South Africa v India, 2nd Test, Durban December 24, 2010

Raina's woes put Pujara in the frame

If the management thinks Suresh Raina might not be up for it on a green, bouncy track, it will make sense to look beyond him for the next two games, especially since they will want him confident ahead of the World Cup

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on December 26, 2010, 7:05 GMT

    I think Raina Has given more chances to prove him,but he is not prove he is so bad against the short pitch bowling,so u should give chance to others and take crucial decision at tough times,it gives good results for u,Pujara has good technique,so he should be given a go,to see the result.Pujara has temprament,and good at short pitch bowling,let us wait and see,india is in trouble to win this test match,and prove they r no1 side.All the best for India.

  • Vinoth on December 26, 2010, 6:19 GMT

    No doubt between Raina or Pujara.... For T20 or ODI it should be Raina but TESTS it should be only PUJARA PUJARA PUJARA PUJARA PUJARA PUJARA PUJARA for Sure...................... He is such a talented Test Player, hungry for Runs and India needs to make the full use of him.

  • Dummy4 on December 26, 2010, 6:02 GMT

    without raina, and with gauti doubtful, its going to be a completely one-dimensional batting unit, full of right-handers.. this makes the SA job easier.

  • vipul on December 26, 2010, 5:27 GMT

    There is someone called YUVRAJ SINGH as well.... It was him whose place was taken by Raina and if Raina is going to lose that place, then it should be thrown back at Yuvraj once again, who never got a fair chance in test matches... We need every bit of him if we want to get the cup... We need him to be confident... we need to give him some games... not because of his reputation.. but because he deserves....

  • JIGNESH on December 26, 2010, 4:03 GMT

    Of course Pujara is the best choice for middle order. Raina is only and only good for short formats like 20/20s, and may be for ODIs. Moreover, If India plays against the team which has more spinners in the team, Raina would be the perfect batsman. Raina cannot play any short ball of very fast bowling. There are 2 more options for middle order as A Rhane and A Mukund for the middle order. @ Suresh Mudalier, the only reason, you favors the Raina because your and Raina's first name is same. But it doesn't change the fact that Raina is not for Test format because in Tests, more than half of the balls in every over bowl short. Pujara carries the first class average over 62, and we all seen his pull shots and temperament against the fairly good Australian bowlers. So, there should not be more discussion needed. But don't worry, because captain-Dhoni wouldn't drop his close friend-Raina as long as Raina selected in 15 men squad because Raina helps him a lot when Dhoni's wife is not around

  • Steve on December 26, 2010, 2:18 GMT

    Raina is best suited for short format especially suited to slower pitches and hot weather conditions where the ball doesn't do much in the air or off pitch where he can hit thro' the line without fear like in sub-continent. On bouncier pitches in SA, Aus, WI or even Eng, he will struggle. I am afraid he might turn out to be another Yuvi for Tests. Need to maintain horses for courses in these times. Pujara or Vijay are better bets than Rain for Tests outside sub-continent.

  • Dummy4 on December 25, 2010, 23:37 GMT

    Hope Dhoni gets Pujara in atleast now.....

  • Dummy4 on December 25, 2010, 18:52 GMT

    what the hell everyone say raina scored century on debut and plays in pressure situation like that in champions leaugue.he scored century in a pitch where there cant be results even if played for 8 days.coming to champions league and ipl performance international cricket is different from ipl.has he won matches like yuvi and kaif did in natwest series in england?indian selectors are really horrible!! cheteshwar pujara reallly deserves a chance

  • sudayvan on December 25, 2010, 18:03 GMT

    Every one loves to hate the Australians but look at how they select?? If you don't perform then they drop you, easy has that. In the case of India i think that politics play a big role. Cricket should be run by ex cricketers. There are a lot of things that we the fans of cricket don't know because the media don't report on it. decisions need to be made for the good of the team.The main selectors of the team is the BCCI then the captain and coach who have a say but when the team tours it is the captain the coach and the senior platers that will select the team unless they are instructed to play a certain team. I think that come after the world cup there will be a few guys that will retire it is going to be a sad day, but it time for some new blood.

  • Dummy4 on December 25, 2010, 17:47 GMT

    Rohit Sharma needs to be given a shot sometime soon ! .. Raina shld be dropped because he needs to be at the top of his game during WC .. if his confidence dropss .. India in TROUBLE for WC !

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