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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • david on September 23, 2011, 16:15 GMT

    perhaps if the bcci put more attention to test match cricket, and were not so insular. i know the the owners of the T20 need the razz mo tazz of instant cricket to sell their products. but the money that the board get, more should be spent on test or3/4 day cricket. they need to send the guys that they think will make the grade as batters and bowlers at test level, to to the uk as a development squad. they will get the sort of conditions. that will make them better players. zaheer khan playing county cricket said it made him a better bowler. india need their younger players to get out of their comfort zone. learn your trade and then you can start making big bucks. make a young guy at 20 a millionaire. hes not going to want to play other than T20. dpk

  • umar on September 21, 2011, 19:42 GMT

    Most of the ppl think that India's miserable performance in England is because of thier weak Bowling attack, but as ive seen its because their batters didnt perfrom as they should,there are certain reasons for this first of all is their ageing batting line up,likes of sachin, dravid, laxman, sehwag these r all gr8s of cricket, but these are not young enough, they have acheived what they want in their career,so first of all Team India requires energy in the field in the form of fresh n young blood,india is always been famous for its strong batting line ups,but sorry to say that last complete batsman inducted in the indian team is Gautam Gambhir(who is also facing injury problems),and its a shame that country of that(high class)batting stature is now producing only T20 players coz youngsters are now idealising those players who are zero in their technique but can hit boundaries and get handsome want another sachin then youngesters with good bat techniques should be in team.

  • Ram on September 21, 2011, 16:20 GMT

    Raina needs to be given much less workload in the shorter format and must not play more than 10 T20 matches an year. We need to shield all guys who can play tests. More than batsmen India need bowlers. An average batting side that scores 300 on average can stil win many matches if there are world class bowlers. A super batting team that scores 500 is no good if the bowlers concede 600 easily. India can get along with this batting, and I am sure they will be guided by the senior players like Dravid and Sachin. It is the bowlers that are the real concern right now.

  • Dummy4 on September 21, 2011, 14:58 GMT

    the most important thing is we need fast bowlers who can bowl consistently over 140 and yet move the ball.I dont think somebody like irfan phatha,zaheer,ishant or munaf does not know this. yet why the have reduced their it because what we got at this english tour happens once in four years or they know that in subcontinent conditions which are unforgiving for fast bowlers there is no way to deliver..i mean in a calender we play most of the matches in our pitches..

  • Jay on September 21, 2011, 13:27 GMT

    The topic could be rephrased: "Will Raina succeed in Tests?" instead of "Why does Raina fail?" - which implies good ODI/T20 players can't succeed in Tests. It's debatable. Both Sehwag & Yuvraj debuted in ODIs 2-3 years before Tests. Viru has a better Test record; the other way for Yuvi. Raina's an established ODI/T20 player: 6 years vs. just 1 in Tests. Only 24, he's still learning & maturing: Work-in-Progress. Like all elite players, he has to work hard to correct his flaws. Yes, he can train at the NCA; play county cricket; & so on. Ultimately, only he can solve his own problems. For sure, he's a talented player, a fielding stand-out, with a rare leadership quality. His best is still ahead. Will he do it in Tests? Only time will tell. Just ask Dravid. BTW, Lehman was a total bust, helped trigger the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Rahul is a priceless cricket asset, helping lift Team India, along with Sachin, Sourav & Co, to great heights. Humpty Dumpty Dileep?

  • Jay on September 21, 2011, 13:10 GMT

    Dravid is a fine mentor. Listen again, this time in the midst of an intense contest in WI. How many times did we see Rahul walk across to calm down younger batsmen. In his own words: "You have to weather the storm, the intensity of a particular spell, that will last for 6-10 overs. In Test cricket you need to to fight your way through that, and then things will become easier. You can get caught up a bit with things happening in the middle, people making a lot of noise, the ball flying around or spinning past you ... I have committed that mistake, and thinking becomes really hard. But if you fight your way through that period, things will become a bit easier, like a bowling change or the bowlers will get tired." He knows what it takes to start/build an innings. Hopefully this invaluable advice won't be lost on the young guns. Especially Raina, who experienced Rahul's mentoring first-hand in both tours: On & off the field, over 2-3 months, through thick & thin. Any better way to learn?

  • Jay on September 21, 2011, 12:58 GMT

    Dileep -- Here you go again with a premature rush to judgment - this time about Raina, just as you did with Dravid in 2008. Remember you wrote off Rahul as "most likely to go the Lehman Brothers way"? It's obvious you can't tell the difference between Wall Street & The Wall. Worse, you're no different from those "Headline-writers" you accuse of making a "decent living from variations on 'The Wall is Crumbling'." You've been proven dead wrong. Now you're upholding the same Dravid as the role model for Raina to emulate. I'm glad you do. Listen to Rahul reveal his time-tested recipe for games: "There are 4 or 5 boxes I need to tick every time (before a game): Physical fitness, technical skills, mental preparation, and how I am feeling emotionally & spiritually. Sometimes you get the results, sometimes you don't. That's life, that's sport." He's been there, done that. Note Rahul's use of the key-word "sometimes" - yet you criticise Suresh's use, call him a "Test misfit." That's not right.

  • Kunal on September 21, 2011, 12:14 GMT

    It's sad players like Suresh Raina will always be questioned in Tests, especially when there are the Badris and Pujaras willing to run the hard yards in the longer version. But at one glance, Raina's strokeplay suggests he's got game. That means, he is to be moulded. And he need look no further than Steve Waugh's game before 1991, and after that year when he was dropped in favour of Mark Waugh. Steve came back a different batsman, much to the chagrin of observers like Ian Chappell. But Waugh made that comeback count. It's funny that, in India, we have seen two kinds of transformations. A Test batsman like Rahul Dravid had to accelerate his game for ODIs. Now, Raina needs to do the exact opposite: endure his batting-class for the Test format. He sure got game.

  • ashok on September 21, 2011, 11:39 GMT

    he is definitely not a test material, but if nurtured, he can really become one...

  • Dominic on September 21, 2011, 10:24 GMT

    @Arvind Raj - Cook has also scored test centuries against: Warne, McGrath and Clarke (albeit at the very end of stellar careers and after a pretty torrid time early in the 2006 Ashes debacle); Kumble and Singh (on debut); Vaas, Malinga and Muralitharan; Steyn, Morkel and Ntini and Amir and Asif among others. It's a very fair article that talks about entire careers - it doesn't say that Raina is a bad batsman - he certainly isn't - just that, at the moment, he isn't a TEST batsman in the same way that Cook isn't an ODI batsman just yet, though there are encouraging signs that he's starting to adapt his game much better than in his first stint. Again it's down to preparation and balance in domestic/A-Tour etc. cricket, Cook has played in 89 List A games, including 36 in England colours (14 of outside of England) whereas in a longer career, Raina has played only 67 first class games including only 15 tests, of which only 8 have been played outside of subcontinental conditions.

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