This article is from Wisden India.
By R Kaushik
Rohit Sharma recently called him one of two or three best finishers of a One-Day International innings. Mahendra Singh Dhoni has said no one was better equipped in the Indian line-up than him to take on the bowling from ball one. They were both referring to Suresh Raina, limited-overs performer supreme who will most likely have to put his Test aspirations on hold for the foreseeable future after twin ducks on his comeback in Sydney last month.
It is difficult to miss Raina, in the India Blue, on the field. From slip, he is either constantly engaged in conversation with his stumper-captain, or screaming out words of encouragement to the bowler. Every time a half decent stop is middle in the inner circle - increasingly, India's Gen Next is making that something of a good habit - Raina is the first on the spot for a slap of hands or a pat on the back. And when a wicket falls, he magically appears next to the bowler, embracing in a bone-crunching bear hug that can't but trigger an endorphin rush.
These are not Suresh Raina's primary responsibilities. He is mainly in the Indian limited-overs set-up for his heavy-duty batting with a penchant for the on side, for his muscular decimation of bowling attacks, for the variety he brings with his left-hand batsmanship, for the alacrity with which he runs between the wickets. Raina's presence in the Indian team owes itself to his mercurial batting, but Dhoni and his men are thankful for the entire package - offspinner competent, fielder exceptional, motivator most welcome.
Raina is no stranger to cricket on the big stage. He shouldn't be, given that his international debut was as far back as in 2005 when he arrived as a young kid with tremendous potential. Some then called him the poor man's Yuvraj; Raina has gone on to carve a niche for himself, though he himself is desirous of embracing and carrying out the same role that Yuvraj Singh did in 2011, when his all-round brilliance drove the Indian team to the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
"I have always batted lower down the order and in the previous World Cup, when I didn't play the bulk of the matches, I observed Yuvi and saw how he used to finish games for the side," Raina told bcci.tv, not long after his pivotal 74 against Pakistan at the Adelaide Oval on Sunday (February 15) night. "I want to play Yuvraj Singh's role in this World Cup. I want to field, bowl and bat well."
That's not a bad role to want to play. Yuvraj, of course, was the Player of the Tournament four years ago, making attractive runs, picking up important wickets at crucial times and raising his fielding levels that had fallen since the knee injury during Champions Trophy 2006. Raina had had the opportunity to watch Yuvraj finish a game from close quarters in his very first World Cup appearance. Brought in for the Ahmedabad quarterfinal against Australia as India finally dumped their failing experiment with Yusuf Pathan, Raina walked in with the tension mounting, 74 needed off 75 with five wickets remaining. Australia had evicted Gautam Gambhir and Dhoni in the space of 25 deliveries, this was India's last recognised pair, Yuvraj was in some strife and Raina was on his World Cup debut. Talk about baptism by fire.
Australia sensed an opening. Their World Cup defence on the line, they gave it their all. Brett Lee, Shaun Tait and Mitchell Johnson all came steaming in, seeking to cash in on Raina's nerves and his susceptibility against the short ball. Despite his physical struggles, Yuvraj looked safe as houses; he also steered Raina through the nervy opening period, after which India just got on the bike and motored away. In the end, India won with 14 deliveries to spare, Raina's contribution an unbeaten 34 off 28 deliveries.
"Raina, usually he should be in around the 30-over stage. The longer he bats, the more difficult it is to stop him."-- M.S. Dhoni
Raina's World Cup career, such as it is, is pretty impressive. In three digs, his lowest completed score is the 74 he made on Sunday. He averages 144, aided by two not outs, and his strike rate is a touch over 117. Admittedly, the database is too small for too much to be read into these numbers, apart from the fact that Raina can do serious damage once he gets in.
Against Pakistan, Raina was able to walk in on the back of a 129-run second-wicket stand between Shikhar Dhawan and Virat Kohli. At 163 for 2 midway through the 30th over, India were primed to kick on. Dhoni sent Raina out at No. 4 because of the game situation - 20 overs to the end of the innings - and to maintain the left-right balance that wasn't upset despite Dhawan's dismissal.
"You specialise your game according to a general pattern," explained Dhoni. "Raina, usually he should be in around the 30-over stage, plus or minus two-four overs, that's his bracket. That way, he gets to play a few overs before the powerplay, to see the bounce of the pitch, and then he can accelerate. The longer he bats, the more difficult it is to stop him.
"That's the role assigned to him and in this game, he did it perfectly well. He was provided with a platform where he could go in and be a bit more expressive. What we liked was he took a few deliveries initially and then went on to play the big shots. He was more calculative in his innings, and he picked his areas where he wanted to hit. He read the bowlers well, where they wanted to bowl. He put pressure, and that's what it's all about. If you can put pressure on the bowlers, you'll push them to commit more mistakes by bowling in areas where they don't want to bowl. I think his innings was special."
Raina made 75 off 56 with five fours and three sixes, his boundary hitting restricted exclusive to the leg side. The ease with which he can clear the ropes meant not even the presence of four men on the fence deterred him; he made 72 of the 110-run stand with a well-set Kohli, who later was all praise for the manner in which Raina batted. "It was a two-paced surface, it wasn't as easy to bat on as Raina made it appear," Kohli, 107 off 126 deliveries, was to say admiringly, almost a trace enviously.
The word going around the international circuit is that Raina is a sitting duck against the short ball. Mooen Ali has been bounced out more than once by India themselves, George Bailey recently closed his eyes and his face was directed towards point as he fended Stuart Broad to short-leg in Perth earlier this month. 5178 runs and 208 ODIs later, however, it is still Raina who is the sitting duck. At an average of 35.71, a strike rate of 93.38. Mainly batting at 5s and 6s. If a sitting duck can throw up those numbers, give me a few more of those, I say.
R Kaushik is Deputy Editor at Wisden India. You can follow him on Twitter @kausheek68.