Raina rekindles the early promise
Suresh Raina wouldn't have been very pleased by the comments made by Mahendra Singh Dhoni, his captain, after India's recent Kitply Cup loss to Pakistan. Although that remark - Dhoni said he should have batted ahead of Raina - pertained to that game, it would have hurt a youngster trying to recover from being written off as the most-hyped player in recent years. Two matches later, when Dhoni promoted Raina to No. 3, the latter ensured the decision wouldn't be regretted.
Dhoni was at the other end when Raina went on the rampage against Hong Kong on Wednesday, and that perhaps would have prompted the promotion against Pakistan. Raina's maiden century had come against a weak team, and although he looked in prime touch, he needed to prove himself against stronger opposition.
On Wednesday, Raina walked in against a Pakistan attack sans Umar Gul. Gautam Gambhir had fallen cheaply, and Virender Sehwag hadn't yet got into his groove as India chased 300. Not many can outscore Sehwag, as Gambhir will testify, but Raina had raced to 21 off 14 balls while Sehwag was still stuck on 1 off nine. Two shots early in his innings indicated what Greg Chappell, India's former coach, would have seen in Raina. The first one, a cover drive on the up off Iftikhar Anjum, did not require any foot movement either before or after playing the stroke. The second one, off Sohail Tanvir, ended up at the same place, but this time he went down on his knee, got in line with the wide ball, and then crashed it through the field.
There was nothing new: Raina has got off to starts before and has one of the best cover drives in present-day cricket. What he also had was 11 dismissals between scores of 20 and 40, out of his 33 ODI innings. His last fifty before the Hong Kong match had been 20 innings ago.
A similar trait had haunted him in the Ranji Trophy last season: he would get off to some of the most promising starts, and then throw his wicket away. Out of the 683 runs that he scored in 14 innings, 411 came in three innings alone. And he got starts in almost every match.
The way he played suggested this wouldn't be just a start. Pakistan were out of sorts - one of their strike bowlers was off, their captain had not taken the field, and the National Stadium pitch was inert, but that alone didn't provide the sense of inevitability around Raina's knock. The only blemish for Raina today was that he got out to a soft dismissal on 84.
Dhoni would be the man most pleased by Raina's performances. "Of course it was good to see that," Dhoni said. "Especially for someone batting at No. 3, you have to carry on with good starts. More so when you are chasing more than 270." The only batsmen scoring big in the middle order have been Yuvraj Singh and himself. If Raina can take off from these two innings, Dhoni, overworked already, can afford to come further down the order.
There has been a sense of unfulfilled promise about Raina for more than two years now, which would have troubled him more than it has done his followers. But he is still 21, still evolving, still understanding his own game and his role in the team. For him to have made the comeback to the side as soon as he has, he must have more to him than just the cover drive.
Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo