Suresh Raina is in a league of his own in ODI cricket
Raina might still be the nearly man when it comes to Test cricket, but in the limited-overs game, he is in a league of his own. He has often lived under the towering shadows of the top-order batsmen, quietly doing his job at No. 5 or No. 6.
Cricket was put on the backburner on a pleasantly warm Friday (January 25) afternoon. With the series won and lost, the Indian team opted for a competitive session of football at the Himachal Pradesh Cricket Association Stadium in Dharamsala and the Englishmen went on a sightseeing trip to neighbouring McLeod Ganj, the seat of the Dalai Lama.
Even as the football 'game' was in progress, various members of the Indian team were 'interviewed' separately pitch-side by CKM Dhananjay, the team's computer analyst. Having done his duty in front of the camera, Suresh Raina then adopted the prankster's role with Dhananjay interviewing Yuvraj Singh.
Armed with a stretching rope that players use to work on their biceps and loosen up before a practice session, Raina crept up on Dhananjay and twirled the rope around his neck, playfully 'strangling' him and bringing the football to a temporary halt.
Having done his bit to scupper the proceedings, Raina sauntered off nonchalantly to join his teammates as the football resumed, a quick dink here and a measured pass there suggesting that his ball-skills aren't limited to cricket alone.
Raina might still be the nearly man when it comes to Test cricket, but in the limited-overs game, he is in a league of his own. He has often lived under the towering shadows of the top-order batsmen, quietly doing his job at No. 5 or No. 6. If he has come in early, that means there has been a top-order collapse; if he arrives late in the innings, it means even if the base has been established, it is time to accelerate, which means adopting a high-risk approach.
Raina has taken to the No. 5/No. 6 position with practised ease. Alongside Mahendra Singh Dhoni - recovered sufficiently from his thumb injury and all set to take the field on Sunday in the final ODI - Raina has established himself as a genuine finisher. His numbers are impressive enough - 3985 runs from 158 games at an impressive 36.55 and a spectacular strike rate of 91.71 - but given the number at which he bats, they become even more phenomenal.
Agreed, Raina has only three hundreds and 27 fifties in 137 innings, but he has repeatedly proved that he doesn't play for numbers. He has always put team above self and never craved the recognition. If he is disappointed, as he indeed must be, at not having got his due, he has hidden it remarkably well and got on with the job, happy in the knowledge that his teammates appreciate and respect his contributions.
In flannels, Raina has looked uncertain and iffy, trying to blast his way out of trouble and plagued by temperamental and technical shortcomings, mainly but not only against the short delivery. Cloak him in the blues and he is a man transformed, strutting with the good-natured arrogance of a man who knows exactly what he is capable of doing, and doing it with finesse more often than not. When it comes to ODI cricket, Raina doesn't merely talk the talk, he walks it too. Again and again.
It's impossible to button down why it is so, but Raina the Test batsman and Raina the ODI destroyer are two supremely different individuals and - the general consensus is - never shall the twain meet. Indian cricket will be the poorer for it if general consensus carries the day. Raina still has plenty to offer when it comes to the longer version, but that will necessitate not just many technical adjustments but also a paradigm mental shift, in approach and attitude.
For the moment, Raina is a one-day colossus, a giant who bats with fearless abandon at the tail-end of the innings. He is as adept at getting the front foot out of the way and tonking the ball over midwicket as he is at shimmying down the track and driving beautifully through or over the infield on the offside. He can dab and paddle as effectively as he can blast and batter, and he is an excellent runner between the wickets, and not just when he is the striker.
Throw in wonderful athleticism that is one of the reasons why he is such a brilliant fieldsman, and a crafty offspinner, and you get the picture of the archetypal limited-overs player - excellent in two departments, passable in the third. He is also the engine room of the team, driving his mates with his energy and enthusiasm; invariably he is the first to congratulate the bowler on picking up a wicket, no matter where he might be fielding.
Raina is in the middle of an excellent run in the ODI game. Only twice in his last nine innings has he failed to touch 30. During that phase, he has hit five half-centuries, including three in as many games against England this series, and only one of those fifties has come at slower than a run a ball. In the fourth ODI against England in Mohali, he produced a decisive unbeaten 89, off just 79 deliveries with nine fours and a six, that shepherded India to the series win and won him the Man of the Match award ahead of Rohit Sharma.
It's more than possible that at some stage in the future, Raina will earn a promotion, at least to No. 4 if not higher. "At Nos. 5, 6, 7, depending on scenarios, you hope that players at those positions have the talent to finish off the games. But it's not necessary that only one individual must finish the match each time," Dhoni had said in Mohali. "It's important that those who bat at 5, 6 and 7 make it a habit to win the game. He has learned it but at the same time, he has to curb his instincts. He is a naturally aggressive player, he loves to play his strokes but he has to curb it for the interest of the team. It will be good if we can give him some chances to bat slightly up the order. At 5, 6 and 7, the max you get is generally 60 or 70. We definitely have to give him a chance up the order."
Then, perhaps, the hundreds will arrive more frequently, as will the encomiums.