This Raina rains runs

It doesn't take long for Suresh Raina to see a cricket ball as big as a football, especially in the limited-over formats.-V. GANESAN

Suresh Raina is already a highly successful one-day cricketer and it might not be an exaggeration to call him an IPL legend, the short history of the competition notwithstanding, writes N. Sudarshan.

The roles of batsmen batting at Nos. 5, 6 and 7 in a T20 game are at best precarious. Those towering personalities who bat above you get the first taste of the wicket. If good, they relish it and you, after arriving late, are expected to accelerate from the foundation laid. If dicey, you are in the firing line a tad too soon and are expected to clear the wreck and consolidate. In short it’s a double-edged sword.

It is in this context — and positions — that one needs to look at the importance of Suresh Raina. For sometime now, Raina has been one among the batsmen who have carved a niche for themselves in the game’s shorter formats. In T20, where success can be the result of many factors, he has been a constant in Chennai Super Kings’ (CSK) IPL exploits for all six years. In ODIs, he and skipper M. S. Dhoni have developed into one of the foremost ‘finishers.’

Let us forget for the moment his record in whites where he is considered an also-ran. What makes Raina such an important entity when he turns out in coloured clothing?

“I saw him first at the National Cricket Academy,” recalled Rahul Dravid, his first international captain, in an interview to the Sunday Guardian. “I think he was with the Under-19s. They were playing some practice match and I’d just finished training. There was something about the way he batted. He was obviously a young talented kid and when he first came into the side a month later, you knew there was something different about him. He had the stroke-making ability and it seemed natural to back him.”

Stats, which are so often accused of giving a skewed picture, don’t seem to lie in Raina’s case. The numbers — 4068 runs from 159 ODIs at an average of 36.98 — may not be all that flattering, but given the slot where he bats, they are truly phenomenal.

Ever since he made his ODI debut in 2005 he has consistently bailed his team out during tricky chases. As early as in his eighth innings, he hit an unbeaten 81 to help India recover from 92 for five while chasing 227 against England. In a tri-series final against Sri Lanka, he helped India post 245 after it was reduced to 60-5.

Raina has also revelled in high pressure situations. In the 2011 World Cup quarterfinal against Australia, he scored a crucial unbeaten 34 when India was 187-5 chasing 260.

In matches where India has chased and won, he averages 73.10 from 56 matches, a minimum of 1000 runs and 50 matches being the consideration. Only Michael Clarke, Michael Bevan and Dhoni have scored and averaged more. Raina’s strike-rate of 101.73 makes it even more spectacular.

Raina is in the Dhoni-class as a ‘Finisher.’-PTI

But still, for many, it’s the IPL that has made Raina and to an extent rightly so. Even in those moments when his form in blue was a disappointment, like when he was dropped after the one-day series against South Africa in 2006, he has found solace in CSK’s yellow.

With more than 400 runs in each of the seasons so far, Raina is the most prolific scorer in the IPL with 2613 runs at 34.84. He does bat much higher up the order than in the 50-over format, but with just 20 overs to play, the line between an anchor and a finisher is often blurred. Internationals and domestic matches put together, he has the most T20 runs for an Indian. When he scored a splendid maiden ton against Kings XI Punjab recently, his IPL resume seemed complete.

If you add his wonderful athleticism and brilliant fielding, you have a shorter format colossus. The way he mans the cover areas, constantly on the prowl, and his patrolling of the boundaries during the death overs, where he restricts the batsmen’s twos into ones, you get the picture of a “complete package” as seen by Australian great Greg Chappell when he was the coach of the Indian cricket team.

It’s also the IPL which has seen Raina evolve as a batsman. Albie Morkel who has been with him all along had this to say after Raina’s recent century: “I think he’s always had the talent as a batsman. Now he’s more clever and experienced. He thinks a lot more. In the past he would go out and start hitting from ball-one. Now he plays proper cricket shots, targets different bowlers and tries to bat through.”

This particularly should offer encouragement and spur Raina on, for, so often in Tests he has been charged with trying to blast his way out of trouble. In spite of a century on Test debut in Sri Lanka, he has looked uncertain and impatient, plagued by technical shortcomings, .

His weakness against short-pitched bowling has been cited as a problem area and it’s a fact that he has struggled against bouncers. But it seems partly right when he says that “all Indian players are targeted for not playing the short ball well.” However, this can never be an excuse. Ian Chappell in an ESPNCricinfo article on Raina’s shortcomings said, “Cricket can’t afford to have talented individuals fall short of the international level purely because their technique failed. Temperament can be a matter of fortune, but skill can be honed.”

Raina seems to have grasped this when he says that “he is trying hard to master it” and maintains that Test cricket is where he belongs and to get there is his only aim. But, regardless of what happens to the 26-year-old’s Test career, (17 matches, 768 runs at 28.44), whether he will be able to stem the reversal of fortunes after that monumental high, his careers in blue and more particularly yellow have been nothing short of golden. He is already a highly successful one-day cricketer and it might not be an exaggeration to call him an IPL legend, the short history of the competition notwithstanding.