Testing times for Raina
Fielding at mid-off at the Harare Sports Club on Wednesday, Suresh Raina's mind would have travelled three years back. In 2010, Raina was named the captain to lead in the tri-series involving hosts Zimbabwe and Sri Lanka, after Mahendra Singh Dhoni and a bunch of seniors were rested, just like this time around.
As things turned out, India failed to make it to the final. Even worse, they lost both the matches to Zimbabwe. Although Raina subsequently led India to victory in the limited overs series in the West Indies - while Dhoni and other seniors took a break after the 2011 World Cup triumph - it is Virat Kohli who has rapidly emerged as the likely successor to Dhoni thanks to his quality batting and confidence.
In fact, former India coach Greg Chappell had called Raina the next big thing to happen in Indian cricket, that praise also coming because of the left-handed batsman's ability to finish matches early in his career.
The Aussie was an ardent backer of Raina, calling him the 'complete package' and comparing his fielding in the covers to that of Ricky Ponting. But Chappell will be first to admit that Raina has not fulfilled the potential he showed in 2005 as an 18-year-old. Handling the short, lifting deliveries has remained a problem.
It has also not helped that Kohli's rise has coincided with Raina struggling to find his feet in all three formats. Raina is no more bracketed as someone who will carry the batting mantle in the future, that honour going to Kohli and Cheteshwara Pujara. Raina's Test career too has stalled at 17 matches, the last of which he played in September last year against New Zealand.
With 170 ODI matches under his belt, the 26-year-old is the most experienced player in this five-match series. But the pressure on him to perform in this short tour is as much as it is on Ambati Rayudu, who made an impressive debut in the first ODI.
Raina, in fact, started the year on a bright note, amassing 326 runs in six innings with four fifties against England and Pakistan. But as India hit the road - travelling to the Champions Trophy in England and then the tri-series in the West Indies - his form nosedived.
In the 11 matches he played away from home, Raina has scored just 140 runs with a best of 44. There could be an argument he bats down the order but still he has remained unbeaten only twice.
He also had a run-in with Jadeja after Raina dropped catch off his bowling during a match in the Caribbean.
In India's comprehensive six-wicket win on Wednesday, Raina came to the crease with 13 runs required for victory, but perished for a second-ball duck, a rash shot resulting in his downfall. On the other hand, Rayudu, on debut, was composed and finished things off.
The next four matches, with the second encounter here on Friday, will be vital for Raina. With Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane waiting in the dressing room and Rayudu capable of donning the finisher's role, Raina will be eager to shake off the lean patch and hold on to his place.
Rayudu, at 27, has made a late entry into the national team. His 84-ball 63 wasn't exactly the best innings by a debutant, mainly due to the lack of quality bowlers in the Zimbabwe ranks. But for sheer temperament he displayed, Rayudu showed he can fill Raina's shoes, if the latter fails to regain form.