Floater Raina's time to own high-speed lane
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