Venugopal Rao ends six-year drought
During the Greg Chappell years, Venugopal Rao was among the most promising young cricketers in the country, and had been selected for India's ODI squad for Sri Lanka in July 2005 along with Suresh Raina.
Now 31, Rao's fortunes have nosedived so much that he was contemplating stepping away from the game, at least temporarily. A migrant on the Ranji circuit, without a first-class hundred since 2007, Rao had a woeful time last year in his first season with Gujarat. This season began no better, as he made 16 in the opening match against Vidarbha.
"After first match again, I was literally down. I went back home, sat with my family," Rao says. "I thought I had worked hard for the last two-three months, I was getting runs in the local Chennai leagues, but I am still not getting it. I made up my mind that if I don't score, I need a break, a big break, just to get away. I knew I could play, but I wasn't getting it."
Between 2005 and 2013, Rao's first-class average plummeted to 29.03 - at least 20 runs below what is expected from a top player. He managed just two scores of over hundred in that spell, after accumulating 11 before 2005. Switching teams in search of form and opportunities had not helped. So his 107 on the first day of Gujarat's match against Delhi brought palpable relief to Rao.
"I have been waiting for this for the last two years," Rao says. "Twenty20 made my batting a bit more complicated. I was more of a Test player when I started. It's not just about IPL. The IPL gave me the ability to play a lot of shots.
"Maybe it was that I was trying too many shots. But today, Manpreet [Juneja] told me 'Venu bhai, you are leaving the balls well. First game, you were playing at those and today you are leaving them'. I have to listen because he is in good form and you have to understand what they are thinking."
After Andhra, Maharashtra and Rajasthan, Gujarat is Rao's fourth Ranji team. He featured in five matches for them last season but the bottom line only read 110 runs.
"It's been hard. I have been playing a lot of cricket back home in Chennai but the last two seasons in Ranji Trophy haven't been great. Last season, I played five games for Gujarat but couldn't do anything and it had a very bad impact on me. I went back home, took rest, thought about my game … what's my strength, my weaknesses, and that I needed to leave the balls a little more, stay longer at the wicket. So yes, this innings helped me."
Playing for teams other than your home state comes with the added pressure of being an inspirational professional for the local boys, which Rao thought was a double-edged sword. "We learn from different atmospheres and as professionals when you go in, you have to set an example for the local players. It's challenging. Sometimes it puts additional load on you. It depends on how you take it. I saw both sides of it. It's tough, but you learn a lot."
Vijay Patel, the Gujarat coach, highlighted the challenge Rao faced in a young team trying to establish itself and his role as a mentor. "His reputation was also at stake this year, because last season he didn't get many runs," Patel said. "This year he was more committed and his involvement was total with the team."
Rao hadn't disappeared into anonymity during these last few years. He was one of the top-rung domestic recruits for the Deccan Chargers in the first three seasons of the IPL and later moved to Delhi Daredevils, playing in the shadow of bigger names, but still managing to stay visible, still being in the company of India's elite cricketers.
When asked if anyone helped him out, he said, "I have been playing for almost 15 years. It is easier to say for them 'you know everything' and 'you don't need to be told', but at the end of day, no one comes and says it to you."
Rao has been overtaken by a new generation of cricketers in the race for national selection, but he is not competing with them. He just wants to focus - something that he said he has lacked in the past - on the Ranji Trophy and do well for Gujarat.
"At the end of the day, it's a hundred in the four-day game that satisfies you," he says. "You don't get the same feeling from other formats."
Devashish Fuloria is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo