Suresh Raina, a Workhorse Who Made the Most of His Ability
A look back at Suresh Raina’s career after he announced his international retirement.
Just as the cricketing world was trying to recover from the sudden and typically nonchalant manner of MS Dhoni's retirement from international cricket, another bombshell dropped. Suresh Raina decided to join his skipper in bidding adieu to the game. Perhaps, it was his way of paying tribute to his mentor, or a spontaneous move triggered by the emotional whirlwind that Dhoni's retirement would have caused.
Indeed, Raina took a leaf out of Dhoni's book not only on the cricket field but outside it as well. When Chennai Super Kings returned to the Indian Premier League (IPL) after their two-year ban in 2018 to win the title, the entire team could hardly conceal its excitement.
With every boundary from Shane Watson, who plundered an unbeaten 117 off just 57 balls on the big night, which took the team closer to the title, the boys were jumping with joy. All but two CSK players did not run onto the field as soon as Ambati Rayudu hit the winning runs – MS Dhoni and Suresh Raina.
The duo looked the most relaxed throughout the chase and was equanimous even after the thrilling victory. With time, Chinna Thala had become a mirror image of Thala – not just by name, but by deed as well.
Career Intertwined With Dhoni
Don't be fooled by the six-year age difference, Dhoni and Raina made their ODI debuts just half-a-year apart. To jog your memory, while Raina was a jittery 18-year-old lad when he first appeared in India Blues, Dhoni at 23, was a bit more ripe in years. Both had come up the ranks by piling up runs in domestic cricket.
While Dhoni hit the ground running in just his fifth ODI with a stroke-filled 143 against Pakistan that enthralled the nation, Raina took five years to become an India regular. When he did, Raina amazed the spectators with the power he generated for a man of his stature. It was the strikingly high back-lift which enabled the southpaw to play the glorious lofted drives over covers and the sumptuous flick off his pads.
These attributes coupled with the ability to manipulate the field, made him a sensation in T20 cricket, which mind you, came into being at the international level only after Raina's debut.
Among the three international formats, Raina finished with best figures in T20Is, where he averaged a tick under 30 and had a strike rate of just about 135 – excellent for the era in which he played.
While Dhoni ruled the roost, almost throughout his career, Raina was an integral part of the Indian white-ball side from 2008 to 2015. During this phase, the attacking batsman hit 114 sixes, taking 43.93 balls per six – best figures by an Indian batsman. No points for guessing who was at the 2nd spot.
A White-Ball Great
While MSD deserves every bit of the applause he is garnering on his retirement, and the amount of conversation it has generated, one must not lose sight of the fact that Raina remains a great white-ball player in his own right. The pocket-rocket made some vital contributions over his 13-year-long international career, not least of which were his key cameos in the quarter-final and the semi-final of the 2011 World Cup.
Another reason why Raina’s 5,615 runs from 226 ODIs at 35.31 are at a premium is because most of these were scored batting at No 5 or 6, which are two of the toughest batting positions in white-ball cricket.
The left-hander averages 35.48 at No 5 and 34.84 at No 6 in ODIs. A good metric to gauge his utility is that India are still struggling to put together a consistent middle order since Raina and Yuvraj reached their sell-by dates.
Product of Back-Breaking Hard Work
As cricket continues to laud geniuses such as Tendulkar and Kallis, there is always a special place for the likes of Suresh Raina, who are perhaps not the most gifted but by sheer dint of their hard work, they end up rubbing shoulders with the supremely talented.
To learn the trade, Raina had to spend years struggling to come up the ranks in a sub-standard hostel. "My days in the hostel were tough. I was ragged by my seniors. We were asked to wash their dirty clothes, do their odd jobs, etc. When it came to eating, we would be often given burnt rotis and milk that had awful odour. But, never once did I call home. I knew if I had to become a tough cricketer, I would have to handle the pressure," the batsman once revealed in an interview.
But more than his learnings in the hostel, it was his instinct to fight and his never say die attitude that helped his middle-order batting. Many a times, with the side in trouble, the spirited batsman absorbed the pressure like a piece of foam. Cue the 2015 World Cup match against Zimbabwe when he came to the middle with India reeling at 92 for 4, chasing 288. Raina joined Dhoni for an unbeaten partnership of 196 to shepherd the team to a close win.
Opportunity Missed in Tests
Given a decent rope in Test cricket, Raina failed to realise the potential which he promised with a 120 on debut against Sri Lanka in Colombo as he became the first Indian to score hundreds in all the three formats. His maiden ODI century came against Hong Kong in Karachi, two years before his maiden T20I ton against South Africa in 2010.
Despite scoring at least a half-century in each of his first three Test matches, Raina could never graduate into the batsman that he had the potential to become. His well-documented weakness against the short ball became one of the biggest reasons for him not getting a go in Test cricket after 2015. It was the same weakness which did not allow him to play an ODI post July 2018, after making a comeback to the ODI side following a gap of three years.
Dig deep into Raina's Twitter account and once the farewell messages and tributes give way, it's easy to assess that his love for the nation and the Indian Army, just like his skipper's, is a big part of his personality. It was only fair then that he joined Dhoni in hanging his bat on Independence Day.
An emotion emanating from a similar place as patriotism is team spirit. Raina was truly a team man. He batted at every position in the order, from No 3 to 8, apart from the opening slot. A parameter of gauging a player on this front is how he contributes to the team in departments other than his primary facet.
Raina passes this test with flying colours. Not only was he a panther in the field, be it in the circle, on the boundary or at slips, but filled in with ball in hand as well – an attribute Team India is struggling to find currently. His 167 catches in his international career (102 in ODIs, 42 in T20Is and 23 in Tests) speak for themselves. Add to that, his 62 international wickets, and at his peak, Raina was a must-have in the team.
Objectively, Raina had little hope of making a comeback to the Indian side and was wise to not reserve the retirement decision for too late, a mistake both his batting partners Dhoni and Yuvraj committed. As for the fans, all is not lost as at 33, Raina still has a good five years of franchise cricket ahead of him if he can maintain his form and fitness.
So, come 19 September, do tune in to see Thala in action. But don't forget, even for a moment, that Chinna Thala, too, is as good as they come.
(Saksham Mishra is a freelance sports journalist, justifying hours of watching sports by scribbling down a few logical lines that might just about hold your interest.)
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