From the publishers of THE HINDU

VOL.33 :: NO.32 :: Aug. 12, 2010

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COVER STORY

Focus & desire are his allies

Suresh Raina has lived up to the promise he had shown as a junior cricketer. If he lifts his game against short-pitched bowling, he could well be the man India is looking for in Tests. The indications are that the left-hander is, finally, on course, writes S. Dinakar.

K. BHAGYA PRAKASH

Temperament could be the deciding factor as Raina and Yuvraj (in pic) battle for a place in the Indian Test team now. However, more slots would become vacant in a couple of years when players such as Tendulkar, Dravid and V.V.S. Laxman retire. The two left-handers could then be playing alongside each other, dismantling attacks and scripting victories for India.

“Good things happen to people who wait,” is a famous line from that remarkable actor, Robert de Niro, in the Hollywood blockbuster Ronin. Suresh Raina would nod in agreement. The left-hander had figured in 98 ODIs before stepping on to the Sinhalese Sports Club ground for his first Test.

He made the occasion memorable with a century on debut when his team needed runs from him. “Raina showed tremendous character,” said maestro Sachin Tendulkar.

The value of having Tendulkar at the other end during the course of his innings would have been immense for Raina. The left-hander made the most of it.

Having a quiet dinner in the Indian restaurant of the team hotel the same night, Raina appeared remarkably relaxed for someone who had reached a major milestone in his career only hours earlier. “There is a long way to go, this is only the beginning,” he said. The 23-year-old has his feet firmly on the ground.

Raina's innings of 120 at the SSC may have been constructed on a flat track, but what was important was that it came at a time when India was still under threat of a follow-on. He delivered when it mattered.

The bigger question though is: Will Raina be a stayer for India in Tests?

Raina is a talented stroke-player with good footwork and balance. He tends to bat with the full face of the blade which is a good sign in a youngster. Being a southpaw, he has certain inherent advantages too.

On the face of it, he is ideally suited for the No. 5 or No. 6 slots. Yet, Raina has been troubled in the past by well-directed short-pitched deliveries from the fast bowlers on lively tracks. Squared-up, he ballooned catches off his willow or hooked or pulled in desperation.

Word travels fast in cricket, and Raina was labelled a suspect against the short ball.

He is working on the problem. When Dilhara Fernando targeted Raina's rib-cage at the SSC, he did handle those deliveries with a measure of comfort. And when Fernando sent down bouncers, he ducked safely under the flying ball. But then, the barren track at the SSC is hardly the surface to assess a batsman's capabilities in countering short-pitched bowling.

Bigger tests await Raina on juicy tracks against quicker and meaner bowlers than Fernando. Will Raina be up to the challenge?

He does have the apt idol and mentor in Rahul Dravid, a fine player of the short-pitched stuff. Dravid, surely, will pass on the right methods to Raina.

The left-hander's range of strokes had impressed Greg Chappell. The Australian marvelled at Raina's approach and ability and backed him when he was India's coach. “He will be among India's best batsmen in the days to come. Watch out for him,” Chappell had said.

Raina has a lot going for him as a left-hander. His backswing is long but straight and he is able to impart power to his shots. The left-hander can dance down to the spinners for fierce drives or lofted blows, can punch the pacemen off the back-foot and cut them hard.

In his debut Test, Raina showed another of his attributes — shot-selection. He left alone deliveries outside his off-stump and made the bowlers bowl to his strengths. He picked his spots on the field and chose his moments to launch into the bowling.

The last left-hander to notch up a century on debut for India in Tests was Sourav Ganguly — against England at Lord's in 1996. Raina is in illustrious company.

The indications are that Raina will be a crucial player for India when it goes through the critical transitional phase as the big guns make way for the younger batsmen. He is clearly being groomed for a bigger role. Making him the captain of the second-string Indian side that toured Zimbabwe for the triangular ODI championship was not without reason.

Raina might have been fortunate to earn a Test cap — he came into the playing XI as Yuvraj Singh was down with viral fever — but he made his debut count. Focus and desire are his allies. He is certain to make Yuvraj sweat to win back his place in the Indian Test team.

Temperament could be the deciding factor as the two left-handers battle for a place in the Indian Test team now. However, more slots would become vacant in a couple of years when players such as Tendulkar, Dravid and V. V. S. Laxman retire. Raina and Yuvraj could then be playing alongside each other, dismantling attacks and scripting victories for India.

That Raina is razor-sharp on the field adds to his value as a cricketer. In fact, he is a sensational fielder with balance, athleticism, anticipation and reflexes. He is also developing into a handy off-spinner with a penchant for releasing the ball late. In his brief stint with the ball during his Test debut, Raina also delivered a back-of-the-hand flighted delivery that surprised and beat the accomplished Kumar Sangakkara outside his off-stump. The buzzing Raina relishes being in the game at all times.

The small town lad from Uttar Pradesh has also shown a willingness to fight back. After a rather dry run in the early phase of his ODI career, he revived his fortunes with a string of big innings in the Asia Cup.

Raina has 2379 runs in 98 ODIs at 37.17 with three centuries — no batsman has played more one-dayers before earning a Test cap.

Interestingly, Raina made his ODI debut against Sri Lanka at Dambula in 2005. The island nation has been his land of destiny.

In ODIs, Raina is a dynamic batsman. He can put his foot on the accelerator and pierce the field in the power-play overs. He reads and handles the situations well; the left-hander is also adept at working the ball around, picking up the singles and the twos.

And he has been a blazing batsman in Twenty20 cricket, both for India and Chennai Super Kings in the IPL. In the shorter formats, this left-hander is a match-winner.

Raina is a product of the National Cricket Academy (NCA) where his natural ability was harnessed. The promise he showed as a junior has not proved misleading. If Raina lifts his game against the short-pitched stuff, he could be the man India is looking for in Tests. The indications are that the left-hander is, finally, on course.



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