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Suresh Raina: Man on a Mission

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Suresh_Raina_Cricket_IndiaIt was a small but impactful knock. Suresh Raina’s 47 off 30 balls against Bangladesh in the recent Nidahas Trophy T20I match in Sri Lanka turned out to be a match-turning one. It was a signature Raina knock, replete with audacious strokeplay and attacking batting.

In fact, ever since the left-hander made his return to the Indian T20I team last month, he has produced a few such effective performances. He might not have been making big scores, but their value to the team has been significant.

He has been striking the ball well. He looks in good touch. And he gives the Indian middle-order a refreshingly new look.

When Raina was in his prime, he used to be a vital cog of the Indian limited overs team. He had the ability to adapt according to the game situations and he could attack almost at will. He was a brilliant fielder and a terrific runner between the wickets – traits that made him an invaluable asset to the team. When he was dropped from the team, many thought that he had lost his old touch.

Thankfully, on his comeback trail, Raina looks as fit as ever and is hungry to prove himself. For a while it had looked like his international career was over, as Kohli’s India sought fresh faces to build the team for the future. Struggles with form and fitness pushed him back further. But the 31-year-old Raina has fought against the tide to make a return to the team. He is a man on a mission and this time it looks like he is here to stay.

The slip and the comeback

Things were not easy for Raina when he was out of the team. Since the T20I against England in February 2017, where he scored a sublime 63 off 45 balls, he was, for some strange reason, not picked in the team again. Perhaps Raina’s inconsistency and the younger players breathing down his neck forced the selectors to let go of him.

The only way Raina could make a case for himself was to score heavily in domestic cricket. That too, wasn’t happening. He tried to prove his worth but the runs were just not coming. 105 runs at a miserable average of 11.66 is all he could manage in the Ranji Trophy last year while playing for Uttar Pradesh. His highest score that season was just 33. He was eighth in his team’s list of run-getters for the season.

A comeback looked likely in the T20I part of Sri Lanka’s tour to India late last year. But he failed the yo-yo test and was thus not considered for selection. For someone who gave so much importance to fitness, that must have come as a big blow.

Then there were even reports of his close family members being unwell. An unidentified former coach said that Raina had become a “reluctant cricketer” and “has not been concentrating on his game”. Raina rubbished those claims and continued to work hard.

Thankfully, the start of 2018 brought better news for the southpaw. In the Syed Mushtaq Ali T20 trophy, Raina made an emphatic return to form with a sensational, unbeaten 56-ball 126 that immediately brought him back into the limelight. Raina was amongst the top-scorers of the tournament and ended with 314 runs at an average of close to 40, with one hundred and two fifties.

This was immediately followed by the news of his selection for the Chennai Super Kings team in the Indian Premiere League (IPL) auctions. Raina had been an integral part of the Chennai setup for years. Going back must have come as a massive boost for him.

As if all things were meant to fall into place together, Raina got a call-up for the T20I series against South Africa in February. He was relieved and determined to make this comeback count.

 

“I was hurt on getting dropped even after performing well. But now I have cleared the Yo-Yo test and feeling so strong. During all these months of hard training, the desire to play for India again grew only so much stronger. I won’t leave it here. I have to play for India for as long as possible. I have to play the 2019 World Cup because I know I have done well in England. There is still a lot left in me and I am extremely confident of doing well in these three games in South Africa,” he said before the series.

 

And while Raina did not make any huge scores in that series, he did leave his mark. He scored 15 (7 balls), 31 (24 balls) and 43 (27 balls) in the three games and was awarded the Man of the Match trophy for his effort in the last match. What was noticeable was that he looked fearless; not once did he get bogged down by pressure.

In the ongoing Nidahas T20I Tri-series in Sri Lanka, Raina has again shown his mettle, collecting scores of 28 (27), 27 (15) and 47 (30) in his last three games. His confidence seems to be growing with every match and his striking is becoming crisper. He is looking fluent, adapting well to the match situations and asserting himself with great assuredness. His trademark flicks and full-blooded hoicks through the leg-side are still very effective and his punches through the covers still look glorious.

It wasn’t just the runs Raina scored, but the manner in which he got them. India’s T20I team has had a rather placid feel to it for some time. They have been pretty sedate in the Powerplays, which has often led to under par totals in recent times. With Raina’s plucky and no-holds barred approach at the No.3 position, the team has suddenly been infused with a breath of fresh air. Sometimes T20 cricket requires batsmen to be a bit adventurous and Suresh Raina is providing that in spades.

A return to the ODI side

While Raina’s immediate goal of making a return to the national team has been achieved, what he is really striving for is a place in the ODI team. He has stressed that it is his mission to be a part of the 2019 World Cup for the country. As things stand at present, there are genuine chances he might make it.

India won the recent ODI series against South Africa by a 5-1 margin, but they had quite a few issues with their middle-order. Throughout the series, the top-order got them runs and the middle-order failed to build on the initiative or finish well. This has been India’s main worry for a while now. The likes of Ajinkya Rahane, Kedar Jadhav, Shreyas Iyer, Manish Pandey, and Dinesh Karthik have all been tried in the middle-order and have performed only in patches. Most of these batsmen are similar in their approach to the game, which has at times hurt the team in an ODI innings.

The Indian team management are keen to bolster the middle-order well ahead of the 2019 ICC World Cup in England. Even coach Ravi Shastri, after the South African tour, has admitted that they need to sort out their middle-order woes before the big tournament. This is where Suresh Raina, who has a decent ODI record in England, can come in.

With 223 ODIs under his belt, Raina is a known performer and has won many games for India through his sparkling cameos at the end. He has scored 5 hundreds and 36 fifties, and has an outstanding strike-rate of 93.76. He can be the X-Factor that India urgently need. Now that he has a few good performances in T20Is under his belt, perhaps it is time to consider Raina for ODIs as well.

India will be touring England in July this year. Before the Tests, they will play three T20Is and three ODIs. That can be the perfect time to try out Raina again. Given that the World Cup is in England, notable performances by the left-hander in the limited overs series might go a long way in establishing him as a regular member of the side.

It will be interesting to see how things pan out for Suresh Raina. Will he be able to continue the good run he has exhibited in the recent T20Is? One must acknowledge that Raina has worked very hard on his fitness and batting these past few months. He has refused to give up. Unlike a few other senior Indian cricketers of his time, who are no longer in contention for the team, Raina has maintained his hunger, drive and passion to play for India regularly and he is taking the right steps towards achieving that goal.

When in flow, Suresh Raina is an exciting batsman to watch. He is still just 31 and there is no reason to believe that his best years are behind him. Here is hoping that Raina continues on his comeback trail without looking back and goes on to prove why he is an invaluable player and destructive force.

 

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