The supremely light feet of Suresh Raina
A great many batting artists of our age - Virender Sehwag, Damien Martyn, VVS Laxman - bat in a way that makes us admire the work of their hands rather than their feet. Batting was traditionally was thought to begin with, and indeed rest upon, a batsman's footwork. But the thickness and striking force of modern-day bats sometimes makes precise footwork redundant. Where ten years ago a batsman would push a good-length ball on the front foot to cover, he now stays put and flays the ball through point; even tail-enders now routinely manage this. It has been a pleasure, then, to watch the two splendid half-centuries made over the last week at Faridabad and at Goa by young Suresh Raina, and to observe how much his batting owes to his supremely light feet.
Unusually, the swiftness of Raina's footwork is visible less in his play to his spinners - although he is good here - than in two or three of his strokes to the quicker bowlers.
One is his drive on the up to seam bowling. Usually a batsman essaying this stroke makes a large stride forward to get his weight into the stroke "on the rise". Distinctively, Raina seems somehow to manages one-and-a-half steps instead of one - in getting forward he makes a delicious little shimmy that takes him a metre or two out of his crease in his follow-through. Thus he often converts length balls into drivable ones. This stroke, and his sumptuous cover-drive, are Raina's two most attractive strokes.
Another Raina stroke that is set up by the feet before the hands are brought into play is his flick through midwicket. He often plays this to full deliveries on off-stump by quickly skipping across his stumps after he has judged the line of the ball (in this he slightly resembles Sachin Tendulkar and his signature flick behind square leg). Not many left-handed batsmen play with any felicity through midwicket with a straight bat - among contemporary cricketers one thinks only of Graeme Smith - so Raina is unusual in this.
Lastly, Raina's swift feet are manifest in the deft little scoop shot he plays to fine-leg off the quicks. He deploys this to catch the bowler off-guard - one remembers the look on Kabir Ali's face when he was caught by surprise by this stroke last week at Faridabad. This shot is similarly brought off by a quick last-second surge across the stumps, the only difference being that in this case Raina is usually premeditating.
A hint at the strengths of Raina's batting has been broadcast all season by his superlatively assured and predatory fielding. He seems always beautifully balanced while attacking the ball, and covers huge swathes of ground right and left in whichever position he is fielding. He gives the sense that he would happily field all three hundred balls in an innings if only the batsmen would be so kind to hit them at him. Already he is the most influential member of the team when India are on the field.
One feels - I accept that this is only conjecture - that Raina might end up as a more successful Test batsman than either Yuvraj Singh or Mohammad Kaif, the two other chosen successors to the Tendulkar-Ganguly-Laxman triumverate. Raina's batting, while very attractive, is more compact and secure than that of Yuvraj (just watch Raina move in defence forward and back). While he is not such a natural striker of the ball as Yuvraj, neither does he jab and fence at the ball with no feet as Yuvraj often does. He is a more limited but a more industrious player than Yuvraj.
Nor does his batting possess the ugly unnatural lines and extreme nervous tension of Kaif's game, which makes batting look more difficult than it should be and lends itself to all kinds of errors. Of course, a great deal more is required to succeed in Test cricket than just good technique. But from the evidence of his fledgling career it would seem that Raina is not short of any of these other gifts either.
Chandrahas Choudhury is a writer in Mumbai