24 March, 2011: India have slid from 143/2 to 187/5 in their World Cup quarter-final against holders Australia at Ahmedabad, still 74 adrift of their target with 75 balls to spare. This is an Australian side undefeated in World Cup knockouts since 1996, and armed with the chin-music cavalry of Lee-Tait-Johnson. They are one wicket from the Indian tail.
30 March, 2011: India have slid from 141/2 to 187/5 in their World Cup semi-final against arch-rivals Pakistan at Mohali, with 13 overs to spare. Less than five overs later, MS Dhoni departs with the scorecard reading 205/6, and 50 balls still remain. Pakistan are into the Indian tail.
History won’t forget that Indian campaign, not least the game that followed the Pakistan semi-final, three days later. History won’t forget that Yuvraj Singh, Sachin Tendulkar and MS Dhoni were awarded the Man of the Match prize on those three seminal nights in Indian cricket.
But, still under a decade on from that glorious spring, how many remember the common thread to India first getting over the line versus Australia, and then scrambling to a total that kept them afloat against Pakistan? How many remember, arguably, the two most important 30s in modern-day Indian cricket?
That might not be the complete picture, but it is perhaps the most symbolic one from Suresh Raina’s India journey. A career of being utilitarian; a career of being underrated.
In all men’s ODI cricket, 90 players have scored more than 5,000 runs. 67 have done so at an average above 35. And only 12 men have scored more than 5,000 runs at an average above 35 and a strike in excess of 90. It’s a list that includes Kohli and Richards, de Villiers and Gilchrist, Sehwag and Warner. It’s a list that also includes Suresh Raina.
Why don’t we remember him as any sort of ODI ‘beast’ then, as we do most of the other 11? Sure, the obvious reason is that he doesn’t come close to the weight of runs and longevity of peaks possessed by the others just mentioned, and there’s no blame in that for someone who batted in the top-four only 37 times in 226 games.
But that list of 12 also includes Andrew Symonds, who is considered among the finer 21st century lower-middle-order batsmen. Guess what? Symonds scored fewer ODI runs than Raina, at a slightly lower strike rate, and with a marginally better average. That’s not to imply that Raina was (or wasn’t) a better ODI cricketer than the Australian – just an indicator towards the brackets that he was in or around after a decade-and-a-half in the game.
It might also be worth reminding – or informing, since none of these are numbers that have been highlighted too much – that Raina averaged 59.66 from nine knocks at the World Cup (nearly 40 runs per innings even if you take away the three not-outs), and 60.33 from 25 matches at the World Cup and the Asia Cup combined, tournaments that brought along three of his five centuries in the 50-over game.
The detracting argument here, typically, is that these three hundreds came against Hong Kong, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe. But what if I tell you he came in at 56/2 in a 284-run chase in the game against Bangladesh? Or that India were facing an embarrassing World Cup defeat at 92/4 chasing 288 versus Zimbabwe?
Then you view some of his better and vital half-centuries, and you identify another amusing trend. Raina blazed a 56-ball 74 in India’s 2015 World Cup opener against Pakistan, but Kohli hit a century so you know what the headlines were. In the quarter-final of the same campaign, he dashed his way to 65 off 57 against Bangladesh, but Rohit Sharma smacked 137. He blasted 71* off 47 in a tricky chase of 290 against Australia at Vizag in 2010, but Kohli hit a century that sealed his World Cup berth.
This is the bit you come to expect for someone batting lower down the order in limited overs cricket, that the best bits will, at first, be ‘bits’. But do we respect how invaluable the smaller gems were?
There is zero doubt that we will remember Raina as one of India’s first world-beating fielders. There is a place he will always hold in the trivia trove too, as the first Indian to hit a hundred in each format of international cricket. But – and this might not be particularly difficult since the clear societal trend is that our respect finds a higher ground once a performer leaves their stage – we must treasure Raina the batsman for his priceless contributions as well.
And we must cherish the team-man, the doting disciple who didn’t once linger too long seeking the limelight and sailed instead in the shadows.
The partnership that was Dhoni and Raina – captain and trusted aide, master and apprentice, chief and accomplice, call it what you may – will be a defining memory from a golden period of Indian limited overs cricket. There was, of course, the excellence on the field, reflected through their being the most prolific fifth-wicket pairing in ODI history and the most prolific non-top-order pairing in all T20 cricket. But along with it, quite resonantly, there was the emotion that was so tangibly felt off the field: the eyes told you the story when Raina paid his tribute when his skipper left the longest format; the adulation and adoration wasn’t lost when he joined his captain in his journey on Saturday evening.
‘Thala’ and ‘Chinna Thala’ will get (at least) one more shot at achieving something special in unison yet again, and that too in the colours that made their association truly legendary. Savour it, regardless of whether your loyalty lies in yellow or not.
Remember them. Remember Raina. The under-rated utility-man, who went the way he stayed: in the shadows, and with a smile.
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