Bangladesh v India, World Cup 2015, 2nd quarter-final, Melbourne March 18, 2015

Floater Raina's time to own high-speed lane

After a decade, Suresh Raina's ODI batting is still waiting to reach a level where he can be given the alluring title - match-winner
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Suresh Raina needs to take a cue from MS Dhoni and Yuvraj Singh to transform from a player of promise to master match-winner © AFP

A mass of grey cloud loomed over the modern colosseum called the MCG. There were only two men out on its green expanse in the early afternoon. One was a television engineer getting the wiring of the stumps mikes sorted and checked. The other was MS Dhoni, who studied the pitch like Sherlock Holmes would for clues on which to base his deductions. It was a solitary walk, and as of that moment there were no guarantees whether he would ever be able to spend time by himself in the middle of the biggest stage in the game.

Once he was done with examining the wicket, Dhoni left the venue briskly; he is not a man for sentimentality. The World Cup is past its slow-moving group stages and has moved onto the high-speed lane. It is a zone with which Dhoni is more familiar and where he is more successful than any other captain in ICC's multi-nation events. Under Dhoni's leadership, India have won eight of nine knockout matches across three ICC events - the World Cup, the Champions Trophy and the World T20. When India get to the knockouts under Dhoni, they learn how to be bigger.

In Dhoni's team, his most trusted team-mate, Suresh Raina, will be hoping he can step up and own the arena. The MCG on Thursday offers the Indians excellent odds of making it to the final four. Of all those in the quarters, Bangladesh, it could be said, offer the least threat. Except that India have a title to lose.

Raina, fresh off his first World Cup hundred, against Zimbabwe in Auckland, paid due respect to the occasion and the opposition. "Tomorrow is a big day. You can't take any team lightly. You can lose with one mistake." Raina has come into his own at this World Cup at a sedate pace: his four innings in the tournament read - 74, 6, 22 and 110 not out.

The game in Melbourne is right up his street, being played on the same wicket where Sri Lanka batted first and scored 332 against Bangladesh. The vast outfield can run fielders ragged and Raina's dead-eye and dexterity of hand can create all kind of angles and gaps and allow him to "express freely" the improvised range of his strokeplay. Bangladesh's bowling has much more to offer compared to Zimbabwe's or Ireland's. They are not of discomfiting express pace.

The quarter-final will give Raina an opportunity to become his own man and establish his own identity beyond a template that has turned cast-iron: brilliant shot-maker, exceptional fielder, all-round team man and T20 glutton. Even after his 200+ ODIs, the title of "promising youngster" has never come unstuck. It has become so much of a second skin that it is easy to forget that he made his debut almost 10 years ago, a mere seven months after Dhoni. After the captain, Raina is the most experienced player in the side.

In the decade gone by, Raina has dabbled in the role of being a batting backbone or metronomic match-winner, even in ODIs. Dhoni has owned it for a while, and it has in turns moved on to batsmen like Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane and for periods at a stretch even Shikhar Dhawan. Raina has never done enough to be marked as among his side's premier batsmen and thus demanding a place up the order. He was given a go at No. 4 for a brief period of 11 innings after the 2011 World Cup. Other than having a higher strike rate, Raina's average did not change much. In that time, younger successors turned up and did far better.

At this World Cup, at No. 5, it is Raina who is the last specialist batsman standing. That is before Dhoni turns up as cowboy troubleshooter. The acceptance of his role as link-man or a floater between No. 5 and 6 is what could set Raina free. "We have always had a lot of meetings before the main games, what sort of bowling attack they have and what sort of batting has to [be] done with the tailenders." Batting at four he said, "Just see before the batting Powerplay, I need to spend more time on the wickets so I can play my strokes later on." The message passed on from the inside is that he needs to get through the first 20 balls before going for his eye-catching shots.

Dhoni described the pace of Raina's century against Zimbabwe as being very crucial in shutting out the game, and giving his No. 5 a chance to get among the runs. "More often than not you don't get an opportunity," Dhoni said. "You get to bat maybe after the 38th, 39th over if your top order is batting well and you have to slog it out, so you play the big shot, you get out, you don't score too many runs. When you get to the knockout stages, you want runs under your belt." While this does explain Raina's degree of difficulty of batting at No. 5, it is not as if the role has changed in the history of cricket.

Raina is not the first No.5, or 6, to have to up his scoring, marshall the tail and close out matches. He has predecessors - who have treated that job, that has in his career been turned into a punishment posting of sorts, as an opportunity to be a late-overs chase-merchant or fire-cracker. Like Michael Bevan did for Australia (120 innings at 5 & 6, 4171 runs, three centuries, 28 fifties at a strike rate of 77) or indeed, the man Raina has replaced in the line-up and says he wants to emulate - Yuvraj Singh (150 innings at 5 and 6, 4825 runs, strike rate of over 85, with seven hundreds and 33 fifties).

Post 2011, Raina said, his game improved. It could have to do with the fact that an older generation of batsmen - Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir at the top and Yuvraj in the middle - were slowly eased out with more room available for younger men. "I have learnt a lot from MS, Yuvraj Singh and especially with Mohammad Kaif. I played a lot of matches with them at four, five and six." Yet, Raina's ODI batting is still waiting to reach a level where he can be given the alluring title - match-winner.

Bangladesh could mark the step-up, but to start with, Raina said, it was alertness that was important. "The pressure of a World Cup is different. We've played against smaller teams in the last two games - you need to focus in those situations. You need extra effort to make those runs because you can get carried away. You need extra focus because you haven't played their bowlers that much."

India though, he said, were more than ready because they have been there before. ICC events, knockout rounds, eyes of the world on them. Raina described what the nets at the MCG felt like on Tuesday morning. "There was a sense of calm, everyone looked focused." The only murmuring, he said, was the players "talking among ourselves that there was so much quiet there. Everyone was concentrating on what he had to do. "It came from "belief." One of the only four members of the 2011 World Cup winning team, Raina said, "We've won from this stage many times. We know what to do when we wake up in the morning." The occasion does not warrant any jokes about brushing teeth.

Business is after all business, and Raina said, "The main World Cup is going to start for us tomorrow."

Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Gopi on March 19, 2015, 3:17 GMT

    Raina is the best fielder in the Indian side in any format of the game. And he comes in toward the end of an innings and takes risks with his batting. I like people who take risks and that's why he is my favorite player in the Indian side. I hope this unnecessary article does not put any sort of "negative" pressure on him.

  • Sam Kamatidar on March 19, 2015, 2:54 GMT

    Hope Rains's rain of runs continue...

  • Dummy4 on March 19, 2015, 2:41 GMT

    Raina, Irrespective of his contribution from now on , Is the heart of the ODI achievements for last 5 to 7 years. He is a total team players with useful tactical hitting down the order + useful bowling and exceptional fielding and above all always a team player He is. Team-India owes him a lot.

  • Dummy4 on March 19, 2015, 2:03 GMT

    Undoubtedly,he is a match winner.He is a perfect all rounder.

  • Swastik on March 19, 2015, 1:56 GMT

    People mentioning Yuvraj: nobody is saying that Yuvraj isn't a legend; his being dropped from the World Cup doesn't mean he isn't a legend. We all love him and his status in Indian Cricket is beyond question. However, he has to back things up with performance. After 2012, he isn't half the player (again, there's no point being emotional; yes, he was a legend).

    You don't make a team around some players; you couldn't have imagined Yuvraj in this WC. He needs to go on some 'A' tours, perform in England or Australia and then he can come back. For results, our approach needs to be professional, not sentimental.

  • Swastik on March 19, 2015, 1:50 GMT

    Raina has been such a wonderful cricketer for us. But since we measure contributions in centuries and flashiness, he falls short. He's also young and should take over the finisher's mantle from Dhoni. I'm a big fan and I've said a lot about him in these sections.

    One thing that would work against him, though, is that now Cricket is coming to terms with finishers like ABDV and Maxwell who can be outrageously good with their strokes. That's where someone like Raina could lose out. For him not to, he would have to be consistently good (with a high strike rate) and hope nobody comes up from India with the unorthodox finishing skills of Maxwell or an ABDV.

    For anything else, Raina would be one of the first names of my team sheet. A brilliant fielder, useful bowler, and can strike big. Plus, he's a team man.

  • Arvind on March 18, 2015, 21:16 GMT

    @MA.JAT: I love your sense of humor :D

  • Dummy4 on March 18, 2015, 21:06 GMT

    Raina is a good player no doubt. But I just miss the arrogance of Yuvraj. Raina seems a little hurried at times. Given the fact he does not get that many opportunities in ODI to bat much at times he just tries too hard to prove himself. Number four will be a good place for him to bat. Considering jadeja's form with bowling having Yuvraj in the team may not be a bad idea. Have Yuvi in the team play 7 genuine batsman. You can score 330 in any match and any target is chase able. India should try this in 20 -20 first where now any bowler is going for lot of runs, just 4 overs from part timers may not be a bad idea with an extra batsman in.

  • HARSH on March 18, 2015, 20:37 GMT

    @ADI133, you got to be kidding me. Having fun in IPL is one thing and scoring in worldcup a different matter. Raina is going to be floater in ODIs at best.

  • Dummy4 on March 18, 2015, 20:27 GMT

    That is as unfair an article as i have seen. If there was one person who was consistently responsible for india's ODI performances it is suresh raina. He is one of the unspoken heroes. A good example in Wc 2011 against Australia although Yuvi's innings was hailed as match winning raina made a priceless cameo of 34 off 28 balls. His innings of 34 against Pak was crucial to the team's win. Although he does not get big scores they are far more valuable than 50's or hundreds. His average during Ind wins is 47 (95.3 SR) across both home/away wins between 2005-2014. In away matches his avg. during wins is over 50 (103 SR). More importantly in wins during chases his average is a stellar 59.5 (101 SR) which is as good as any no 5/6 in the game. His consistency over the last ten years has almost gone unnoticed and it is a disservice to his capabilities that he is not recognized as one of the key ingredients of India's ODI successes.

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