Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo
ZIM v WI (1)
BPL 2023 (2)
ENG-L in SL (1)
Only 10 players won more Man-of-the-Match awards when playing ODI cricket for India than Suresh Raina's 12. Only 11 have played more than his 226 matches. Only 10 players have scored more runs than his 5615. His average of 35 and strike rate of 94 are so close to the legend he played alongside and was supposed to replace: Yuvraj Singh, who averaged 36 and struck at 87 runs per 100 balls.
Yet Raina retires from international cricket not a legend, not a superstar, not remembered for his Man-of-the-Match performances although one of those, a stunning hundred in Cardiff teased a glorious assertive turn that he long promised. What you remember instantly of Raina is instead his joy at other's success. His willingness to throw himself around on the field. To run hard for his partner. To dive for his crease, a technique he mastered. And that is what remains of his primary skill, batting: cameos that made the whole team effort look way better without drawing too much attention to themselves.
That tight tense chase in the quarter-final of the 2011 World Cup is so rightly remembered for Yuvraj Singh's unbeaten half-century to go with his two wickets, but what Singh remembers is a 34. When Raina came in to bat at the fall of the fifth wicket, India still needed 74 off 75, but he immediately eased things for Singh by going after the bowling. In the nervous, error-filled semi-final against Pakistan, India ended up with a target to defend because of Raina's late push. This time he scored 36.
When India needed 322 in 40 overs to stay alive in the tri-series in Australia in 2011-12, Virat Kohli scored a stunning 133 off 86 balls, but Raina's assault of 40 off 24 balls in the end was just as breathtaking. Raina's Test debut was a hundred but it was overshadowed by Sachin Tendulkar's double. Some of his best ODI innings were played in the company of MS Dhoni, who would invariably outshine him.
ALSO READ: The best of Suresh Raina in India colours
When around an established, more accomplished batsman, Raina was a nuisance for the fielding captain. Joe Pesci if Indian cricket was the mob. Raina could hit into unusual areas: over cover and extra cover on the off side, and over midwicket on the leg side. Also he batted selflessly, which allowed him to hit his boundaries. "Selflessness" might not sound like much today, but when Raina came in, Singh and Mohammad Kaif had only just pulled India out of an era of notorious not-outers in the middle order.
After the 2011 World Cup, with Singh now taking time off to recover from illness, it was expected Raina was the perfect fit for that role. He was the left-hand presence in the middle, he was in his 10th year as an international yet young, he was fit, he could chip in with the ball and would pull off difficult catches in the field.
And yet in tough conditions Raina struggled. When he went to Cardiff to start his comeback trail for the 2015 World Cup, he had gone 55 innings outside Asia with just three scores of 50 or more. Dhoni had now begun to prefer batting closer to the end of the innings so Raina was given the lead role in the lower middle order: the No. 5. He went in at 110 for 3, which soon became 132 for 4, and this Raina took charge of the situation. He was in total control, and for once dominated a partnership with Dhoni. Pesci had become de Niro for a day.
Although he scored only one more hundred after this - that against Zimbabwe - Raina had a good selfless World Cup in Australia. He was still only 29 when sent packing after a tough home series against South Africa at the end of that year. His knee, which was first operated on in 2007, also began to play up.
It will surely rankle Raina that he was never given a run to truly replace Singh. Even after Dhoni's astute judgement of Ajinkya Rahane: excellent against the new ball or on quick pitches in the middle order, but dodgy on slower pitches. With the top three set in stone, and with slowness mostly a factor in the middle overs, Rahane was always going to struggle.
With a similar average and a much lower strike rate, Rahane became the No. 4 choice two years before the 2019 World Cup. When Rahane began to fail, they tried a host of options but never went to Raina. India eventually messed it all up, but never gave someone who had done this job before a go.
The selectors can't really be blamed outright because Raina wasn't scoring in domestic List A competition. However, he would hardly have been the first person India selected based on IPL runs or past experience. Dhoni, in fact, came back without even playing domestic cricket. Evidently Raina had not done enough when at his best, in the eyes of the leaders of the team, to be made an exception for. It will be a cause for dissatisfaction for Raina, both with himself and the management.
It is interesting that India never thought of Raina as a rival for Dhoni's slot when the latter began to lose his touch. Raina was a free-flowing batsman, and the left-hand option that India badly needed. However, much like for captain Kohli, vice-captain Rohit Sharma and coach Ravi Shastri, it would have been sacrilege even for Raina to think he could replace Dhoni. He was Chinna Thala because there was a Thala. Most of his career was spent in Dhoni's company: they debuted together, he often stood next to Dhoni at slip on in his ear shot at cover, they put together 3585 runs in each other's company; no two men have partnered for more for the fourth wicket or lower.
Now, though, Raina has a chance to play a lead role. He is still only 33, he won't be playing much else but T20, but he still has a good three-four years of conditioning left in him. As recently as this May, he spoke to Irfan Pathan about the need to be respected by the board. The same board which refused to acknowledge his retirement for close to 30 hours because he hadn't officially informed them.
The same board that doesn't allow its players to play T20 league cricket outside of IPL. This has caused a lot of disquiet among players who don't earn BCCI contracts; fewer than 30 do. The prime of an athlete is way shorter than other professionals. They want to make the best of it.
Go freelance, Suresh. You have achieved both runs and titles in the IPL. Retire after the next IPL, and play three leagues a year instead. Set a precedent for others that there is an alternative. Lead this revolution. Even Pesci had a much bigger role in The Irishman, in all likelihood his last stand.