September 20, 2011

Why does Raina fail?

It's easy to dismiss him as not being a Test player, but what if none of the upcoming players the system is producing are?

It was Suresh Raina's 15th game since his debut nine months earlier. He had batted in only seven of them, and when he marked his guard at the Nahar Singh Stadium in Faridabad, India were 80 for 4 and listing in pursuit of England's 226. Yuvraj Singh's exit made it 92 for 5, with nearly half the overs gone. The game was eventually sealed with six balls to spare, and Raina finished unbeaten on 81 from 89 balls.

In the Guardian, Lawrence Booth wrote of "a cricketer of such frightening potential that a nation's collective frown about life after Sachin Tendulkar might even begin to ease". Raina finished the series with two more sprightly half-centuries, in Margao and Indore. A couple of months later, when the Wisden Cricketer magazine put together a list of 10 young cricketers to watch over the coming decade, his name was on the list.

Five summers on, we heard an entirely different tune. From senior journalists to the fan on the street, everyone seemed to have an opinion about Raina's technique against the short ball. Until a couple of fine innings in the one-day series, there were no press clippings worth saving, just one unkind or disparaging word after another.

Another young man started the Test series with scores of 12, 1, 2 and 5. But Alastair Cook's summer will ultimately be remembered for two centuries against Sri Lanka and the monumental 294 against India at Edgbaston. Though Cook is a couple of years older than Raina, the two are contemporaries. That they excel in two different formats of the game says as much about the environments they've been raised in as it does about the individuals.

Sir Francis Galton, who did so much research on "nature versus nurture", once said: "Nature is all that a man brings with himself into the world; nurture is every influence without that affects him after his birth."

The careers of Raina and Cook provide much insight into the making of a young cricketer. Raina made his first-class debut seven months before Cook, in February 2003, though he would become a regular only the next season, a little past his 17th birthday.

More than eight years on, he has played only 67 first-class matches, including 15 Tests. Cook's tally is a whopping 156, of which 72 have come in England whites. Raina has played nearly twice as many List A games (169 to 89) and more than three times as many Twenty20 matches (91 to 29).

A comparison here is quite instructive. Rahul Dravid, though he spent the bulk of the last 15 years on India duty, has played 134 first-class matches outside the Test crucible. A sizeable number of those came before his debut in 1996.

In May 2010, just before he led an inexperienced side to Zimbabwe, Raina spoke about his career path and his eagerness to play Test cricket - he would debut a couple of months later, in Colombo. When asked about the short ball, he was visibly agitated, attributing his travails to the formats he played in. "If you're chasing 190 [in a T20 game] and you have to score off every ball, you have to try all your shots," he said. "Sometimes they come off."

The key word there is "sometimes". During the one-day series in England, he hit some stunning fours and sixes when the bowlers dropped even fractionally short. But there were also several miscues, like the one that cost him his wicket at Sophia Gardens. So is he really a Test misfit or just someone whose game has been calibrated for the one-day arena?

During his 294, Cook faced 545 balls. Of those, 377 were either left alone or dead-batted to the nearby fielders. As much as the strokes he played and the concentration he showed over nearly 13 hours, the ease with which he left deliveries alone was noteworthy. The same was true of Dravid, who made three centuries in the Test summer. Whenever he played a loose stroke, he would admonish himself, take guard again and resist any other temptation that came his way.

Test-match techniques can't be learned in 50- and 20-over spans. And a first-class system that can guarantee only six or seven games over a couple of months isn't the best teacher either

Like Cook's, Dravid's game was grooved in the first-class school. He struggled initially in one-day colours because hitting over the top didn't come naturally to him. His was a compact technique that needed to be relaxed a little to adjust to the demands of the 50-over game. It's the same challenge that Cook faces now as he leads England in the one-day arena.

For Raina the task is diametrically opposite. In blue, he looks every inch a young man who knows his game and how to extract the most from it. In Test whites he comes across as someone who doesn't know what approach to take. It wasn't the short ball alone that troubled him in England. So wary was he of getting peppered with them that he'd be far back in his crease and in no position to negotiate full, swinging balls from the likes of James Anderson.

It's all too easy to dismiss someone like Raina as "not a Test player". But Indian cricket will face the same problem with youngsters who take his place. Test-match techniques can't be learned in 50- and 20-over spans. And a first-class system that can guarantee only six or seven games over a couple of months isn't the best teacher either.

Sending young players to play tournaments like the Emerging Players Trophy is a big step in the right direction. But there also need to be far more A team tours, especially to countries where the conditions are nothing similar to those found in most parts of India. A little time away from the limelight is no bad thing, as Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer proved after the sternest of baptisms against West Indies and South Africa. Raina, who works as hard as anyone, can certainly find his way.

"There was something about the way he batted," said Dravid, harking back to his first glimpse of Raina in the nets at the National Cricket Academy six years ago. "He was obviously a young, talented kid, and when he first came into the side a month later, you knew there was something different about him. He had the stroke-making ability and it seemed natural to back him."

Indian cricket needs to do that, but first people need to be honest about why Raina fails.

Dileep Premachandran is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo

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