Thursday, February 22, 2018

Unselfish Team Man: The Missing Link Team India Needs

24 October 2015, Mumbai: Quinton de Kock and Faf Duplessis had flattened Team India before Abraham DeVilliers demolished them as South Africa buried India under a mountain of runs and won their first ever bilateral ODI series in India. That 214 runs margin of defeat was India's largest on home soil and more or less made sure M S Dhoni was on his way out as Captain of ODI team too.

More than MSD, that match in particular and the series in general also put a huge question mark before the future of another player. Suresh Kumar Raina, just 29 at that time had a miserable series due to his well advertised shortcoming against the short ball. In that match, he bowled 3 overs for 19 runs and took the wicket of de Kock. On a day when South African batters battered regular spinners Harbhajan, Amit Mishra and Axar Patel for 213 runs from 28 overs for just 1 wicket, Raina was the most economical bowler for India. Bhuvaneshwar Kumar was the only century maker for India, conceding 106 from his 10 overs.

But it was the batting that cost him his place in the side. Raina made 12 of 13 balls with a six and a four. Intimidated by the Rabada short ball, Raina moved too far across the stumps and was felled by that deadly leg-stump Yorker by Rabada. That remains the last ODI Suresh Raina has played. In those 28 months since then, Ajinkya Rahane, Kedar Jadhav, Manish Pandey, Hardik Pandya and many younger guys have crammed the middle order spot once Raina owned thanks to his value as a utility player.

Even in the shortest format of Cricket, Raina has been missing in action for long. When he arrived on our screens during IPL 2017, Raina had put on so much of weight, it was difficult to believe our eyes. There were jokes and memes. "Raina got married and now he's become pregnant instead of his wife." These were the jokes and Raina definitely looked like a lost case.

The 2017 - 18 domestic season was pretty ordinary for Raina. Rookie medium fast bowlers were digging it short at him in domestic Cricket and guys like Karun Nair were scoring 52 ball hundreds in domestic T20 championship. All of a sudden, ahead of Rahul, ahead of Karun, ahead of an explosive middle order all rounder like Deepak Hooda, Suresh Raina was given a recall. A lot of eyebrows were raised considering form, fitness and foreign conditions did not justify the selection of Raina for a T20 series in South Africa.

18 February 2018: 28 months after he last played an ODI against South Africa, Suresh Raina was back in the famous blue, the Indian color. Honestly, this writer was one of those who had written Raina off as an IPL Poney. His strike rate and averages were still good for a No. 6 batsman in international Cricket, in spite of many career slumps. But why go back to a thirty plus, overweight (or pregnant) Raina when we have a lot of younger players to take that slot ? That was the question many like me were asking.

The match last night gave us the answer to that question. Why the selectors, Shastri and even Kohli were going back to Raina ? Manish Pandey has been in and out of the team since 2014. He's played a few brilliant knocks and has flattered to deceive many a times. The way Pandey batted last night and the way Raina batted last night offers a stark contrast and explains why the team management loves Raina.

With an obviously struggling batsman like MSD on the other side, Pandey hit just one sixer on his way to 29 off 27 balls. He looked more concerned about his place in the side than accelerating the score in the slog overs. Compare this to the way Suresh Raina played. With the field restrictions on, South African bowlers taking the short ball experiment to ridiculous levels and an in form Dhawan at the other side, Raina had the freedom to play for his place in the side. He could have knocked the ball around to score a 35 or so off 30 balls to make his contribution look substantial.

Most people would have taken the safe route back into the team but then that isn't how Suresh Raina has played his Cricket all these years. There isn't a more unselfish player in this team today. He went bang bang because India still had Kohli, Pandey, Pandya and MSD behind him. Raina's unselfish act clubbed with Rohit's early blitzkrieg presented India with their highest 6 over score of 78/2 with Dhawan and Kohli still at the crease. 15 runs of 7 balls is all he made but what mattered was how he made those runs and that is what gives Suresh Raina the edge over others.

Cricket in this era is driven by fitness. Virat Kohli puts extreme importance of fitness. Raina would have flunked the Yoyo test in 2017. But this time around, he is leaner, meaner and fitter and he aced the Yoyo and booked his ticket to South Africa right in time. World T20 is around this year and the 2019 CWC is going to be the most important tournament for Kohli and Co. The No. 5 and 6 slots have remained unstable and unsettled. With his fielding still top notch, his immense experience, more than useful off spin bowling and totally selfless batting, Suresh Raina can still be a great asset for Team India if his zeal to play for India remains intact. Last night, we witnessed what Raina is capable of on the field when he made two relatively tough catches look ridiculously easy.

Raina has been frequently criticised as the blue eyed boy of selectors and team managements. Often the criticism has appeared justified too, especially when MSD was the captain. Only after Virat Kohli became full time captain, Raina's fortunes dwindled. But even Kohli - Shastri team recognise the value Raina brings to the team; that utterly unselfish team man nature.

Those who have watched Cricket on television might not have missed the joy Raina emits every time a teammate achieves a landmark. The wide smile and enthusiastic clapping is a hallmark of Raina's Cricket. On many occasions, Raina's celebration was more marked than that of his partner on the partner reaching a milestone. That is the kind of team man Raina is. That is what makes him a hugely loved character in the dressing room.

It should not hurt India to reinvest faith in Raina by backing him till T20WC later this year and CWC 2019 if he's doing well. He has ODI average of 35 plus with strike rate close to 94 and he scores close to 30 per innings in T20 Cricket with strike rate of 133. Raina deserves the team's backing because a fully fit and confident Raina is an asset India can't afford to lose. India's stuttering 2011 CWC campaign came back on track after Raina's entry in place of a misfiring Yusuf Pathan. This bunch of talented cricketers deserves one more world cup and perhaps Raina is the missing link needed to complete the winning combination.

Govind Raj Shenoy for DieHard Cricket Fans

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