Raina and the art of finishing
Say what you will about his abilities as a Test batsman, but Suresh Raina showed once again on Saturday why he is one of the finest finishers in limited-overs cricket. He walked in to face Lasith Malinga's hat-trick ball with India needing more than a 100 runs at an asking-rate approaching seven-and-a-half. He saw it gallop to above nine an over after the fall of the centurion Gautam Gambhir before taking India home in the last over along with Irfan Pathan.
The big guns at the top of the India batting order get the hundreds and set up the game but it is Raina who walks into a no-win situation at No. 5 or No. 6. If he gets quick runs, it is said to be because of the platform provided by the preceding batsmen; if he doesn't, he is blamed for failing to utilise it.
What helps Raina is that he backs his style of play, whatever the state of the game. He'll walk in busily, take a few brisk singles to size up the situation, and before you know it, he would have moved into the 20s with a four or two. More often than not, the boundary will be a nudge down the leg side or a guide past point unless he gets a really loose ball. All the time, he'll look to push hard for the second or the third run, putting the fielders under pressure. When he is certain that the time has arrived, he will pull out his signature strokes - the bent-knee loft over extra cover and the heave over midwicket.
There was a time against West Indies last year when he was going for big strokes too early in his innings and perishing. But now, he is back to his usual style of building an innings and has three fifties in his last five outings.
Every now and then, Raina has been rescuing Indian chases when early wickets have fallen or when the asking-rate has risen too high. In only his eighth ODI innings, Raina hit an unbeaten 81 as India recovered from 92 for 5 to chase 227 against England in 2006. He even has a hundred at No. 6, when he took India to 245 from 60 for 5 in a tri-series final against Sri Lanka in 2010. Probably the most memorable instance is when he hit a quick unbeaten 34 to help Yuvraj Singh lift India into the 2011 World Cup semi-final. India were 187 for 5 chasing Australia's 260 when Raina came in for only his second game of the tournament, with Yusuf Pathan having been preferred over him earlier.
The situation was more dire on Saturday, in that Raina was the only specialist batsmen remaining. India had lost MS Dhoni and Rohit Sharma to the first two balls of the batting Powerplay; they lost Gambhir three overs later. Raina had only Irfan for company with R Ashwin to follow. Both men are not bad with the bat, but you wouldn't bet on them single-handedly turning a game around with it. Raina was on seven when Irfan walked in. He would end on 65, Irfan on 34 - a creditable supporting act - with the partnership worth 92 off 67.
Yes, there were some edges that brought fours, Sri Lanka missed a couple of run-out chances, Raina was even dropped on 19, by substitute fielder Sachithra Senanayake, but there was also lots of sensible running by the duo, and nerveless boundary hitting by Raina when needed.
To Irfan's credit, he gave the strike regularly to Raina without trying much daredevilry himself but it was the latter who had to rein in the asking-rate, which had risen to 9.37 at the start of the 44th over. It was in this over, bowled by Isuru Udana, that the game started to turn around. Raina managed a couple of fours, heaving past short fine leg and outside-edging past short third man.
Then came the big moment. Malinga returned in the 45th to bowl the first of his remaining three overs. Fifty-two needed off six overs, including three from Malinga - a lot of IPL sides will tell you that it is much harder than an asking-rate of 8.66.
Against Raina, even Malinga does not favour the yorker. Three of the four deliveries he bowled to Raina in that over were short balls. Raina expectedly could not do much with them, but he made sure he guided the fourth, a yorker outside off, past the wicketkeeper for four. With two men waiting at backward point for a squarer stroke. Irfan did the same off the last ball of the over, and Raina finished the game after that.
Angelo Mathews was lofted over extra cover for four and Malinga was heaved in trademark Raina fashion over long-on for six, the ball remaining in the air long enough and travelling far enough to firmly signal that the turnaround was complete.
As a reminder of how close the margin is in such tight finishes, there was another inside-edged four, off Mathews, and a throw, again by Mathews, that would have run out Raina by quite some distance, had it hit.
Mahela Jayawardene rued the missed opportunities but gave credit to Raina and Irfan. "Raina batted really well and [there was] good support from Irfan as well," Jayawardene said. "You needed another guy to go along with that. He is a quality player. If you give him an opportunity the way we did, he will finish the game off so credit to him."
Jayawardene said he could have tried bowling a spinner at the death in hindsight but wasn't sure about it with some dew around. "I felt that the spinners may not get any grip, the fast bowlers were struggling a bit as well so that's something I probably think [in] hindsight [but] at that particular moment I felt the quicks were bowling well. Still we had an opportunity [but] we dropped a catch and [missed] a couple of those run outs. Few edges [went for runs], that's how the game goes. Any other day things would have turned around in our favour but today they played some good cricket aswell. Those two [Raina and Irfan] batted really well, they put on 92 runs in that situation. They deserved to win."
Abhishek Purohit is an editorial assistant at ESPNcricinfo