Suresh Raina: A shoulder for giants
At his best, Suresh Raina was the perfect foil to greats. When he retired, he was an afterthought.Updated: Aug 24, 2020, 17:54 IST
No other illustrious career for the Indian cricket team is as difficult to reduce to its essence as Suresh Raina’s. Think about it—if you were to roll-call the names of the seven Indians, apart from Raina, to have featured in between 200 and 300 ODIs, their individual role and even meaning tends to immediately crystalize in the mind’s eye; be it Anil Kumble, Virat Kohli, Virender Sehwag, Harbhajan Singh, Javagal Srinath, Kapil Dev or Rohit Sharma.
Forget role and meaning, can we even pin down Raina’s true batting position? For a man whose career spanned 226 one-dayers, Raina didn’t once get to hold down the same place in the batting order for ten successive innings. That’s right, not once; in nearly 15 years.
Raina’s longest string of ODI innings in the same position, if you must know, was nine. This was when he was promoted to No.5 for the long-winded CB Series in 2012, immediately after he batted at No.6, No.3 and No.7 in the same series against the West Indies.
This newfound stability of No.5 was a fixture through that tri-series in Australia and even spilled over into one match of the subsequent Asia Cup in Bangladesh, where he was then pushed up to No.4. There, against the hosts he obliged with a quickfire fifty in a match remembered for Sachin Tendulkar’s hundredth hundred, only to be promptly demoted next game. By the time the next series came about in Sri Lanka, Raina was setting up shop at No.6 again. Somewhere along the way in a nauseatingly up-and-down journey, Raina’s position and significantly, his purpose, slipped through the cracks and was never found again.
Those cracks were pretty wide, given that Raina’s career spanned two mighty eras in Indian cricket. In 2004 and while still a teen, Raina was the first among his generation to infiltrate a side fizzing to the brim with superstars—Tendulkar, Sehwag, Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly and to boot, Gautam Gambhir and Yuvraj Singh.
Even with his precocious play, establishing himself among those names was always going to be difficult, just as it was going to be to reestablish himself in the following era. For, by then, new superstars had replaced old superstars quite seamlessly; Kohli, Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan and Ajinkya Rahane had arrived, and they soon buttonholed the new narrative.
Trapped between the best top-order in the world and the best finisher in the business in MS Dhoni, Raina’s existence in the Indian team had turned into a deeply claustrophobic experience.
The cleft between two eras always makes for a fascinating study in any sport. Within the space of two months in 2010—a time when the ageing superstars were making way for their nascent replacements—Raina made his first appearance as an ODI captain and as a Test batsman. The sun had shone similarly on Lleyton Hewitt in the gap year between Pete Sampras’s retirement and the rise of a young Roger Federer, and the world lay in wait for Raina to make hay.
He did, somewhat. In his very first Test innings, Raina struck his first and only hundred, against a Sri Lankan side coming to terms with the retirement of Muttiah Muralitharan from the previous Test and on a Colombo pitch where two double hundreds and two other centuries had already been struck (it could have been five hundreds apart from Raina’s, but Sehwag was out for 99).
His initiation into the leadership role didn’t go quite as well. Billed as and prepped to be the heir-apparent to Dhoni, Raina captained a second-string Indian side (names that would soon turn household) in a tri-series in Zimbabwe that also featured a transitioning Sri Lanka. India didn’t make the final and Raina didn’t score big runs in a forgettable series, one that will perhaps only be remembered for Sharma’s first and second ODI hundreds.
Raina would go on to captain India in two more series —against West Indies in 2011 and Bangladesh in 2014—and win both of them, but by then the team had discovered a successor to Dhoni in Kohli, who had long showcased his natural-born leadership instincts.
What makes for a curious but telling detail is the fact that even when Raina could decide his own position in the batting order, he shied away from a starring role. In the 12 ODIs in which he captained India, Raina batted above No.5 only once—at No.4 in a rain-curtailed game in Trinidad. Perhaps he was selfless or perhaps he was aware of his limitations, but it was in this role of a foil to the greats that he truly excelled in.
Just eight months after he was earmarked as a future captain, Raina lost his place in the ODI starting eleven at the beginning of the World Cup at home. But when he returned, just in time for the knockouts of the tournament, Raina proved just how essential an instinctive link-player was to the team. That service was soon summoned in the Ahmedabad quarterfinal against Australia, where he braved ferocious bouncers to score 34 unbeaten and invaluable runs in a defining partnership with Yuvraj.
Such contributions of significance came often for a while. In the gnarly semifinal against Pakistan, a low-scoring affair in Mohali, Raina was one of only three batsmen in the Indian team to breach the 30-run mark.
Then, a year later in Hobart, Raina lent his shoulder for another giant to stand on—Kohli stole the show with an era-defining 133*, but it was Raina’s unbeaten 40 that ensured Kohli could play his shots in the first place.
Make no mistake, though. The lower middle-order is an unforgiving place, especially in a country obsessed with numbers and not value. Every subsequent Kohli, Dhawan and Sharma hundred highlighted Raina’s modest returns. His end was nigh.
THEN IT FELL APART
Thirty-three is no age for a modern-day batsman to retire. But the truth remains that Raina’s international career had been on life support by the time he was in his late twenties. The Test career was the first to go, and by its end, it was a story of noughts.
In the autumn of 2012 and during India’s first Test series since the retirements of Dravid and VVS Laxman, Raina was brought back into the fold. The two-match series against New Zealand at home was his first in a year, what with him in the abyss since his twin ducks against England at the Oval.
The second Test in Bangalore witnessed Kohli’s first Test hundred and Raina’s last Test appearance on Indian soil.
In what became a tricky fourth innings chase after the fall of Tendulkar and Cheteshwar Pujara’s wickets, Raina tried to release the pressure by dancing down the wicket to off-spinner Jeetan Patel, only to miss the ball completely and get bowled. He was out for zero and didn’t play another Test for three years.
When he did, at the Sydney Cricket Ground in 2015, he was out on another pair—making it five ducks in his last seven innings. And that, as they say, was that.
The wheels did not come off quite as spectacularly with his limited-overs career, but the fall was just as staggered. Raina’s final appearance in India’s ODI shirt came in England in 2018. But before that series, he had last played ODIs for India in 2015.
With a batting order ripe with match-winners, Raina had become—in a team that he was once destined to lead no less—an afterthought. To the point where even on the day he accepted that he had had enough, Raina’s retirement played second fiddle to a bigger and glossier send-off.