Stepping it up in style
After the hard yards had been gained painfully, inch by inch, Suresh Raina decided that it was time to shed the cloak of caution and enthrall a crowd that had spent the best part of the afternoon chanting in vain for fours and sixes that never came. Having thumped a six over long-on and taken 11 from the 44th over bowled by Ian Blackwell, Raina steadied himself to face Kabir Ali, so impressive in a four-wicket spell at Delhi.
A superb square-drive pumped up the volume, and there was delirium when it was followed by an audacious scoop to the fine-leg fence. A dot ball then created a brief lull before a gorgeous cover-drive emphatically tilted the game in India's favour. When Irfan Pathan's flick over the infield sealed the deal minutes later, Raina was unbeaten on 81 from 89 balls, having accelerated effortlessly from a 69-ball half-century.
Of the 14 successful run chases that have allowed this young side to draw level with Clive Lloyd's immortals, this was easily among the most satisfying. Several of the pursuits against Sri Lanka, and all four in Pakistan, had ultimately been stroke-filled romps for a side whose batting depth is now the envy of many. But on a sluggish Faridabad pitch where taking the pace off the ball stymied those with a penchant for playing shots, two of India's premier flair players saw them home with a partnership that was all about grit and application.
It's sometimes easy to forget that Raina is only 19, and that he has replaced a man who was perhaps India's second-greatest one-day batsman - Sourav Ganguly. With space at a premium in the middle order, and the ridiculous Supersub-rule necessitating tactical adjustments, his opportunities since the baptism-by-doosra against Muttiah Muralitharan have been severely rationed. But even then, the odd cameo was more than enough to convince many that Greg Chappell's assessment - the coach reckons that he has it in him to be a future great - was spot on.
At Pune last November, he and Mahendra Singh Dhoni ensured a series win over Sri Lanka with an 82-run partnership that spanned just 11.1 overs - after a sudden collapse had left India teetering at 180 for 6. Till this afternoon, that nerveless 39 had been the focal point of Raina's international highlights reel, overshadowing the elegant 35 that had enlivened the five-wicket triumph at Multan.
On a pitch not suited to Dhoni's frenetic approach, Raina was forced to take the initiative once India had lost five wickets for 31 against the unheralded Liam Plunkett and Blackwell. With the ball stopping and turning, and the odd one keeping low, it was apparent that steady accumulation rather than hell-for-leather was the correct approach. For two relatively inexperienced players, curtailing their natural instincts can't have been easy, but they did so with aplomb, getting within range with plenty of scampered singles and hurried twos.
And on a day when no one - not even the record-equalling Kevin Pietersen - batted with any particular fluency, there were several miscues and close calls as well. There was the odd impetuous hoick against the line, but by and large Raina gathered his runs with the straight-bat strokes that the pitch and situation demanded. He had his moment of luck on 20, when a half-hearted prod at a James Anderson delivery was spilled by the bowler's arm slamming into the ground as he lost balance.
Thereafter, a couple of strokes screamed of a truly extraordinary talent. Plunkett's return to the attack was greeted with a nonchalant loft over midwicket, and when Flintoff came round the wicket, he stroked one insouciantly over mid-on to move closer to 50. At the other end, Dhoni had blocked out six-requests and eased into the supporting-actor role, not striking a four - a cheeky paddled reverse-sweep - until the 43rd delivery that he faced.
Ultimately, England's lack of a second spinner, and Paul Collingwood's inability to do an Ian Harvey, meant that a determined and committed effort came to naught. They can take consolation, however scant it may be, from the fact that they were denied by an exceptional innings from a very special young player. Sachin Tendulkar may be recuperating from surgery, and Ganguly airbrushed out of the big picture, but the composure and hunger that Raina showed today suggests that the future is bright with promise, rather than tinged with fear.
Dileep Premachandran is features editor of Cricinfo