January 15, 2012

'I want to play at least 80 Tests'

Suresh Raina may have made his name as a short-form specialist but it's the five-day game he wants to leave his mark on - question marks over technique or not

Suresh Raina's Test career, according to some, is as good as over. Everyone has an opinion on his phobia of bouncers, and how it contributed to his dismissals in England. The last rites may be administered by full-length deliveries, but the short ball has already done for him mentally, they say.

Raina could choose to respond to his critics by reeling off stats that tell a slightly different tale. He could point to the 78 tough runs he made at Lord's, weathering England's No. 1 bowler, James Anderson, in the middle of his best spell of the summer. He could point to his exemplary performance in the Tests in the West Indies, in conditions where India didn't get to 300 even once. He can point out that Graeme Swann's offspin dismissed him more often in England than the short stuff did. Several cricketers are known to take refuge in the comfort of numbers, but Raina isn't one of them. "I am not going to offer any excuses," he says of his shortcomings. "Yes, I failed in England and everyone has spoken about my technique. It wasn't for lack of preparation - we went to West Indies straight after the World Cup and the IPL. Many seniors missed that tour, but I was lucky to play all three Tests, and scored fifties in each of those matches. I was ready for England, but for some reason things did not work out."

Raina is also acutely aware of the poor luck that has dogged him. He was denied the benefit of doubt on a stumping call in the first innings at The Oval, and given lbw off an inside edge in the second. History, however, will only remember that Raina made a pair in that Test. Remind him of it and he smiles before pointing out that the misfortune began in the West Indies itself. "In the Jamaica Test, I was batting well with Rahul [Dravid] in the second innings when Daryl Harper gave me out caught off the pad," he recalls. In the next Test, in Barbados, he had made a fifty after India were 38 for 4. "I thought I can score a big hundred, but Asad Rauf gave me another wrong decision. And then there was The Oval.

"But you can't complain about these things. I know I wasn't up to the mark in England. I know I am good enough to make a comeback, and it has got all to do with the mental approach. I have confidence in my technique."

The solutions to Raina's problems aren't easily apparent. His regular presence in India's one-day side restricted his involvement in the current Ranji Trophy to just four matches. He hit his maiden double-century in the season opener, but runs on India's dustbowls aren't the best indicators of an improving technique against bounce. Raina believes that retooling his game in foreign conditions will equip him better to deal with his failings. India's packed limited-overs schedule and the BCCI's reluctance to grant its players permission to take on assignments in county cricket, though, will make that difficult.

"I am enjoying my form right now and want to play as much as I can abroad, even if it is not international cricket," Raina says. "I wish I can go and play county cricket, since that will improve my confidence and approach. At my age I need to play more and more matches in different conditions. But there's not much time given the amount of international cricket. First you have the one-dayers in Australia, which I expect to play, then the Asia Cup, the IPL for one and a half months, and a tour of Sri Lanka."

Raina was in impressive form on the ODI leg of the England tour, often slamming the pacy short balls that had him hopping in the Tests to the midwicket boundary. There were fewer bouncers and close-in catchers to contend with, allowing him to enjoy the freedom that has come to characterise his short-form batting, but he was also helped by having been in England for nearly three months by the time the ODIs began. Raina hopes he has enough time to get used to the conditions before the tri-series in Australia, where he has yet to play an international game; he is hoping to be able to go over early and play some practice games before the one-dayers.

"I have spoken to Duncan [Fletcher] about this," he says. "I have also had a lot of talk with Andy Bichel [who is part of the coaching set-up at Raina's Chennai Super Kings IPL franchise] about what to expect in Australia, and to get mentally prepared."

For India, the Test leg of the Australia tour has begun in a fashion worryingly reminiscent of the England tour. Virat Kohli has struggled after replacing Raina at No. 6, but batsmen far more experienced have also looked out of their depth. Raina believes the youngsters need to be persisted with, regardless of teething troubles, and made to play alongside their more illustrious team-mates in order to facilitate the eventual change of guard.

"You need to rely on juniors," Raina says. "Virat, Rohit [Sharma] and myself have done well in one-dayers, but it is Test cricket that is always in your mind. I have learned a lot from all the great players, like Sachin paaji, Dravid, Laxman, Dhoni, and even from Anil Kumble and Sourav Ganguly.

"I have never seen Dhoni sledge, whatever the situation, and that's an important lesson for a youngster. These players are so focused, mentally composed, and they never panic. They are all great believers in work ethic, and you pick up these habits when you play with them."

As far as fielding goes, Raina is the one teaching the others the good habits. While the new crop of cricketers has visibly lifted India's fielding standards, Raina is by far the most versatile of the lot, especially inside the circle.

"Celebration is big for me. From my younger days, when I used to win mementos while playing basketball, I have always believed in sharing my success. It has to be there. It lifts the energy levels of the entire side if you are positive"

"I met Jonty Rhodes and he said he thought I was the best fielder in India, which I am extremely proud of," he says. "When you know everyone thinks so highly about your fielding, you need to set an example. For me, fielding is everything - it is a passion that comes from within. You can get a bad ball while you bat, and your bowling may not always be up there, but you are completely in control of how well you field.

"When Gary [Kirsten] became the coach, there was a lot of talk about us becoming the best batting side or best bowling side in the world. Gary said, 'Why can't we be the No. 1 fielding side in the world?' and that's something that has stayed with me.

"If you reach that level, then no one can beat you, even if you are defending just 240 runs. Virat, Manoj [Tiwary], Jaddu [Ravindra Jadeja], Ajinkya [Rahane] and Rohit are all brilliant fielders. So when all of us are playing together, batsmen will find it very difficult to take liberties and pinch singles."

Another striking aspect of Raina's cricket is the energy he exudes on the field, and the joy he derives from the success of his team-mates. India were often a deflated unit in England, but Raina at short cover was almost always chirpy and pumping up the bowlers, at a time when he must have been mentally weighed down by his own lack of form.

"Celebration is big for me," Raina explains. "From my younger days, when I used to win mementos while playing basketball, I have always believed in sharing my success. It has to be there. It lifts the energy levels of the entire side if you are positive and vocal when a wicket falls. That attitude played a major role during the World Cup."

At times, Raina's on-field exuberance seems to go overboard, as it did during an IPL game when he nearly pulled out the hapless Doug Bollinger's hair implants after the latter had taken a wicket. Raina has a good laugh when he's reminded of the incident.

"That was funny for everyone. How was I expected to know that he had implants? Bolly later told me: 'The next time you touch my hair I'll kill you!' It was all in good spirit, but the next time he got a wicket, I didn't go near him. I have that video saved on my iPad, and whenever he is down I show it to him and we have a good laugh."

Dangerous limited-overs batsman, electric fielder, partnership breaker, genuine team man - Raina has assumed several roles in his young international career. But he's hungry to reclaim the one that has slipped out of his grasp for now.

"Test cricket is the only thing that counts," he says. "One-day and T20 performances are fine, but you rate a player by his status as a Test player. By the time I finish, I want to play at least 80 Tests and be known for my achievements in Tests."

Nitin Sundar is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo