World T20: Time for Raina to step up against Bangladesh and repay the faith that Dhoni has placed in him
Luckily for Raina, he continues to enjoy Dhoni's backing. There is nothing Dhoni is more averse to than changing a winning combination, unless his hand is forced.
Jog your memory back to May-June 2010. India were touring Zimbabwe for a tri-series also involving Sri Lanka, followed by two T20 Internationals against the hosts. After a thoroughly disappointing ODI tri-series where India won one, lost three and failed to reach the final, they recovered well to post victories in both the T20Is thanks to the captain leading from the front in the second T20I, making a blistering 72 off 44 balls.
That man was Suresh Raina.
Doesn't really ring a bell, does it? It was around the time when MS Dhoni and a majority of the senior players were rested after a strenuous IPL campaign ahead of the Asia Cup. It was the time when Virat Kohli was still not earmarked as the next captain and Rohit Sharma was still plying his trade in the middle order.
It was also the last time that Suresh Raina made a 50-plus score in the shortest format for India. It has since been 41 matches, 33 innings and 695 runs at an average of 27.80 without even a half-century.
The man who was once seen as a potential replacement to Dhoni, at least in the shortest format, has had many ups and downs in his career since, the trough possibly being dropped from the ODI squad against South Africa last year and being demoted from BCCI's Grade A contracts.
That was after a poor run of form from the ODI World Cup that carried over to the IPL and part of the tour to Bangladesh. Raina was also not helped by the fact that the team management was struggling to find the right position for him in the side — juggling between a top-order T20 batsman and a finisher in ODIs.
In the shortest format though, Raina was always seen as a top-order batsman, plying his trade at No. 3 for a long time. Since his comeback to the T20 side against South Africa, he has batted at No 4. And to say that he has struggled for consistency would be an understatement.
After his match-winning 49* against Australia in the third T20I in Sydney in January this year — where he looked to be back at his belligerent best — it has been almighty struggle for the southpaw. Raina's last 7 T20I scores are: 20, 30, 13, 1, 25, 1, 0. That's 90 runs at an average of 12.85 and a strike rate of 105.88.
The problem with Raina lately has been the time he is spending in the middle (or the lack of it). Batting at No 4 in all those innings, he has faced a sum total of 85 balls. Raina has faced just three balls in two matches at the World T20 so far, getting out to a lazy glance against New Zealand and playing on to a good length delivery from Mohammad Sami at the Eden Gardens.
The 29-year-old has simply been getting out far too often to the first good ball he faces and that is not a good sign for someone designated as the middle-order lynchpin.
Let's look at what Yuvraj Singh did over the same period. Against Pakistan in the Asia Cup, Yuvraj prodded and poked, played and missed but was determined not to give his wicket away. As Dhoni had said after that match, Yuvraj's attempts at spending time in the middle will eventually bear fruit and he has looked in great touch since, with little cameos down the order.
That is exactly what Raina has failed to do.
The left-hander's place in the squad is not under immediate threat because he offers Dhoni much more than just batting. He was India's best spinner on a turning pitch in Nagpur, and followed that up with another good spell against Pakistan at the Eden.
His skills on the field are right up there with any Indian cricketer. Part of India's success in the T20s recently has come from the options that part-timers like Raina, Yuvraj and Hardik Pandya offer to Dhoni. And moreover, India do not have a ready-made replacement for the middle-order in their current squad — Ajinjkya Rahane simply does not enjoy the backing of Dhoni to do well at No 4 or below and for good reason.
It is time then, for the southpaw, to step up against Bangladesh.
"If people don't score runs in one or two games, questions will be asked," Dhoni said after the match against Pakistan, where once again Kohli had to do a repair job. "If Shikhar doesn't score in one more game, question will be asked why not let Jinks (Rahane) open in his place. I feel it is important to back players and at the same time, compare the stats if you see there are too many people who need to bat at that No. 3 slot. You'll see there are lot of individuals who should bat at No. 3 but Virat Kohli gets an edge.
"In the same way I think (Raina) deserves that No. 4 position more than anyone else, and it's important to back him. Yes, there might be tactical changes when he won't get that slot, but overall I think he's the best option."
The biggest takeaway from that Dhoni quote is the phrase 'it's important to back him'. That's Dhoni's mantra as the captain. That's the reason Rohit has turned into the match-winner he is in limited overs cricket for India. That's the reason Dhawan has been preferred over Rahane at the top despite his inconsistencies. If Dhoni believes in a player, he will go to any extent to back him.
Luckily for Raina, he continues to enjoy that backing. There is nothing Dhoni is more averse to than changing a winning combination, unless his hand is forced.
When Bangladesh come calling in Bengaluru on Wednesday, it is time for Raina to repay that faith.
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