Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo
In July, when India were playing an ODI series in England, Ambati Rayudu was enjoying his time in the Yorkshire sun. Only a month prior to that, he had been withdrawn from the ODI squad because of "fitness concerns", which he later confirmed was a failed yo-yo test.
Rayudu, though, wasn't sulking at the axe, even if an international comeback after two years had just been put on hold. He enjoyed a week-long trip to England, mentoring a bunch of age-group cricketers, handpicked by his IPL franchise Chennai Super Kings, on an exchange programme. Incidentally, it was in England that Rayudu had first stormed his way into the national reckoning in 2002, with a 177 in a one-dayer against England's Under-19s.
Now he finds himself back in the fray again, after passing the yo-yo test. Less than 24 hours after being drafted into the India A side, Rayudu weathered a probing burst of fast bowling from Billy Stanlake and Jhye Richardson to make a fighting unbeaten half-century. In the bigger scheme of things, it gives the national selectors another option as they search for a consistent middle order batsman with the 2019 World Cup just 10 months away.
"I was disappointed with myself that I could not clear the test [before the England tour]," he said on Thursday. "[I have] nothing against the test at all as everybody has to be there at a certain fitness level, to play for India. To be honest, I believe in it. I was disappointed in a way as to why I could not clear the test, so I worked towards it and cleared it."
After he returned from the coaching stint in the UK, it was business as usual at the National Cricket Academy in Bengaluru. At a time when many of the fringe players were locked up in a tussle against South Africa A, Rayudu was immersed in his own routines.
Every morning, barring the one weekly day off, he was at the gym for cardio, followed by strength and conditioning sessions. Those were followed by two hour-long batting stints with a small lunch break in between. The evenings were spent in recovery. This routine helped him regain "lost fitness" and set himself up for the yo-yo test again.
When the teams for the quadrangular series were announced, Rayudu wasn't included among the 30 players across the two Indian squads, because he hadn't yet taken the yo-yo test. Earlier this week, Rayudu completed his test, met the parameters prescribed by the team management, and made the India A squad.
The IPL, where he was the highest run-getter in a victorious campaign for CSK (602 runs in 16 innings at a strike rate of 149.75), seemed a distant memory, but Rayudu showed no traces of rust or a dip in form when he returned to action on Thursday.
He was his calm self, absorbing pressure, trying to play on the patience of the bowling unit, before cashing in once the spinners were introduced. The end result - a carefully crafted half-century in a winning chase - pleased him, even though he showed no outward elation afterwards.
Rayudu has been unlucky in the past too with fitness issues. In 2015 he had to return from Zimbabwe, where he was part of a second-string India ODI side, because of a quadriceps injury. In the two innings on the tour, he had made 42 not out and an unbeaten century. He lost a year after that in recovery, and when he was eventually declared match-fit he couldn't quite regain his place.
These episodes, Rayudu said, taught him valuable lessons in channeling his frustration. He also underlined how important it was to be in a good headspace and accept injuries to deal with them better. Asked about the frustration of not being termed "yo-yo fit" despite being "match fit in the IPL", Rayudu was forthright.
"Fitness is definitely important for cricket. Obviously one has to be absolutely fit to play," he said. I am happy that there is a certain kind of a benchmark and a bar. It is just that everybody has to respect it and move forward. For me, it is just keeping things simple. I missed a year due to an injury. This year, I could not clear the test for the last series, so I am actually happy to be back to play for India A."
Rayudu is a man of few words. The anger he can sometimes 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.
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 ICL and then returning to the mainstream, Rayudu's career has been one of promise not entirely fulfilled. He has seen many of his Under-19 contemporaries - Robin Uthappa, Suresh Raina, RP Singh, Irfan Pathan, Shikhar Dhawan and Dinesh Karthik to name a few - bypass him for the India cap. After his return from the ICL, he switched from Hyderabad to Baroda and Vidarbha before returning home again.
As he readies himself for another audition ahead of next year's World Cup, there are bound to be sterner tests. But Rayudu isn't perturbed. "In a country of billion people, if you are able to represent your country, you will be happy, it is always a matter of pride. I am happy that I am now in the scheme of things. I am just waiting for another opportunity."