Suresh Raina reins over the short formats

Not a few players have been through the rigmarole of team selection conundrums. However, very few have managed to come out unscathed and unscarred. Suresh Raina’s recent success defies the turbulence in his personal career graph as he makes a stronger foray back into the Indian cricket team, ruling the roost as the current king of the shorter formats of the game.

The only man in the Indian cricket team who could rival Mahendra Singh Dhoni for actually relishing the challenge of hitting a six or two in the final over has to be another world class finisher in the making, Suresh Raina. The man who only months ago struggled to retain his place in the Indian cricket team cannot put his foot wrong at the moment. Whether it was resurrecting India’s selfesteem in England or bringing home success for the Chennai Super Kings after a long barren drought, Raina is finding himself in the thick of things and even more, enjoying every minute of it.

Looking at some of Raina’s most recent performances, it would be hard to tell that the lad had been through a serious period of restrategizing his comeback into the Indian cricket team. Considered one of the Indian skipper’s premier go-to men in the shorter formats of the game, it seemed hard to envision the possibility that that alliance could ever be broken. But it was, if only briefly. While the skipper and the player extended their alliance in the course of representing the Indian cricket to their IPL franchise – a formula that has worked rather well and took the Chennai Super Kings to great heights just as India has benefitted even recently from the Raina-Dhoni partnership, Raina’s world was rocked recently when he was dropped from the national team at the start of the year following India’s abysmal tour of New Zealand during which he was even dropped for the final two matches of the one day international series. Missing out on the Asia Cup thereafter would have been a bitter blow for one of the young guns who holds such promise. But credit to Raina’s positive mindset that what could have been a potentially upsetting situation actually spurred him on to assess his own role in the team, the capacity in which he could best serve India’s interests and then, work towards making his foray back into the national side.

The payoffs are now becoming ever so steadily evident. Upon his comeback into the Indian team for the ICC World Twenty20 2014, Suresh Raina kick-started India’s campaign by scoring a twenty-eight ball thirtyfive run innings of final flourish to overpower Pakistan with nine balls remaining. Thereafter, Raina was appointed skipper of the team for the tour of Bangladesh even as several senior players were rested and despite the lack of heartening scores, Raina stuck to his guns and his style of play. In another abysmal showing for India in England in the course of the five Test series where Raina was overlooked for selection, Raina’s performance in the one day internationals that followed was the silver lining amongst the dark, foreboding clouds that had begun to form over India’s overseas performances. Raina’s performances put India once more in serious contention to defend their World title in overseas conditions. One could elaborate on some of Raina’s finer performances in the Indian Premier League edition 7 or the recently concluded Champions League Twenty20 2014 where Raina was the chief architect in the final for the Chennai Super Kings to bring the cup home and one should if only to emphasize why Raina is rated as one of the highly, naturally gifted players who could go a long way towards setting new trends and benchmarks with a bit more perseverance, converting these successes into larger roles for the success designs for the Indian team, particularly with the World Cup looming large.

In the Champions League Twenty20 2014 final, the Chennai Super Kings were chasing 181 runs for victory over the Kolkata Knight Riders. Although the Chennai team has proven to be match winners, their trophy cupboard has been barren for three rather long years. Batting at no.3, Raina was thrust in early with the dismissal of Dwayne Smith with the scoreboard stuck on eight runs. What followed thereafter was a shocking display of audacity and imperious batting that announced once more Raina’s desire for big match situations and greater challenges and also, his intent and design for the Indian cricket team.

It is not easy to impress Brendon McCullum, the New Zealand batsman-wicket keeper who ignited the IPL’s inaugural edition with a breathtaking individual batting performance. On this day, McCullum was reduced to an envious spectator at the non-striker’s end as Raina was merciless on the bowlers, pulverizing the attack to produce a seventynine ball innings studded with six fours and eight sixes and yielding 109 runs against his name while featuring in a match winning 118 run partnership with the New Zealand batsman and earning former New Zealand captain Stephen Fleming’s assertion that Raina is indeed the best in the business in the short formats.

That Raina was intent on learning his lessons rather quickly lay in the fact that he persisted with playing out the innings for the Chennai team en route to victory, remembering that the last time he lost his concentration and lost his wicket, Chennai were forced to cede advantage to the Kings XI Punjab in the IPL. On that occasion, Raina was on top of his game, blitzing his way to eighty-seven majestic runs from only twenty- five balls. However, once Raina lost his wicket, the Chennai Super Kings lost their way, losing to the Kings XI Punjab in the IPL 7 qualifier by twenty-four runs. That Raina knew that it was not only important to give his team impetus and momentum but also, see them through is a valuable lesson which, if applied, could be a major asset for the Indian cricket team in tough situations in Australia and New Zealand next year. Raina is thinking forward and on his feet.

Raina’s fruition came in the form of a belligerent Champions League Twenty20 century that now sits rather nicely with an IPL century and a Twenty20 international century (versus South Africa at Gros Islet during the ICC World Twenty20 2010) on his rather impressive resume. With his recent performance, Raina has earned himself a few rather interesting milestones. With over 200 Twenty20 sixes to his name, Raina is the highest six hitter for India in Twenty20 and is also, the seventh batsman in the world and the first Indian cricketer to cross 5000 runs in Twenty20, scoring 4000 for his franchise alone, which is a record in itself. With 726 runs to his name from the Champions League Twenty20, he tops the all time list of the highest individual run getters in the tournament. He is the only Indian cricketer to win seventeen Man of the Match awards in the Twenty20 format.

However, perhaps the most satisfying performance, even on his own immediate agenda, would have to be his one day international innings at Cardiff, playing for the national side. The last time Suresh Raina managed to really impress the selectors was also against England during the one day international series in India in January 2013 when he managed to score four half-centuries, in stark contrast to his rather barren record since. After losing their way through the Test series, India also needed a massive victory in the one day internationals to obliterate some of the pain. Setting his own disappointment of not being picked for the Test series aside, Suresh Raina, gave India the best possible impetus on the tour. His innings of a one day international century off only seventy-five balls was a knock to be highlighted, earmarked and replayed for the sake of relish several times over. The manner in which Raina took on the initiative against the criticism of his footwork and his inability to tackle the short ball impressed all round and in his command, it seemed that India’s ambitions for the World Cup remained upbeat despite the disaster that the tour of England had become. Raina continued to impress with the bat in the next one day international to follow with fortytwo runs to his name. But an interesting point to note was that to complement his own fielding, Raina was also one of the few part time spinners that Dhoni used to stifle the challenge out of the hosts and in doing so, gave India another praiseworthy victory. To end up with an average of 53 at the end of a one day international series overseas would have come as a relief for Raina whose last impressive average of 93 came against England when they last toured India. Raina continued to dominate matters for India at the no.5 spot during the one day international series against West Indies, matching Virat Kohli’s score of sixty-runs in India’s first century partnership in two years to level the series at 1-1 in the second one day international at the Ferozeshah Kotla in New Delhi.

Being dropped from the team would not have been an easy scenario to digest and for players, the danger would have been to remain indignant and in denial. But Raina’s clarity of thought becomes evident in how he used the downtime. With an eye on the future national ambitions always dominating his mind, Raina’s prime agenda upon being dropped after the tour of New Zealand was to not only stage a comeback but also, become one of the surefire picks for the forthcoming ICC Cricket World Cup 2015 in Australia and New Zealand. Judging by some of his recent performances, it would be considered almost foolhardy to leave such a belligerent, natural stroke maker out of India’s defense campaign.

But even eight months ago, the case was in stark contrast. Raina was forced to face his demons, with the critics latching onto the fact that the southpaw had barely stroked one half-century (against Zimbabwe) for as long a barren stretch as twentyfour one day inter- national innings notwithstanding the fact that Raina was getting the runs, just not enough to light up the newspaper headlines. While Raina knew better than to lend the critics credence given that he bats so low down in the batting order where opportunities to play a long innings are few and far between and instead, there is the added pressure to finish the game in a rather short time without necessarily some of the other batting specialists at the other end of the twenty-two yard pitch, Raina could also not neglect the fact that he was himself underachieving, scoring runs in the thirties when his game could be built for a more blistering attack. With almost nine years of international cricket behind him and close to 200 one day international appearances to his name, not to mention almost 5000 runs in one day internationals alone, it would not be unaccustomed to have the player turn his nose up at the suggestion that he continued to have a chronic problem with the short ball. It is commendable that Raina made the frontal attack on the immediate problem, seeking out the one man who has faced similar issues during his otherwise illustrious career. Former Indian captain, Sourav Ganguly, was more than happy to help Raina, pointing out not only the need to work on his footwork but also, on his mind in building faith in his own abilities. Raina had perhaps played the most poignant stroke yet in his career when he chose Ganguly to guide him just as he had sought out Praveen Amre a couple of years ago to help point out any errors creeping into his technique. Ganguly, being a left handed batsman himself, who did bat in the middle order before dominating the game at the top of the batting order, was perhaps better placed than anyone in knowing Raina’s predicament.

Inadvertently in being open to the idea of taking guidance on an individual basis, Raina may also spark off a trend. Around the same time two years ago, Raina sought out veteran Indian cricketer, Praveen Amre, to observe his game and give him tips to improve his technique. Raina spoke of the demands of the modern game to switch between formats and the creeping in of errors in one’s game as a result of it. That Raina wants to be consciously involved in the evolution of his own batting is evident in that he is open minded to seek out mentors like coaches to help him objectively assess his game both, mentally and physically, to steer clear from the comfort zone where players often find themselves stuck, in denial and unable to improve upon their game. Raina was adamant to make a greater impact on the game, not necessarily to only further his own personal ambitions but also, in doing so, lend the team the fortitude they would need to defend their title as world champions. Brainstorming with stalwarts like Praveen Amre and Sourav Ganguly allowed Raina to realize that while technical errors may eventually have to be dealt with, the greater pressure lay in his mind. Two things were clear to him as he looked to make a longer stay in the Indian team: he needed to improve his concentration and he needed to play his own game, not worry unduly if every game could spell the end of his career. Controlled aggression, discretion in right doses seems to have become his new mantra and in accompaniment of the skipper’s faith in his ability, Raina has shown willingness to take on more responsibility than he has in the past.

Suresh Raina struck a chord in the last World Cup edition when he played second fiddle to Yuvraj Singh, scoring thirty-five runs, as the latter catapulted the team into the ICC Cricket World Cup 2011 semi finals by overpowering Australia. Although Dhoni’s original designs were to mould Raina in Yuvraj Singh’s no.4 spot, Raina seems to have made the no.5 position his. Raina is open to the idea of batting higher up the order where he feels better able to control the game and his aggressive quotient as opposed to batting in the middle at no.5 where he is presently positioned in India’s one day international line up. Although circumspect about the movement of the new ball and Raina’s ability to counterattack it in the ICC Cricket World Cup 2015 venues in Australia and New Zealand, if Raina can apply his new found confidence and wisdom, India could afford the luxury to shield Virat Kohli at no.4 and then fortify India’s chances by bolstering the backbone of the middle order. It certainly merits serious contemplation, particularly since Raina himself has expressed that he is game for it. A far more prudent tactic though, from Dhoni’s point of view, would be to position Raina at the spot where he is making a rather impressive comeback – no.5 – giving India the opportunity to position a technically tighter batsman at no.3 to counter the new ball conditions and give Raina the opportunity to unleash maximum damage when the opposition bowling wears down.

To Raina’s credit, that he is not only an enthusiastic livewire on the field but also, a quick learner was evident in the fact that he has openly admitted to having learnt through Virat Kohli’s example, the need to value one’s wicket. That has helped Raina immensely in etching out a longer stint at the crease. By improving his concentration and learning the art of waiting patiently to unleash, Raina has been able to show the full prowess of his explosive ability that the world has been witness to of late. A ploy being used by the Chennai Super Kings could serve India well in their World Cup efforts as well. While Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja were forced into attack and wicket taking mode for the franchise, Raina has worked on his game to ensure he can stifle the opposing batsmen at the crease by bowling dot balls, giving little and strangling them to pile on the pressure.

What is significant to note is that while Raina is obviously conscious of the lack of more hundreds in his career graph – he has four centuries at an average hovering at 35 in one day internationals– both of which will be expected to spike if it continues in this current vein, he is also a player who likes to busy himself with the task ahead rather than be stuck up on the blips on his career graph. Another point of importance is that Raina has showed he is open to being flexible as far as India’s batting order goes and furthermore, not averse to playing a greater role with the ball which could come in handy for the skipper when he may need to bolster the batting line up as conditions present themselves in the World Cup.

There is still a bit of time between now and the World Cup and India would be positioned in Australia for the better part of that time. The time should serve Raina’s ambitions well to fine tune his game to help him continue on his way, albeit unsung but heroic nevertheless, as India bridge the path to their World Cup defense.

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