Not that it’s a competion but of the eight teams participating, Chennai Super Kings had the toughest buildup to this year’s Indian Premier League. As if the burden of carrying an ageing group of players wasn’t enough, they saw two proven match-winners in Suresh Raina and Harbhajan Singh pull out of the tournament in the 11th hour due to personal reasons.

Then, there was the entire coronavirus episode, which saw 13 members of their contingent, including two players, test positive and their quarantine period extended. And finally, for their first match, they were pitted against defending champions Mumbai Indians, a team they had lost to in their five previous meetings, including all four last season.

While the calmness of captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni must surely be credited for them not showing any signs of panic, the three-time champions were in desperate need for someone to shoulder the burden. With the bio-bubble restrictions set to test the players as this long tournament progresses, CSK needed someone to raise his hand and show promise to face the challenges that lie ahead.

Against Mumbai in the tournament opener on Saturday, Chennai found that player in Ambati Rayudu – a man who has had a turbulent journey in Indian cricket over the past two years.

Rayudu’s rollercoaster ride

In the months leading up to the 2019 World Cup, Rayudu was looked at as the No 4 batsman for the Indian team in One-Day International cricket. The right-hander, who has been a part of the domestic circuit since 2001, was finally realising his immense potential.

However, for reasons best forgotten, he was left out of India’s original World Cup squad. To make matters worse, he was also ignored as an injury replacement despite being one of the five stand-bys named for the quadrennial event.

This prompted Rayudu to announce his retirement from all forms of cricket during the course of the World Cup itself. It felt like a tragic end for a rare talent. However, less than two months later, he reversed his decision and declared he would make a comeback and play white-ball cricket for his state team Hyderabad.

At 34, not a lot was expected of Rayudu and he ended up having a disappointing Vijay Hazare Trophy and Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy last season.

But just as his career seemed to be fading away, on Saturday — at the grandest of stages — Rayudu showed yet again that he is no ordinary player.

A classy reminder

Heading into IPL 2020, the biggest setback for CSK was undoubtedly the withdrawal of Raina, the man who has scored the most runs for them and the second-most overall. There were question marks over who would be the guiding force in CSK’s batting lineup.

Against Mumbai, Chennai elected to field first and did well to pull things back, largely due to Piyush Chawla’s superb spell of 1/21, and restrict their opponents to 162/9. However, their chase got off to a horrendous start as openers Shane Watson and Murali Vijay perished in the first two overs with six runs on the board.

All of a sudden, Chennai’s biggest weakness was left to deal with a stern test. The pitch had plenty of grass and not a lot of turn but it was definitely sluggish, and CSK had a mountain to climb against a quality attack.

That’s when Rayudu got together with Faf du Plessis and we got to witness the skills of an exceptional player.

The third delivery Rayudu faced, bowled by James Pattinson, was driven with disdain on the rise through cover-point for four. From there on, he paced his innings to perfection. The strike was rotated comfortably and boundaries were picked off every bowler.

What stood out was how easy Rayudu made it seem. Du Plessis may have remained unbeaten on a half-century to take CSK over the line but the difference in fluency between him and Rayudu during their 115-run partnership was there for all to see.

Rayudu launched the counter-attack and stayed true to his style till the tables were turned from what looked like a hopeless position. By the time he was dismissed for 71 off 48, the game had been set up for Chennai.

“I kept training during the lockdown. It was a stop-start journey but I was really eager,” he said after collecting the player of the match award.

Rayudu’s knock on Saturday served a reminder of the class he possesses, while also helping CSK get one back on their arch rivals. CSK do not have the strongest batting line-up in IPL 2020 by any means, and this win — riding on Rayudu’s gritty comeback — will be a shot in the arm for Dhoni and his team.