Being sandwiched between the sheer star value of Yuvraj Singh and Mahendra Singh Dhoni in the usual Indian middle-order must be no fun.
Especially when you happen to be Suresh Raina, a man who gives off the feeling that he’s always playing second fiddle in any partnership. And yet, the bare stats reveal a different story. Not only is Raina one of India’s best ODI batsmen in a chase, he has stepped up his game to ensure victory on many an occasion. The fourth ODI against England in Mohali, that gave India an unassailable 3-1 lead in the five-match series, was no different.
When Rohit Sharma was ruled leg-before-wicket to Steven Finn for 83, the target of 258 was exactly 100 runs away. Raina had put on 68 with Rohit for the fourth wicket to get India out of a spot of bother, and took it upon himself to stay at the crease till the end and get the team over the line.
“Its a wonderfully satisfying feeling. To take my team to victory. I wish I can always do it! Thanks for all your amazing wishes,” Raina wrote on his official Twitter handle, @ImRaina.
On another day, or with a slightly bigger target, Raina could’ve reached a fourth ODI century. In a parallel universe, Raina would have been Sourav Ganguly’s permanent replacement in the Test middle order, rather than looking like a prince in coloured clothing and a pauper in white flannels. After all, he had played 98 ODIs and even captained India in four before he made his Test debut.
But a susceptibility to the rising delivery has made him a sitting duck to quality pace bowling, and since the home Tests against New Zealand in August, Raina has fallen down the pecking order. Even Ravindra Jadeja, whom Dhoni likes to ‘protect’ in ODIs, was the preferred middle- order choice against England in Nagpur.
So while India were stumbling along in the Test series, Raina was biding his time in the Ranji Trophy, without really setting the scene alight (average of 33 in six games). But once he donned the blue jersey, Clark Kent once again transformed into Superman. In the two T20s each against England and Pakistan, his scores were 26, 35*, 10 and 1, and in the seven ODIs ever since, he has peeled off 43, 18, 31, 50, 55, DNB and 89*. While they may not look like earth-shattering performances, Raina has walked in at No.5 in a variety of situations — from trying to stage a recovery after a toporder collapse to needing quick runs at the end.
And more often than not, he has delivered what the team needed, though maybe not to his own satisfaction. Until Mohali happened. That 89 not out, made off 79 balls, was exactly the knock that could push his case for a promotion in the batting order, and Dhoni admitted as much after the game.
“This kind of innings has a lot of value because we have been grooming him. At numbers 5, 6 and 7, depending on scenarios, more often than not, you hope that players have the talent to finish off games,” Dhoni said.
“He has learned it [to finish off games], but at the same time, he has to curb his instincts. He’s a naturally aggressive player; he loves to play his strokes, but he has to curb it for the interests of the team. It’ll be good if we can give him some chances to bat slightly up the order.”
Dhoni and Raina are very close to each other, and the Ghaziabad lad would do well to listen to the words of one of the best finishers in the game, if he is to help India more often. However, it is difficult to find a better man for any job the captain throws at him — be it partnership- breaking off-spin, or electrifying fielding in the infield. Or the ever-present smile and excitement that can make every teammate feel just a little bit better about life, even when the chips are down. Suresh Raina is Dhoni’s Man Friday in ODIs. And it is high time he came out of his more illustrious teammates’ shadows to be recognised as a legitimate match-winner in his own right.