Time to make amends

Written by Shamik Chakrabarty | Shamik Chakrabarty | Updated: Sep 7 2014, 08:12am hrs
Red ball cricket makes India red-faced. This is simply because theyre not good enough when the cherry moves in the air, or off the deck. Losing Test matches overseas has now become the norm for Mahendra Singh Dhoni and his team, but this column is not about Indias longer-format incompetence. It is about a left-handed middle-order batsman who looks to be in sublime form at the moment in limited-overs cricket and is still young enough to upgrade his game for Test level. Suresh Raina is entering a very crucial phase of his career and needs to play a good amount of catch-up.

Raina was ignored for the Test series in England. It wasnt a surprise, for he has been a failure so far at that level. Raina made his Test debut four years ago and had started off with a century at Sinhalese Sports Club. He was tipped as Sourav Gangulys natural successor, but the comparison turned out to be premature. His frailties were exposed quickly. Short ball became his bugbear.

Only 17 Test matches in four years with 768 runs at a very modest average of 28.44 highlight Rainas weakness in flannels. He, however, continued to flourish in the shorter formats till a slump, last season, stalled his progress. Just one half-century in 22 innings was bad enough to lose his place in the team for the Asia Cup earlier this year. The omission must have hurt his ego, for Raina came roaring back to form in the IPL, scoring a surreal 25-ball 87 in the Qualifier 2 against Kings XI Punjab.

It was mesmeric. Chennai Super Kings were chasing an improbable 227 for victory in 20 overs but looked to be cruising when Raina was batting. They eventually faltered in the chase but the southpaw returned a winner. It was perhaps the innings of all IPLs. More importantly, it was a performance that made Raina supremely confident. He now appears to be a changed batsman.

He was confidence personified during his 75-ball 100 in the second ODI against England at Cardiff effectively the series opener after the first match in Bristol was rained out. The innings was also hugely important from Indias context.

The team was in turmoil after the abject humiliation in Tests. Batting looked wafer-thin and bowling club standard. And at 19 for two, nerves were once again jangling.

Raina, however, was not carrying the excess baggage of Test defeats and took the attack to the opposition. England never expected that. They became too shaken to put up a fight in the whole ODI series. Forget the appointments of new support staff and presence of a team director, Rainas centuryhis first in four yearswas the turning point.

Every team looks for on-field inspiration when the chips are down and morale is low. VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid provided that on a sultry early summer day in Kolkata way back in 2001. Raina scored his century in a different format and against a much weaker opponent. But the conditions were difficult and his team was under huge pressure. It was inspirational.

The big question is, what next At 27, hes not a spring chicken. The amount of talent he has, Raina should have cemented his place in the Test team by now. What went wrong

Short ball is Rainas problem. But only a handful could manage it properly. Vijay Hazare, GR Viswanath, Sunil Gavaskar, Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxmanthe list ends there. Theyre all greats of the game.

Players like Yuvraj Singh could never muster the courage or technique to counter the short ball and ended up as a Test failure. Mohinder Amarnath, on the other hand, worked on his game, after his initial struggles against short-pitched bowling, and became one of the best players in the world to conquer pace. Indian cricket wants Raina to follow Amarnaths path. He has the ability. Its about changing the mindset.

Weve a tendency to blame the IPL after every Indian Test debacle. In fact, I fear that it (IPL) shouldnt be there at all as it is changing the priorities in world cricket. Players are slaves to it. Administrators bow to it, said Ian Botham, while delivering the 2014 MCC Spirit of Cricket Cowdrey lecture.

If the former England all-rounder had checked properly, every young player in the Indian dressing-room would have told him how much they valued Test cricket. It is their Holy Grail, and Raina is no different.

Hopefully Rainas present form in limited-overs cricket will help him get one more opportunity in Tests. West Indies are coming next month and then Indian will go for a four-Test series Down Under. Theres vacancy in the middle-order and Raina must grab his chance. Its time for him to make amends or go bust.