Suresh Raina: Awesome in India blues, enigmatic in whites

Selflessness. Professionalism. Excellence. Three words that could so easily be used when the misfit in India's Test side dons the blue one-day kit.

Updated: September 06, 2012 13:38 IST
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In The Spin, the Guardian's excellent cricket blog, Rob Smyth analysed the curious case of Matt Prior, a cornerstone of English success in the Test arena who can't get a game in coloured clothes. Back in 2007, when India won the Trent Bridge Test and consequently the series after much ado about jellybeans, Prior was seen as something of a prat. His glove-work was ordinary and the batting a letdown after the pyrotechnics of his debut series against West Indies. The Indians clearly thought that his deeds didn't match his mouth.

Last summer, when they went back to England, Prior made a hundred and two half-centuries. Even in a team where every man summoned up something exceptional, his assurance and class stood out. After 58 Tests, Prior averages 42.61 with the bat. Any iron-gloves jokes were canned years ago.

As Smyth wrote, "His selflessness, professionalism, excuse-aversion and excellence are such that, with Andrew Strauss gone, he is arguably the most impressive man in the England team. And although disciples of Alan Knott's genius would legitimately be appalled at the suggestion, in purely statistical terms there is a strong case for Prior making an all-time England Test XI."

Selflessness. Professionalism. Excellence. Three words that could so easily be used when the misfit in India's Test side dons the blue one-day kit. Suresh Raina has played 17 Tests since his debut two years ago. After adapting to whites as though a natural - it has to be said that he played his first two games against a Sri Lankan side that had just lost its heart and lungs, Muttiah Muralitharan - ensuing Tests have been a real struggle. On the back of a promising half-century in the first innings of the Bangalore Test against New Zealand, Raina chose a tense second-innings run chase to unveil a truly hapless sashay-and-swipe.

Remember, this is someone who handles pressure with aplomb in the one-day arena. India's quarterfinal victory against Australia during the World Cup last year is often remembered for Yuvraj Singh's frenzied celebration mid-pitch. Yet, it's unlikely that Australia's magnificent streak in the matches that mattered would have ended without Raina's sprightly 34-run cameo to buttress Yuvraj's half-century.

With bowlers as quick as Brett Lee, Shaun Tait and Mitchell Johnson in the fray, it was obvious that Raina would find a few short balls coming his way. The third such delivery he got was dispatched through midwicket for four. When Lee tried to pitch it further up, he was smashed over long-on for six. A Johnson bouncer was deflected away to fine leg. The match was as good as over.

The semifinal success over Pakistan also owed much to Raina's cool head in crisis. At 205 for 6, India's innings could have collapsed. Instead, Raina ensured that the tail would help him add a further 55, at better than a run a ball. But for those back-to-back cameos, it's safe to say that there would have been no emotion-soaked night at the Wankhede.

It's hard to pinpoint what happens to Raina in Test cricket. In Bangalore, he played a couple of fantastic strokes against the short ball. At other times, he looked like a stationary target in a coconut-shy stall. At Lord's last summer, he batted with something approaching authority for 78, while the innings crumbled around him. The rest of the time, he looked so out of sorts that some prayed for the bowlers to put him out of his misery.

In one-day cricket, with field placings geared more towards stopping runs, the risks he takes tend to come off. After the early hype - Greg Chappell reckoned that he was India's next great batsman - and failures, Raina's second coming has seen him score at a run a ball in 50-over cricket while averaging 38. Considering that he usually comes in with less than 20 overs to go, it's an outstanding record.

To understand why he fails in whites, we should perhaps listen to a man who was the best finisher of his age. There was little that Michael Bevan couldn't do in the one-day game. As a Test player, he often fell short, averaging 29.07 from 18 Tests. Like Raina, Bevan came into the Test side to replace a legendary leader. Allan Border's shoes proved to be too large.

The biggest favour we can do Raina and Cheteshwar Pujara is to can the comparisons. Every mention of them doesn't need to be qualified with the names of those that they have replaced. Those men are gone. Retired. Finished. History. They're not coming back.

In an interview with The Wisden Cricketer a couple of years back, Bevan spoke of the problems he had against the short ball. "I couldn't work it out at the time because I'd never really had an issue with it in the past but the more it happened, the more of an issue it became," he said. "I don't think I helped myself. I probably put too much focus on trying to play it well and gave it too much priority. I probably lacked a little belief that I could play it, even though a first-class average of 60 would suggest that it shouldn't have been a problem. I think in the end that my problems at Test level were more psychological than anything physical or technical."

For Raina as well, the real issues are not on the 22 yards that separate the two sets of stumps. They're in his head. Few work harder on the physical side of the game. If he doesn't want to end up like Bevan, it's time to focus on belief issues that tend to be a lot harder than bleep tests and catching practice.

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