Is Raina India's best No.5?
Suresh Raina is known for throwing himself around on the field, and even with only four men outside the circle, MS Dhoni trusts him enough to hand him the ball now and then. But do India believe he is the best man they have to walk in at 30 for 3 against Dale Steyn or Mitchell Johnson at the MCG in the 2015 World Cup? It is unusual for such a question to even be contemplated for a man who is 12 short of 200 ODIs. But the fact that it is being asked is revealing.
It is staggering for a batsman who is in his ninth year of international cricket to still have a major problem with the short ball. It is also staggering that a batsman with such a problem should have played as much top-grade cricket as Raina has. But this is not only about the short ball. Bouncer or not, Raina does not provide the confidence that he can last long enough to revive India from 30 for 3 against sustained, quality fast bowling away from subcontinent conditions.
The team management seems to have faith in him though, they recently thought of developing him as a back-up No.4 batsman for the World Cup. Raina had four innings at that position at home against Australia. Twice, he fell cheaply to Johnson's bouncer (he fell similarly to Adam Milne in Napier). In a terrible series for bowlers - 350-plus totals were hunted down twice with ease - Raina managed a highest of 39. That innings ended when he swiped at James Faulkner and mis-hit to third man.
That swipe over midwicket is probably Raina's defining stroke. It emphasises he is an aggressive player, that he does not like to be tied down. But if he bats at No.5 in Australia or South Africa, there will be days when he will have no choice but to be circumspect for a while. Does Raina have the patience and the skills to bide his time? Can he survive a few hostile overs from Johnson and Steyn? If after so many years, there are still doubts over that aspect of his game, then we probably know the answer.
The swipe is also symbolic of Raina for another reason. In India, he often comes in when quick runs are needed. There is little problem with swiping everything over midwicket at the death. But do India want a No.5 ODI batsman whose primary skill is that?
It might pass at home where the top order more often than not sets up games. But to have so much belief in a man, who often needs a senior partner at the other end, seems difficult to justify. Especially when India have one of the greatest limited-overs batsmen ever to follow Raina at No. 6. Dhoni not only finishes games better than Raina does, he also rebuilds and revives without much discomfort. Tellingly, Raina manages just over 28 outside Asia with three fifties. Dhoni averages nearly 42 with 16 half-centuries. And he also promotes himself ahead of Raina at times.
Dhoni did that in the second ODI in Hamilton. Raina came in at No.6, when the asking-rate was quite high. He fell after clubbing 35 off 22.
Dhoni sounded satisfied with the effort. "It was a certain kind of game that was demanded of him [Raina] in this particular innings," he said. "It was good. He is someone who plays aggressive cricket but it is important to control your mind as to what are the areas you want to hit. If it is not there, [your have to see] what are the options you have got. It is not like you want to try and hit something, [and] even if is not there you go for a big shot. That was something he did particularly well in this innings. Hopefully he will gather plenty of confidence after this innings and carry on longer."
The point, however, is whether Raina has the game to last longer when conditions and situations are difficult? Or are India happy to go to the World Cup with a No.5 whose strongest suit is scoring quick, late runs? That is, if he manages to survive the inevitable early bouncer barrage.
If Dhoni feels the need to come in at No.5 ahead of Raina, India might be better off picking someone like Stuart Binny at No.6. He will give them a seam-bowling option, something Raina cannot. And he might not do much worse than Raina is at present with the bat.
Abhishek Purohit is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo