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By Suresh Menon
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“I don’t think India actually won the World Cup. I think the television channel did a ‘Wag the Dog’ type of production where everything was staged,” began my neighbour in the Edrich Stand at Lord’s. He was unhappy at the fall of the early wickets, unhappy at the way India had played throughout the series, and worried he might not get his money’s worth on a lovely Sunday.
But he had reckoned without Suresh Raina and skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni who gave a glimpse into the kind of batting Indians are capable of when the planets are in the right configuration. It was exhilarating stuff. Raina threatened to become the first Indian batsman to hit the Lord’s clock, his bias towards rousing shots over midwicket indicating the time had come. He did cart the ball hard and high, but it went into the stands at the opposite end of the ground.
Raina continues to remain an enigma. India’s only centurion in all three forms of the game, he looks world class when battling the white ball. Against the red, however, he often looks pedestrian, even pathetic. At Lord’s, even off spinner Graeme Swann pitched short to him; the faster bowlers didn’t need a special invitation to do so. Yet Raina not only coped, he attacked. The shots were clean, power-packed and cleared the field comfortably. Steve Finn bowling consistently over 90 mph (this was England, and there are some things no one wants to change, metric or not), was sent screaming past midwicket to start the Indian onslaught.
Stuart Broad was deliberately lifted over the wicketkeeper’s head. James Anderson was treated with disrespect bordering on disdain as Raina stepped on the accelerator to add 140 in the last 14 overs with his captain. There was something surreal about all this.
Not so long ago, England’s Graeme Hick had caused similar confusion. He was the finest batsman of his generation – but outside the Tests where he struggled. He had over a hundred first class centuries to his name, including a quadruple century. The West Indies fast bowlers exposed him, as fast bowlers everywhere seem to be doing to Raina.
It is not the easiest thing to do – to play a delivery that is rising into your ribs at top pace. Those with the technique get out of the way or help the ball along towards the boundary. Raina is often caught between two stools, neither moving out quickly enough nor hitting confidently.
Yet it need not all be about technique. Dilip Vengsarkar didn’t have a great technique against the short, rising ball either, yet his centuries against the West Indies during their period of dominance is bettered only by Sunil Gavaskar’s. The opener had flawless technique, Vengsarkar had something that is sometimes a useful substitute. Heart. He was often squared up by the short ball, but he had gumption was tough. It meant taking the odd blow on the body, and being a tall man meant his height was sometimes a disadvantage, but he not only coped, he carried the fight to the bowler.
Raina is clearly a talented batsman, and a potential India captain should he cement his place in the Test squad. In the shorter forms of the game, he is currently India’s best batsman, which allied to his brilliant fielding makes him India’s most valuable player. There is too his off spin bowling.
For a while as the sun shone, and a packed house watched in wonder, sanity seemed to have been restored to the series. India had shown what might have been, but to me the day only served to deepen the Raina mystery.