Raina: cheeky, yet calm under pressure
In mid-April last year, in the final of the Ranji Trophy one-day tournament at Mumbai, one batsman, touted by many as an India prospect, made a couple of selectors' jaw drop. He walked in at 12 for 1, with Uttar Pradesh chasing 249, spanked nine fours and a six in his 33-ball 48 before rushing off to catch a flight to complete his class 12 exams. One year on and he delivered a performance, on the international stage, that had both captains gushing. When Andrew Flintoff uses the word "fantastic" three times, you know you have witnessed something special.
Suresh Raina's was a calculated effort; one where sense blended beautifully with cheek. He made sure he cashed in on the lollypops; but occasionally summoned the courage to walk right across the stumps and execute lap sweeps to the vacant fine-leg region. "It was a tough time to bat when he came in at 90 odd for 5 but he got his head down," said Flintoff at the post-match press conference. "We tried to squeeze him and try and get him to hit through the off side but he stayed patient. He works hard for his runs and it was a fantastic knock."
The secret probably lies in the cricketing nurseries of Uttar Pradesh. Raina, like Mohammad Kaif before him, was groomed in the state's hostels and matches him not only on the field, but also with his calm temperament. "For a 19-year-old to have such a temperament is something special," said Dravid, who has used adjectives like "stupendous" and "extraordinary" in his past references to Raina. "He's an exciting talent and we're happy that he's developed into such a good player in his first year of international cricket."
Raina surged India to their 14th successful run-chase on the trot, a record that comes as a pleasant shift from the days when they invariably choked while faced with a target. "It's got a lot to do with the good learning environment we have," Dravid explained." These young guys have come in and shown that they enjoy pressure situations. It's also got to do with us trying to be flexible in the past. We have given the guys different challenges in different positions and it comes of use when put under pressure."
England might have gone down but Flintoff will be encouraged by the "mightily improved" batting performance after the Delhi debacle. "Andrew Strauss batted well at the start and I thought Kevin Pietersen played magnificently," Flintoff continued. "We can take a lot of heart from this performance, taking India down to the wire. Their bowlers tied us down and it wasn't an easy pitch to bat on. Ramesh Powar took the pace off the ball and we found it hard."
Powar's effort might have been overshadowed by Raina's spunk but it was an impressive return for a man playing in just his fifth one-day game. It must be tough to be perennially on the fringes but Powar, extracting considerable turn and varying his pace, showed virtues which had made him the highest wicket-taker in this year's Ranji Trophy. "I thought he bowled beautifully," said Dravid, "and with a bit more luck he could have had more wickets."
It was a triumph of sorts for Powar, ending with his best figures in one-dayers. One of cricket's strengths lies in accommodating men of all shapes and sizes, and the roly-poly Powar, sporting red goggles and increasingly looking like a modern-day Duleep Mendis, managed absolutely fine in athletic company. If one had to pick the moment of the day, it had to be when he tried to run-out Ian Blackwell, when the pillars in the stadium creaked and when every single gully cricketer silently applauded.
Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is staff writer of Cricinfo