In his last ODI for India, Suresh Raina wasted no time in getting going, slog sweeping his second ball for six. Such haste was demanded by the target, at that time the fourth highest in ODI history (South Africa’s 434 in Mumbai 2015 to claim the series). Then Kagiso Rabada fired in a yorker whose line Raina misjudged, and he played inside the line of the ball, almost falling over in the process. The stumps were rearranged, and so was Raina’s career.
The match before, he had scored a half-century to help India to a win. That is not the stat one usually associates with being dropped a game later. But this is: In that five-game series, Raina had managed just 68 runs, with two ducks.
Since then, Raina found himself out of the T20I squad as well, being excluded from the team that played the WT20. Instead, he was handed Duleep Trophy captaincy. A brace of half-centuries in the tournament saw him return to the ODI team for the series against New Zealand, perhaps with an eye on the Champions Trophy next year and certainly with an eye on the fifth bowler’s slot. Along with his strokeplay, it was Raina’s skill with the ball that contrived his recall.
Chief selector MSK Prasad said as much after presiding over his first meeting. “Suresh Raina has been picked because he offers a good bowling option and with several youngsters in the team he offers experience.” (Mind you, the average age of that team was 27 years, the youngest being 22.)
Then came a series of unfortunate events that would have fit nicely in Lemony Snicket’s world. Raina was laid low by a fever more obstinate than an oil stain on your favourite white T-shirt. In his absence, Kedar Jadhav made the most of the opportunities presented to him, performing the exact role that Raina had been picked for. Jadhav made useful contributions with the bat, but surprised with the ball, scalping five wickets in the series, including a haul of three for 29 in five overs. Raina once again found himself back on the domestic circuit.
So Raina went back to doing what all batters must do to grab the attention of the selectors. Two half-centuries — both scores in excess of 90 — in two innings in a Ranji trophy game seemed to have shown the selectors enough. Despite the extra kilos that are showing on his waistline, Raina was named in the India A and T20I squad to face England.
It was a selection that was overshadowed by MS Dhoni’s decision to step down as limited overs skipper, Kohli’s subsequent ascension, and the return of Yuvraj Singh. This suited Raina well. A quick 45 in the late stages of an India A win against England would have helped his confidence, and in Bangalore, Raina translated that into his first fifty in 37 innings in T20Is and only his fourth overall.
It was good to see the team management use Raina at number three, rather than behind Dhoni. Raina has a stellar IPL record at number three, having had consistent success there for his erstwhile team, Chennai Super Kings. Wednesday’s innings was also important to prove a statement: Kohli had had a low-key series thus far, and was expected to come good in the series decider. With him run out early, the onus was on Raina to shoulder the responsibility of setting a total on a ground where high scores are routinely chased down. After all, his experience was a big factor behind his recall.
“(Batting at) number three always gives you a license to go for it,” Raina told the BCCI website after the game. “That’s why I’ve been very successful in IPL and also for team India.”
The aesthetes watching would be happy to see those lofted on drives, inside out hits over cover, even the ungainly pull shots which benefitted from the small boundaries. His once astonishing and still dependable fielding saw him take a balancing act of a catch — defying gravity and his chubby cheeks — to dismiss the dangerous Ben Stokes. He batted like he has done so often wearing yellow, as if his brain is synced with Google Maps, finding the best route for the ball to reach the rope.
In the 2011 World Cup, Raina made an unlikely return to the playing XI just in time to combine with Yuvraj Singh to guide India past a tricky quarter-final in Motera. In 2014, he made another comeback to the Indian team, a hundred in England, and remained a part of the team till the next World Cup. Now with the Champions Trophy five months away, Raina has another opportunity to show off his timing and placement. He knows how to take his chances, and has a habit of showing up close to global tournaments.
Seeing as how recalling seniors is the flavor of the month, with this performance Raina has made a case for an ODI recall, should an opening arise. Raina could have a real chance to replace the memories stuck in so many heads; of him missing a full ball, hearing the death rattle, and almost falling over in his last ODI.