When he came back from the SSC today, Suresh Raina held on to his "special" bat. There was a baggy blue cap from Virender Sehwag somewhere inside his bag, and of course the India cap given by his idol, Rahul Dravid. It has been a truly blessed Test debut for Raina: caps from two of the greats, using the same bat with which he scored his World Twenty20 century to score another one to help India save the match, with Sachin Tendulkar for company.
Minutes after Tendulkar showered glowing praise on Raina, he talked about enjoying the moment. And Raina enjoys playing the game. It is there to see. He kept watching the big screen during his knock, and knew that the last debutant to score a century alongside Tendulkar was Sehwag. "Dekh rahe the chori chori beech mein jab gap mil raha tha [Was slyly watching in between, whenever there was a gap]," says Raina. "Good role it was. Will try to enjoy this."
Although he is just 23, this hasn't come easy for Raina. Once upon a time he was a prodigy demolishing domestic attacks. Five years later, about a week ago, he hadn't played a Test, and held the distinction, arguably dubious, of having played the most ODIs without a Test. During that time a knee injury kept him out, for which he had to be operated too. He used to walk out on crutches and watch kids at the nets, to make sure he didn't lose the feel of the game.
"When I was injured, my brother used to tell me, 'Whenever you get a Test spot, I want to see you batting with Sachin.' He helped me a lot during my operation time. I knew there would be different phases in life. There would be ups and downs, and that if I worked hard, good things would come to me."
Now that he has tasted Test success, Raina says scoring a Test century is a feeling like no other. "It is a different feeling," says Raina. "I knew people will finally ask how many Test matches you have played. I think when you score in Test matches the amount of satisfaction you get, and the amount of applause you get, the amount of respect you get is totally different. I think I got respect from my team-mates."
Playing the short ball was going to be an obvious challenge. He doesn't make an attempt to hide that teams see a chance there and that he had to work a lot on it. "I had worked hard with regard to the bouncer," Raina says. "I knew that they would come hard at me. But I was planning and preparing very well. In the nets also I worked hard with the seniors. I think people knew about it."
The plan was to try and stay inside the line against those short deliveries, which would make it easier to leave them alone. Raina, though, is not getting ahead of himself. "At the same time I know from here on it will be tougher. I will have to play on different wickets and against different bowlers. I know I did it but I have to focus on more, because important series are coming up."
Overnight on 66, Raina says he didn't feel the tension that the imminent century usually brings. "I was not tense," he says. "I came into the day thinking that if I play well in the first session I will be able to get the hundred. The team's situation was good and I knew that if Sachin and I can get a good partnership then the match will be in our favour. My morale was good and he kept telling me that my shape when playing shots was good, that my form looked good.
"I was trying to make sure I batted till lunch. I wasn't in a hurry. I knew that if I batted till lunch I could easily get it. I was learning from Sachin: be positive, run hard and don't miss the single."
This chance, too, almost didn't arrive. It was a sudden turn of events with the fever hitting Yuvraj Singh, who told Raina on the match eve to stay prepared, just in case. "You can't change what's in your destiny," he says. "My job is to just work hard. I know whenever I get the opportunity I must perform. The satisfaction of making a hundred in a Test match is a completely different feeling."
When the chance arrived, Dravid was the obvious choice to give Raina the cap. "One-day cap also Rahul bhai gave. He is my idol, I have been following him from my sports hostel days. He is a tough cricketer. Nice to talk to him whenever he is free. He always gives good suggestions, good advice. Maybe everybody knew he is Suresh Raina's favourite, so they asked him to give me the cap."
And Raina responded with an innings that Dravid, who himself fell five short of a debut century, would approve of.