The Raina recovery!

Truth be told, India has few alternatives in Suresh Raina’s position in limited overs cricket. What will be interesting to note, following the dismal failure of the batsmen in the Tests in England, is whether Raina would come back for the longer format later this season, writes Shreedutta Chidananda.

In itself, R. Ashwin’s dismissal of Ben Stokes at Trent Bridge did not mean much. The England innings had long begun sinking, in a one-day series where the upper hand had clearly been ceded to India. But Suresh Raina’s outstanding, instinctive catch at first slip threw into stark relief India’s changed fortunes: its hitherto amateurish work in the cordon, which had been emblematic of the whole Test series, had suddenly given way to such an effort.

It was no coincidence though. True, India is markedly more comfortable with white-ball cricket, but it was not as if the mood had improved on its own. In the second ODI, when India had lost two established batsmen in quick succession, Raina’s excellent hundred laid the platform for a first success in over a month on English soil.

The effervescence in the field, the undoubted potential with the bat, and the handy off-spin all make Raina an invaluable figure in the Indian limited-overs setup. Yet seven months ago, his career was headed in a very different direction. He was dropped midway through the ODI series in New Zealand, at that point having scored only one fifty in 24 previous attempts (and even that versus Zimbabwe). He was subsequently left out of the squad for the Asia Cup. Once indispensable, the left-hander was now without a one-day spot, having long been deemed inadequate for Test cricket.

“I analysed a lot after I was dropped,” he said after the win in Cardiff. “I was hurt. It was frustrating that I had enough scores of 30-40, but wasn’t converting those. I was batting well, everything was going right, but I wasn’t converting those. Then I went to domestic cricket, did well in the IPL.”

The IPL was hugely friendly territory for Raina, the competition’s all-time leading run-scorer. He topped the run charts for CSK again, making five half-centuries. Soon after, he was named captain of a developing India side on a short ODI tour of Bangladesh.

In a way, being away had helped, Raina felt. “When you are playing so much continuous international cricket, you don’t realise what weaknesses have crept into your game,” he said. “Then when you sit alone you analyse your game, you meet your seniors. They all have an opinion; you pick the best ones from them. They have helped me a lot.”

Raina worked with Pravin Amre — a coach who has also helped Robin Uthappa and Ajinkya Rahane — in Mumbai, besides speaking to Sachin Tendulkar. “I discussed for two-three months as to how I can improve in overseas conditions. I improved as a person. The hunger inside grew. I have improved my concentration a lot,” he said.

Once he was named in the squad for the England series, Raina spent four days with Amre, addressing, among other things, his long-running battle against the short ball. In the nets, Amre smashed tennis balls at him with a racquet, from a distance of 15 yards. “I gave him less reaction time,” the former India batsman says. “To even leave that ball, you will have to be in the correct position. It was more about survival than attack.”

Raina’s hundred was impressive not just for the range of his shots, but the manner in which he paced the innings. His first 47 balls yielded 43 runs; the next 27 brought 57. “This knock is one of the most special ones for me given the circumstances and the conditions. We hadn’t won the game in a long time and to help the team break that jinx with a century was very satisfying,” he told the BCCI’s website.

The hundred was only the fourth of his career, his first since January 2010, and his first outside the sub-continent. There is mitigation in that the majority of Raina’s innings have been at numbers five and six, where he does not have the time or the freedom that, say, Virat Kohli does. But closing in on 200 ODIs, Raina is an old hand. Knocks of such import ought to have been a matter of routine and not celebrated as landmark feats.

“He should have been up there,” admits Amre. “He has got so many shots in him. He is our most destructive batsman after M. S. Dhoni.”

For now, though, it may be assumed that Raina is an integral part of India’s plans for the World Cup, although Dhoni was loath to jump to such conclusions. “If a batsman plays one good innings you talk him up,” he said. “If he had not played this innings, the question would have been entirely different. If he doesn't score in a couple of games against West Indies you will be the person asking some other question. Let’s move ahead. It was a very good hundred. The World Cup is still three-four series away. Hopefully he won’t be injured, and will be available for selection, and that will be good for us.”

But truth be told, India has few alternatives in Raina’s position. What will be interesting to note, following the dismal failure of the batsmen in the Tests in England, is whether Raina would come back for the longer format later this season. He last played a Test two years ago in Bangalore, where he was bowled (characteristically, some would say) in the second innings attempting to smack Jeetan Patel over the ropes.

Amre, though, believes he has the game for it. “I personally feel that any batsman who has got more shots can be dangerous in five-day cricket because he can score more runs,” he says. “I give you Virender Sehwag’s example. Look at what they said of him when he started his career and how he eventually turned out.”

But one thing Raina has shown these past few months is the stomach for a struggle, and that is more than can be said for many others. “There was nothing that I forced him to do,” says Amre. “The motivation was all his. He badly wanted to improve.”