There was none of the usual fanfare as Suresh Raina tackled short-pitched deliveries on a hockey turf in Lucknow last year, in the build-up to the England one-day series. Barely anyone watched as a handful of seam bowlers at the Guru Govind Singh Sports College, where Raina learnt the basics of the game, bowled 200-300 bouncers to him on day one, with just one break.
Some of those deliveries kicked awkwardly, but that didn't deter Raina from hitting a few of them over the fine-leg area. The training was repeated over the next two days, this time on the main hockey ground with wet synthetic balls.What was the end result of such an exercise? A century in the second one-day international in Cardiff - the first was abandoned due to rain - which helped Raina regain confidence. "That was the turning point, otherwise he would not have been in the World Cup team," says his friend and former Uttar Pradesh Ranji teammate, Ali Hamid Zaidi. "He (Raina) understood his weakness and made special efforts to tackle short-pitched deliveries," says Ali. "He was quite disappointed with the criticism."
Staging a comeback in England was great relief after being axed for the Asia Cup in Bangladesh. His 106-ball 100 came against a formidable English attack which included James Anderson and Steven Finn. It set the tone for India's 3-1 series victory.
Raina also had a week's training in Mumbai. Whatever he did during those seven days was considered equivalent to his routine six month's training.
Besides batting in the nets, he spoke to batting coach Pravin Amre as well as Sachin Tendulkar. "Yeh saat din mere zindagi ke sabse anokhe they aur ab mujhe aage he barna hai (These seven days are the most amazing days of my life and now I have to march ahead)," Rains is said to have told Ali then.
"Those seven days made him mentally strong. I saw a huge change in his approach to batting. Unlike his free hitting in the past, he started playing with soft hands, which made him a more mature and smarter batsman," says Ali.
Before staging the comeback, Raina and Ali went on a vacation to the US. They had decided beforehand that there won't be any discussion related to cricket. It was purely an effort to unwind. "We chose to go on the vacation because he was quite upset then," says Ali.
Raina didn't pick up the bat while staying with one of Ali's relatives. But he kept up his fitness routine as he wanted to make sure he didn't put on weight.
He started his international career against Sri Lanka in 2005 with a first ball duck, trapped leg before by Muttiah Muralitharan. But Raina won praise from all by providing middle-order solidity, especially in the home series against England in 2006, which helped the team achieve solidity while chasing targets in that phase under Rahul Dravid's captaincy.
However, not managing a half-century for 15 innings in a row cost him his place on the South Africa tour. But he made a rousing comeback in the 2008 Asia Cup in Pakistan, hitting two centuries and a fifty to finish the second-highest run-getter in the tournament.
But he was not selected for the 2007 World Cup in the Caribbean. "That was hard for him, but he forced his way back with a heap of runs in domestic cricket," recalls his coach at Lucknow's Gomti Nagar Cricket Hostel, Pramod Kumar Gupta. "In the last four years, I have seen him enter a new mature phase. He is an attacking player and should continue the same way."On the toughest phases in his career was when he was struggling with injuries. "He was disappointed and used to cry, sometimes he even considered not playing cricket again," says Ali. He suffered the knee injury after the South Africa tour in 2007, during the Central Zone one-day tournament at Indore. It required surgery and kept him out of action for at least four months. "He used to move around on crutches during those days, but kept talking about cricket. He utilised the break to get back into top physical condition. "Whatever he did in those four months to be fit was remarkable, the fight against odds."
An 11-year-old Raina almost gave up cricket following the trauma of ragging at the Guru Gobind Singh Sports College, Lucknow. But for his elder brother, Dinesh, he would not have returned to the game. "Suresh's cricketing career could have ended within six months of his joining the Sports College," recalls Dinesh, who teaches English at the Chhabil Das College, Ghaziabad.
"He was left so shocked that he never wanted to go back. He stayed at home for nearly six months, but I finally talked him out of it. But I spoke to his coaches in Lucknow and only after getting total assurance did I take him back."
Raina's passion for cricket was such that as a boy he never even cared for any punishment. "I used to take tuition classes at 5.30 am and always wanted Suresh to be there because, for me, studies were equally important. But most of the time, he gave me the slip to play cricket. Still, he never gave me a chance to punish him as he always came back with a trophy, medal or certificate."
Adds Dinesh: "He used to keep a matchbox under his pillow to check the time and get up for training early morning. Switching on the lights would have meant waking up others at home."
Raina's real plunge into the game came at the age of 11 when he made it among the 20 who were chosen from a pool of 800 players from across UP. "After his rehabilitation, I gifted him a mobile to keep in touch with me," says Dinesh."
The youngest of five siblings, Raina became the darling of all at the Nehru Stadium in Lucknow when he once made the heavyweights of Delhi's Sonnet Club bite the dust.
Shifting to the state government-run Gomti Nagar Cricket Hostel in July 2003 saw Raina's career progress rapidly. Under coach Gupta, he made it to the India Under-19 squad, and later to the UP Ranji team.
It was a proud moment for the facility as he was the first to be picked for India while still in the hostel.
"I never stopped him from playing as Dinesh was taking care of his career. I haven't watched him play even once, but if India make it to the World Cup (final) this time around, I will try to be at the ground," says father Trilok Nath Raina.
One little known facet of Raina is that he is a good cook. "We don't know from where he learnt cooking, but he surprises us sometimes. He prepares dishes like 'archar ki peeli daal' and 'makke ki roti'," says his mother Parvesh Raina.
With India's top order looking shaky at the moment and the team morale down, what recipe Raina brings to the table will be crucial.
Vital cog in the wheel
The way experienced batsmen like Raina play will determine the course India's campaign will take in the tournament. Raina has notched up good scores in the recent one-dayers, with 51 against Australia at the MCG in the tri-series coming at the right time.
Former India batsman Gundappa Viswanath feels Raina will be vital. "He will be one of the key players for India. If he does well, then there are going to be no issues. If he doesn't, then there will be a bit of a problem."Raina has been suspect against short-pitched bowling in the past. Viswanath thinks it wouldn't be that much of a problem. "He hasn't yet got out of it completely, but the problem is more in Test matches. I think he can manage the short-pitched bowling in one-day internationals."