Raina's woes put Pujara in the frame
Those who have followed Suresh Raina's career closely will think they are caught in a time warp. It was in November 2006 that he first played in South Africa. The game was an ODI in Durban, the same venue where India now strive to keep the series alive. Back then, the whole team collapsed alright, but the way Raina got out has become instructive. Andre Nel bowled a short-of-a-length delivery, around off, angling away, and Raina with his feet stuck poked at it away from the body, and Jacques Kallis accepted the offering at second slip.
That was all Raina could manage on that tour. He was sent back home mid-tour, and was not considered for the World Cup, India's next major assignment.
Four years later, just before another World Cup, Raina has come back to South Africa, and nothing seems to have changed. In Centurion, Kallis bowled short of a length, around off, Raina anticipated bouncers, didn't get close enough to the ball, and poked. Twice in one Test: edging one, and guiding the other to slips. Things, though, were supposed to have changed. In those four years, Raina has established himself as a dangerous batsman in limited-overs cricket. He has become one of the few batsmen in the world with a century in each of the three formats, including a Test ton on debut and 62 and 41 not out in his second, in a stiff chase. He has scored loads of runs in South Africa in the IPL and in the Champions League. Overall he has grown a lot in confidence. The way he got out in Centurion, though, remains a massive worry for India.
Moreover, Raina now has scores of 32, 3, 20, 3, 1 and 5 in his last six Test innings. Neither the captain nor the coach has tried to hide concern regarding his No. 6 position, especially given they are in the middle of their biggest challenge in Tests, and in a country where top-class bowling is bound to test Raina. And in Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Kallis, South Africa have top-class bowling that will go all out on a track whose primary feature is thick grass. However, the team management says it is yet to decide on whether to drop Raina.
We are always at risk of reading too much into nets sessions, but symbolism was easy to get into as India practised two days before the Boxing Day Test. After the warm-up, Gary Kirsten kneeled down to give slips practice to what has now become a regular cordon of Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman, Raina and Virender Sehwag. A few hits into that session, Raina was hit in the ankle by a half-volley. Soon Dravid went to the physio for some attention to his finger, and in came Cheteshwar Pujara, the man who should be the obvious replacement if the team management decides against Raina, to take slip catches.
By the time Raina got repair work done and came into the nets, Pujara was already batting with the regular middle order in the nets either side of him. Raina even bowled a few loopy offbreaks to Pujara, which the latter played comfortably. And when Raina did get a bat - which does suggest that that hit on the ankle didn't do much damage - he found Pujara in the net on his off side. Pujara remained in his eye-line, and there is no doubt Pujara is in the eye-line of the team-management.
However, as Pink Floyd asked Eugene to be, this team has - barring exceptions like Abhimanyu Mithun - been careful with that axe. MS Dhoni's funda has been to give a player enough chances before dropping him so that he can look beyond the said player without thinking of him. A three-Test series, though, hardly gives him that luxury, especially when his side is 0-1 down already.
It is an important decision for Dhoni, Kirsten and the senior players to make going into perhaps their most important Test match. If they do persist with Raina, it could have larger implications. For he is sure to play in the ODIs on this tour, which - going by evidence so far - is more of his game. And Raina is a confidence player. His strength is to make the most of it when the going is good for him. If the management thinks Raina might not be up for it on a green, bouncy Test track, it will make absolute sense to look beyond him for the next two games. There is a World Cup in home conditions to follow after this testing tour, where they will want Raina to be at the top of his confidence.
Before coming to South Africa, Raina said, "To succeed in Tests, your temperament is more important than your technique. How you handle pressure situations and how you work your way out of trouble through grit and courage is also important." If he plays a further part in this series, Raina will need all that grit and courage, for the technique has already been found wanting.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at Cricinfo