Raina's convincing first step
He may not be the best player of the short ball, but you will not find Suresh Raina lacking in effort and willingness to apply himself. It has been for all to see that among the breed of emerging batsmen in India, Raina is the most desperate to succeed. That quality, in a flashy and flamboyant batsman such as him, is rare to find. It is pleasing to see him get a century on Test debut. Like the debut, the century was well earned.
By the age of 23, Raina had seen the whole spectrum even without playing Test cricket. From the Next Big Thing to Greg Chappell's boy, to the IPL star, to the man who couldn't play the bouncer, to the captain who forgot to notify the umpire of the Powerplay, Raina has been through a lot. In between a knee injury put him in a state where he had forgotten "all about cricket", when he would watch kids at nets, while on crutches, just to get "back a feel for the game".
Raina also held the dubious record of having played the most ODIs before being considered good enough for Tests. He couldn't find a place even in the Board President's XI when South Africa toured India earlier this year. For a man making his debut in these circumstances - coming in during another Indian collapse on a tour of collapses - the flat track couldn't have been as flat as it has been for the others.
Raina, though, had made a positive statement even before he laid hands on the bat. When the Indian bowlers lacked inspiration, when the captain lacked imagination, when fielders lacked energy, Raina stood out, diving, charging, hustling, saving nearly 30 runs in the field. All through those 642 runs, one man showed there was no place that he would rather be. On a tour like this, when the famed batting line-up has tended to buckle under pressure, India could do with such intentions.
But a good fielder does not a Test cricketer make. Raina's chance with the bat would come, though, with Sachin Tendulkar looking for a partner to take India to safety and keep the series alive. Bouncers would be bowled, slog-sweeps would be fret upon, his patience would be tested. Forget the pitch, Raina passed the temperament test. He wasn't in a hurry when Sri Lanka were on the defensive, and when they attacked he duly found the gaps.
There was evidence that Raina had worked on how he played the short stuff. Admittedly Dilhara Fernando's bouncers, aimed at the ribs but misdirected often, were not the best a batsman will have to face, but there were signs Raina had made a conscious attempt to get slightly inside the line and stay out of harm's way. There was enough patience shown in not going for a desperate pull or hook. When he did fend, he kept them down.
Against the spinners Raina took charge. He was solid when he patted balls back to the bowler, decisive when he left them alone, and emphatic with his use of feet. Only when he and Tendulkar had averted danger did Raina play his favourite aerial shots. The first six, over wide long off, was beautiful to watch, the other, over midwicket, was a reminder he can attack in Tests too.
Praise doesn't come higher than what Tendulkar said of his partner-in-rescue. "He showed tremendous character. Tremendous all-round game," Tendulkar said. "He was solid in his defence and played some magnificent shots. Left the ball well as well. This particular innings was terrific because when he got in to bat, it was a tricky time. It didn't appear that he was playing his first Test."
The only time it seemed he was playing his first Test was when he reached for a few deliveries in the 90s. That belied a man whose biggest improvement over the last year has been in confidence. Tendulkar spoke about that too. "One had to be a little more careful and 100% sure of what one was getting into," Tendulkar said. "Before you decided to play a big shot, you had to be 100% confident, and he has got tremendous confidence. I just allowed him to play his game. He has the ability to play big shots, and he was cleverly selecting them."
It was a responsible, efficient, solid effort in his first Test innings. When he punched one down the ground in 126th over, Raina raised his arm in the air as soon as the ball left the bat, knowing the hundred had been achieved, taking him into a select group of Indian centurions on debut, which includes batsmen such as Lala Amarnath, Gundappa Viswanath, Mohammad Azharuddin, Sourav Ganguly and Virender Sehwag. Joining them is perhaps the easier part. Tougher pitches and better bowlers now await Raina.
Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo