Suresh Raina is enjoying his game more than ever January 11, 2009

Bright end of a dark street

Suresh Raina looks back at his worst year, 2007, as a blessing in disguise

Suresh Raina believes he has gained plenty from the dark days of 2007, and is eying a spot in India's Test side © AFP

For Suresh Raina, 2007 was the year of the devil. He had lost the feel for the game after being bedridden for six months due to a knee injury but slowly found the strength to fight his way back. He would sneak out of his Lucknow house on crutches to visit his boarding school. There, he would stand behind the nets for hours, watching the kids play cricket and try and get the love for the game back.

"Cricket sab bhool gaya tha ("I had forgotten all about cricket"), being out of action for six months," says Raina about his annus horribilis. "I used to stand behind the nets and watch the kids play. I had to get back the feel for the game. Even my mother - we are a very emotional family - didn't know I was going and seeing that. It was a very difficult time."

It must have been a bewilderingly confusing time for the youngster, who had already been hyped as the next big thing in Indian cricket. He was dropped after a poor one-day series in South Africa in 2006, and his comeback bid was hampered when he suffered the knee injury, during a Deodhar Trophy match in February 2007.

Faith in god and the family's support kept him going. Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar gave him some confidence to continue. "I was out of the game for one-and-a-half-years. The BCCI supported me during that time and I spoke to a couple senior players like Tendulkar and Dravid, who helped me. They told me to not to hurry the rehab."

Get fit first was the message. Thankfully, Raina listened. He remembers the help of the physio Chandan Chawla who put him through an ultimately successful programme. It wasn't all smooth sailing though.

In an interview with the Hindustan Times in August 2007, Raina had shared some of his frustrations about the lack of a recovery chart. He compared the Indian situation with the kind of treatment injured players get abroad. "But here… forget it! Look at [Lakshmipathy] Balaji or [Ashish] Nehra. They got injured and where are they now?" he said then. There were endless visits to doctors and physiotherapists before Raina slowly got a grip of his fitness programme. He trained hard for a couple of hours in the morning, then did cardio and weight training. Slowly, Raina's body began to respond and his muscles strengthened. He went to play in the leagues in England. The cobwebs of self-doubt cleared from his mind, he found hitting the ball wasn't as difficult as he thought it would be in those dark days.

Raina looks back at those days as a blessing in disguise. It doesn't seem to be the fatal philosophy of 'whatever happens, happens for the good'; it is more a journey to manhood. "I learnt a lot about life during those up and down times. I am in better shape mentally now. I got to know people better after that. Before I used to be like … Just come, play cricket, and go. I matured off the field during that time. I understood my game better. I didn't think about being called a fringe player and whether I would get a chance or not. I think if you perform, you will get everything."

I am in better shape mentally now. I got to know people better after that time. Before that I used to be like …. Just come, play cricket, and go. I matured off the field during that time. I understood my game better.
Raina watched India's disastrous World Cup campaign on television and saw how the team lacked support when it lost. Another small life lesson about a cricketer's life was learnt. Meanwhile, his own fortunes started to turn. He had a very good Challenger Series and followed it up with a good Ranji Trophy season. "Things started to go well from there on. I became more positive," he says.

Then the IPL happened. Raina was suddenly brushing shoulders with the likes of Matthew Hayden, Michael Hussey and Stephen Fleming. He scored 421 runs for the Chennai Super Kings, with three half-centuries at a strike-rate of 142.71, and his performances in the IPL undoubtedly helped in his recall to the one-day side.

"Fleming, especially, was a great help for mental strength and preparation," says Raina. "We used to go together for dinners and talk about stuff. Then I did well in the Asia Cup and on the Sri Lanka tour against Ajantha Mendis."

During the Asia Cup in Pakistan, where he made two centuries - three years after making his debut - to finish as the second-highest run-scorer in the tournament, Raina spoke to India's coach Gary Kirsten, who he says helped him take the journey forward. "He thinks about each player. He spent a lot of time with me and Rohit Sharma and gave us lots of confidence. Jo missing tha voh uske baad upar ho gaya, ("What was missing in confidence shot up after that encounter"). I decided to go there and enjoy the game."

With the seniors retiring, spots are up for grabs in the Test team. Yuvraj Singh grabbed his chance in the series against England and Raina doesn't believe that the likes of Rohit are ahead of him in the race. "I am not behind. I am playing well. Whenever I get the opportunity, I will do well. I have done well in ODIs and am looking for opportunities in Tests. The thing is to enjoy the whole process."

The enjoyment returned but England, led by Andrew Flintoff, tried to develop a crack by peppering Raina with bouncers in the last few games. Raina, however, sees no cause for concern. "There is nothing like that. Just on that day and wicket, if that shot doesn't come on well, it doesn't mean I don't have the shot. I play drives, pulls and have all the shots. I just have to get the big knocks coming through again."

The big knocks eluded him this Ranji season. "I played two or three crucial knocks. Even in the quarterfinal I hit a crucial 83," he says. "The last season I scored big hundreds and this season I haven't scored big knocks, but it's not as if I have played badly. I have played well and got out. That's important. And I am happy that I have contributed for the team this season.. Hopefully, in this final, I will get the big one."

Sriram Veera is a staff writer at Cricinfo