is a story for the ages.
He was simply looking to hold his shape, stand deep inside his crease and let his instincts take over. It's easier said than done, but to be able to execute when everything is on the line speaks of not just his class but composure. He went 6, 4, 6 against Mohit Sharma. From 39 off 18, the equation was down to 23 off 15.
"Ambati Rayudu is an absolute legend, I rate him so highly as a batter," coach Stephen Fleming said at the post-final press conference. "That over today, the three balls against Mohit Sharma proved why. Mohit's one of the in-form death bowlers and the way Rayudu hit him for 6, 4, 6 was pure class. So, he will leave a hole [in the team going forward], there's no doubt about it but the game keeps moving. He's identified mentally and physically it's his time to go. We've respected that, for him to go out like that was emotional for him and the group. I'm very pleased for him. I'm really rapped with what he contributed to CSK."
In December 2022, Viswanathan had a brief discussion with Fleming and Dhoni over the possibility of shortlisting Ajinkya Rahane ahead of the auction. Fleming vouched for Rahane's work ethic and strongly endorsed him being in the shortlist, even if a final call on selecting him was to be made in due course. Dhoni is believed to have told Viswanathan, "nothing like it if we can get Jinks."
Fleming had worked previously with Rahane at Rising Pune Supergiants and knew of his pedigree. He felt here was a batter who had immense potential even if he was at the fag end of his career. Getting him at base price, Viswanathan said, was a "bonus." They had budgeted a "slightly more than that" - he was signed for INR 50 lakh (US$ 60,000 approx.).
"When I turned up halfway through the pre-season training, I saw a guy who was in magnificent form," Fleming said. "He wasn't in our initial thoughts, but the game in Mumbai [where Rahane scored 61 off 27] was really defining."
Rahane only found out he was playing just prior to the toss. Ben Stokes had been injured, Moeen Ali was unwell, and CSK needed to rejig their top order. This was a return to the IPL of sorts. His career had hit a dead end. He hadn't hit an IPL fifty since 2020. He hadn't played in a Test for over a year. And when he didn't get runs for Kolkata Knight Riders before leaving midway due to an injury last year, you feared he had done his time. Much to his credit, Rahane went back to domestic cricket to get back the "enjoyment factor" and in his first knock back at the IPL this season, he heads turn straightaway.
Suddenly, Rahane's form led to a chatter around him potentially lending India's middle order some experience in Shreyas Iyer's absence for the WTC final. Certainly the selectors felt that way and he was rewarded with a recall.
On Monday night, you wouldn't have expected Rahane to come in at No. 4 in a truncated game. But his six-hitting form and the improved focus on going hard from ball one convinced the team management that it was a "good call." Rahane played two of the most stunning shots in the match. The first was a home run. "Baseballs it over midwicket," said Karthik Krishnaswamy on Cricday's ball-by-ball commentary.
The second shot, one ball later, brought back Sachin Tendulkar's desert storm feels. "Straight down the ground, wonderful shot, all the wayyy for six." You could hear the mind replay that in Tony Greig's booming voice. If aesthetics was an Olympic sport, Rahane was a gold medalist, hands down. This unshackled version of Rahane, who finished the season with the best strike rate (232.39) against pace bowling (minimum balls faced 20) was down to proper role clarity.
"My understanding is that we got rid of the tag of being the guy you bat around or bat through," Fleming explained. "I think that maybe hung over his head a little bit too much and didn't allow him to be the player that he can be. And once that tag was gone, it was one of our best wins in the tournament and he was the big catalyst behind it, so he cemented that No. 3 spot.
"He's been unwavering the whole way through, he's been nothing but positive, his nets have been positive. Anytime he's been caught on the boundary or out playing a big shot, we've just reinforced how good he's playing. So a little bit of belief and just sheer ability - he's been a wonderful player for us this year."
Shivam Dube had a middling IPL 2022. Short balls tucked into his body at pace were his weakness. An injury in the build-up to the season left the team management with little time to work on his game. So instead, they decided to build on his strengths. Which was his ability to use his long levers to muscle spin for sixes. Dube had made a mark first when he walloped five sixes in five balls in a local T20 game in Mumbai. They worked on bringing that ferocity back, this time against quality spin of Yuzvendra Chahal, Rashid Khan and Sunil Narine.
On Monday, Dube had a forgettable start. He was on 12 off 11 and CSK needed 54 off 24. The pressure was piling up. He couldn't time the ball. They weren't giving him the length to swing for the hills. In trying to overhit, he kept losing his shape.
And then he went boom, boom against a clutch bowler, Rashid. It was a wrong'un gone wrong; it was right in his hitting slot and Dube picked him early to launch it straight down the ground. Next ball was of similar length, but a legbreak. Again, Dube picked it early, cleared his front leg and walloped it with the spin. Those two shots brought CSK back in. It would lead to the start of Rayudu's torrent at the other end.
"To bring Dube up and use him in an aggressive role took a few games," Fleming said. "We were unsure but he played a defining innings against RCB [in Bengaluru where he scored 52 off 27] where he really stamped his authority and from there, he was sort of a catalyst for us through those middle overs. With the Impact Player, that's what was needed."
Perhaps there was no bigger catalyst on the night than Ravindra Jadeja. The man who dismissed Shubman Gill to give CSK an early breakthrough was there right at the end to see the team home. This was a moment Jadeja was perhaps waiting for, after a season of feeling a little letdown by the Chennai fans. The same fans who wanted him out so that Dhoni could come in to bat were willing him on with CSK needing 10 off the last two balls.
They were all praying hard. The captain couldn't watch. Jadeja knew he had to swing and swing hard. And he did. And just like that, all the tension that appeared to have built up, with all the social media potshots and cryptic messages of "karma" and "knowing my worth", went down the river. There was unparalleled joy. Dhoni couldn't hold back his emotions. Jadeja sprinted across as soon as he made contact, knowing they had won. He didn't even bother looking behind. They were all trying to catch him. Everyone was running in circles. It was delirium.
They say there are no fairy tales in sport. This was a pretty good one, for CSK; something that one didn't see happening when Jadeja left the camp in a huff in 2022. He had just been removed as captain. Jadeja wiped out any mention of CSK on his Instagram account. He was fuming, only to be later cajoled and brought back into the camp. Here he was now, on top of the podium, having delivered under immense pressure. Jadeja had become their new 'Chinna Thala'.
"It's been a difficult 18 months, where the captaincy was difficult, the injury was difficult. It took a bit of time from out of the game to come back reinvigorated to the Test game and then reintegrate into CSK," Fleming said. "He plays a great role with the ball, but we've got so much firepower that in some ways we use him down the order. But something has to give, and MS has been very supportive and proactive of getting him up there.
"And today, he repaid that faith. That six to a ball that was neat-perfect was defining. And then a good left-hander's straight drive through fine leg was a great way to finish it. I couldn't have been happier for him. There's been some frustration at times, but he's our gun player, our No. 1-ranked player, and today he delivered."
It was the perfect end to a season full of drama. It was the culmination of a journey that began mid-February when Fleming and CSK realised they needed to patch together something out of nothing, given their injury list.
It was quite symbolic in the end that the defining image of their season was one of an injured Dhoni, knee in a brace and struggling from the many million squats he has had to do, lifting Jadeja in one motion.
You couldn't have scripted any of it.