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By Partab Ramchand
Sometimes just one outstanding performance can help transform a player and Indian cricket fans will no doubt be hoping that Suresh Raina’s 60-ball 101 against South Africa on Sunday will help take the naturally aggressive and prodigiously gifted left hander to another level. In becoming the first Indian to hit a hundred in Twenty20 internationals Raina displayed traits of Yuvraj Singh with whom he has been compared to on numerous occasions. What can be a better treat for Indian cricket followers than Raina coming in at No 3 and Yuvraj at No 4 and both taking the bowling apart.
Raina is a limited overs specialist. At least that’s how the credentials will have it for he has played 90 ODIs and 13 Twenty20 internationals without playing a single Test. But he certainly has the temperament to make it big in the longer version of the game and this is borne out from his first class figures where he averages almost 45 with six centuries and a highest score of 203. One would like to think that he is one of the front runners for one of the middle order slots once the trio of Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar and VVS Laxman call it a day. Dravid, for one, has a high opinion of him. A couple of years ago, dazzled by one of his knocks, Dravid gushed: "Raina has shown what a phenomenal player he can turn into." And at 23, he certainly has time on his side.
I remember that when he first came up on the international scene nearly five years ago, Raina attracted more than usual attention for a variety of reasons. Here was a youngster not yet 19 who loved to hit the ball hard and high, was aggression personified and yet seemed in control of his shots and was a brilliant fielder. Even among the number of outstanding young talent, the lad from Ghaziabad in Uttar Pradesh stood out. Oh yes, the state of origin was another fact that held one’s attention for it meant that here was another promising talent from a backward region, cricketwise. Incidentally he made his ODI debut just a few months after a certain MS Dhoni from Jharkand made his.
Critics wrote in glowing terms about the uncommonly gifted left-hander predicting that he was going to be one of the batting bulwarks of the future. The obvious comparison was with Yuvraj Singh for Raina too had this ability to decimate the attack when in full flow. Greg Chappell who had just taken over as coach thought highly of Raina and it seemed only a matter of time before he established himself in the middle order. Match winning knocks of 81 not out, 61 and 53 against England in mid-2006 seemed to confirm this. Inexplicably however the runs dried up and at one stage he couldn’t manage even a half century in 16 innings. By January 2007 Raina’s international career seemed to have ground to a premature halt. At the age of 20 his cricketing obituary was being written even as Chappell, his faith in Raina unshaken, fought hard for his inclusion in the squad for the World Cup in the Caribbean. The selectors however thought that style should be balanced with substance and so it was back to Ghaziabad for Raina. Never had so much promise fizzled out so quickly.
But Raina takes his cricket very seriously. During his time in exile he ironed out technical flaws in his batting, tightened up his technique without compromising too much on his natural aggressive play and let his bat do the talking around the domestic circuit. He starred in Uttar Pradesh’s maiden triumph in the Ranji Trophy in 2005-06. Another consistent performance by Raina saw UP make the title clash a couple of years later before losing to Delhi. All this along with the selectors’ accent on youth meant that Raina was back to the national squad after more than a year in the wilderness.
There can be few better investments than Raina. Since his return he has been a regular in the middle order and has turned himself into a reliable No 3 both in ODIs and Twenty20 games. There is a certain maturity and assurance in his approach that was lacking during his earlier stint in the team. His confidence is growing and this is borne out by his strike rate in ODIs which has steadily risen and is now approaching 90. It is an equally impressive 134 in T20 Internationals. But in Raina’s case it is not just the runs but the `tashan’ (style) that catches the eye. His attitude gives the unmistakable impression that he could bat with the same bold approach even against the best sides. As his batting for the Chennai Super Kings in the IPL and his knock the other day against South Africa underlined Raina is getting to be the kind of finisher that any team would pray for in limited overs cricket.
The days of unfulfilled promise are now firmly behind Raina whose fielding is really quite something even with the rise in standards. He could well be one of Indian cricket’s future flag bearers. He is still in the evolving stage there is little doubt that his best is yet to come.