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The beginning of the shorter formats ensured that Raina was back in his comfort zone, as he was seen running the hard yards to get over his Test blues. Not that it means anything, for Raina has always been a cricketer who hardly ever takes a wrong step while training, but still somehow manages to trip over himself on match days.
In the left-hander’s case, there is almost no correlation between the hours he spends batting before a game and during it; the respective lengths seem to differ starkly. Inside the net enclosure, he painstakingly irons out his flaws (read short ball) with the coaches, but as soon as he marks his crease the next day he looks wrinkly and unkempt. Remember Trent Bridge? Tim Bresnan, bouncer, pull, top edge, caught at fine leg, misery.
Just like at Trent Bridge, he was once again ducking short balls during practice at Old Trafford for the T20. Besides, he also batted for long hours, faced throwdowns, took slip catches, indulged in feverish diving during fielding drills, and bowled off-spinners. In between, he found time to play the fool with his mates, listen to seniors, humour skipper Dhoni, smile at journalists, sign autographs and thank bowling coach Eric Simons profusely for the help. “Thanks a lot Simons,” he yelled while exiting the nets. Touched by the gesture, the coach replied: “It was my pleasure, Suresh Raina.” The batsman’s eyes gleamed with pleasure.
Raina has got light eyes, but dressing room grapewine has it that the retinas are in fact blue. They seem to know, for regardless of changing reigns and eras and managements in the dressing room, Raina remains the favourite.
This has also worked against Raina, as the easiest way to badmouth him is to call him the captain’s pet. During the Chappell era, he was compared to Brian Lara; during the following South African regime, Kirsten went on record to say that it was Raina’s knock against Australia in the quarters that won India the World Cup; and after becoming captain, MS Dhoni has always made it a point to stress on Raina’s extreme workload everytime he is asked questions regarding rotation, injuries and fatigue. Dhoni is of course a close confidante of Raina’s, as on tours, the captain, his wife and the 24-year old dine together.
But to be fair to Raina, he is just the sort of the player that coaches, especially the overseas kind, love to have in their team. One of the fittest in the side, he dutifully completes all drills, is last to leave the nets, never shies away from a challenge, and never hides behind injuries when the going gets tough. He does all the right things to be seen as a team man. He ruffles the hair of wicket-takers, receives plenty of back slaps for a fine fielding effort, and is by far the most prominent on the dressing room balcony when a teammate raises his bat. But can all these traits help one survive a run slump? History has shown that what it can at best do is delay the axe, never avoid it.
Raina’s constantly fluctuating form never helps his backers to justify his inclusion in the side, while also making the often floated theory that he is captain material an irrational one. Although he scored three 50s in the relatively easier climes of the Caribbean, Raina averaged 13.2 — against England over four Tests — when it mattered. His last ODI fifty arrived in October 2010, ten months ago.
The UP connection
It’s been six years since Raina got his big break in the senior side as a prodigal junior, but it’s fair to say that he hasn’t quite lived up to his potential. He was seen as that player who would end up replacing the legendary batsmen in the Indian middle order. But at present, his international record is closer to Mohammad Kaif than a Rahul Dravid or a Sachin Tendulkar. Raina averages 34 in 120 ODIs and 29 in 15 Tests. When Kaif was dropped permanently, his career averages were strikingly similar — 32 in 125 ODIs, and 32 in 13 Tests.
The two UP batsmen have other common traits too. Like Raina, Kaif was the fittest in the team, was a stunning fielder, while captains and coaches loved him. He was said to be the future India captain, but his lack of runs did in an otherwise glowing CV. In terms of strokeplay, Raina has got more power and range, but the statistical similarity is spooky. By the end of the series, Raina would have played 125 ODIs, the same as Kaif. The next five games will see if Raina can break the Kaif mould.
In the present touring party, Raina’s place in the playing XI is cemented, thanks to the injury epidemic plaguing Team India regulars. If Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir and Yuvraj Singh were fit, and considering the sparkling form of both Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma, Raina should have been fighting for his place in the side.
Like a teacher’s pet — the kind who diligently do their homework, wipe the blackboard and scream ‘good morning’ the loudest — who is reluctantly punished, India’s captain, coach and overall management may also have to do the needful when the time arises.