Suresh Raina was a starry-eyed 12-year-old when he got enrolled in the Guru Gobind Singh Sports College in Lucknow in 1999. However, the boy was reduced to a terrified wreck very soon due to the menace of ragging in the institution. And had it not been for his elder brother Dinesh, Suresh would have returned to his home in Muradnagar and a promising cricketing career would have been nipped in the bud.
"Suresh's cricketing career could have ended within six months of his joining the Sports College," recalls Dinesh, who is an English teacher at the Chabeel Das College.
Shaken by the experience, the young boy became withdrawn.
"He was so shocked and nervous that he never wanted to go back to the college. He stayed at home for nearly six months, but I finally talked him out of it. I spoke to his coaches in Lucknow and only after getting complete assurance did I take Suresh back to the college," adds Dinesh.
"After his rehabilitation, I gifted him a mobile phone just to allow him to keep in touch with me," says Dinesh. "I could understand how difficult it would have been for him to start afresh at the college after six months. But he was courageous and emerged stronger after the ordeal."
However, Raina's family is happy the player weathered that turbulent phase to eventually make it big.
"It was a great day for us when he made his debut for India against Sri Lanka at Dambulla in July 2005," says Dinesh. "Only then did I realise how important that decision meant to the entire family."
Dinesh, however, says that Raina's passion for the game was so strong that he never cared for any punishment during his childhood.
"I used to conduct tuition classes at 5.30 am and always wanted Suresh to be there as, for me, studies were equally important. But most of the time, he gave me the slip just to be there on the cricket field. But he never gave me a chance to punish him as he always came back with a trophy, a medal or a certificate, which made me happy.
"He used to sleep with a match-box under his pillow even at the age of six so that he could check the time at night and get up for his training. Switching on the lights would have meant waking up others in the family," adds Dinesh, who is eight years elder to Suresh.
Suresh's proper initiation into the game kicked off in Lucknow at the age of 12 when he made it to the final shortlist of 20 from a pool of 800 cricketers from across Uttar Pradesh.
The youngest among five siblings, Suresh became the darling of everyone at the Nehru Stadium in Ghaziabad when, as a youngster, he once made the stalwarts of Delhi's heavyweight Sonnet Club bite the dust. He smashed the bowling all over the ground to help his unfancied team Abhay Ram Gymkhana emerge champions.
"He hardly played at the Nehru Stadium before getting enrolled in the Sports College, but even today he hasn't lost his love for this ground," says the club president Vinay Kumar. "Even now, he calls me up asking to arrange a practice schedule whenever he is in the city, but he never disturbs the routine training of our juniors. That shows his respect for the game."
Instinct to attack
Raina was an aggressive batsman from the start. A string of fine innings, including a double hundred, fetched him selection in the India U-19 squad. To help Raina play quick, rising deliveries, a special cement pitch was prepared at the Gomti Nagar Stadium, says his coach Pramod Kumar Gupta.
There was no doubt about his talent and he made steady progress. His powerful cover drives were a hit with team mates. "It thrills me when I see Raina punishing a delivery outside the off stump with a powerful punch through cover. Most of the time his hits are unstoppable," says Ranji team mate and opener Shivakant Shukla, also a left-hander. "During our stay at the cricket hostel, we used to wait for Raina to hit his favourite shot."
Raina played that shot in abundance in the 2005-6 season when he aggregated 620 runs in six games to help Uttar Pradesh land their maiden Ranji Trophy title.
"Those were great days for UP cricket. Raina was in terrific form and most of his knocks that season kept pushing us towards the title," recalls UP Ranji Trophy coach Gyanendra Pandey, who was then a playing member of the side.
His father Trilok Nath Raina left the job of nurturing Suresh to the elder brother. "I never stopped him from playing as Dinesh was taking care of his career.
Trilok Nath, who worked with the army's ordnance factory, is praying India keep their date with the Cup.
"I haven't watched him play from the stands even once. But if India make it to the World Cup final this time around, I will try to be at the ground," says Trilok Nath, who hails from the Pathankot (now in Pakistan).
After Trilok Nath retired, the Rainas moved to the posh Raj Nagar area of the city. Dinesh has remained his only close friend.
"He talks cricket only with me. With others, he is just a normal youngster," says Dinesh.
Few know of Raina's other talent - cooking. "We don't know from where he learnt cooking, but he surprises us sometimes. He prepares dishes like 'arhar ki peeli daal' and 'makke di roti'," says his mother.
A World Cup victory would be the perfect dish from this amateur chef.