Success in international sports is all about proper timing. This would mean that one should be born during the proper period, should get the right breaks on time and simultaneously develop the skillsets and temperament to perform well on the big stage. Ensuring that one is in the peak form on the occasion of big games is a sense of timing that only great sportsmen possess. It is equally important to get the timing correct when it comes to retirement. It is quite natural that sportspersons would wish to keep going on and on, seldom realising the strains and rigours that the body is put through, with the result that quite a few continue playing despite being well past their salad days. Only the most intelligent ones are able to get the timing correct when it comes to hanging up one’s boots.
Suresh Raina, who announced his retirement on 15 August 2020, was one such player who could not get his timing correct in international cricket despite many notable performances. immediately after Mahendra Singh Dhoni informed the world that he had quite playing cricket in the international arena, Raina followed suit, placing a message on Instagram that he was also “joining his former skipper in this journey”. By the sheer timing, or rather, through complete lack of it, Raina ensured that his exit from first-class cricket became a non event, as both print and visual media focused almost exclusively on Dhoni, with only very few words being spoken and written about this Uttar Pradesh (UP) left-handed batsman. He had also pulled out of this edition of the Indian Premier League (IPL), where he was a champion performer, citing “personal reasons”.
It was his precocious ability with the bat and the tons of runs that he scored which brought Raina to the notice of national selectors while still in his early teens. He was selected to the national under-19 side in 2002, when he was only 15 years of age and justified his selection with two half-centuries in “Test” matches. He made his debut in Ranji Trophy in 2003 for UP and quickly established himself in the side. He scored prolifically in the 2004 ICC U-19 World Cup and made a smooth transition to the senior squad when he was chosen to tour Sri Lanka in July, 2005.
Raina had an inauspicious entry into international cricket as the very first ball that he faced was a doosra from Muttiah Muralitharan which foxed him and trapped him leg before wicket. He soon made his mark as an outstanding fielder within the circle in limited overs cricket but could not get going with the bat. The fact that India had a strong and settled middle order in both formats of the game, into which it was almost impossible to break in, also went against him. So he was not in the squad for the side that played in the ICC World Cup of 2007 nor in the squad that lifted the ICC T20 Championship held in the same year.
The commencement of IPL in 2008 brought a change in his fortunes. He was bought by Chennai Super Kings (CSK), where he got ample opportunities for demonstrating his talent and potential. His strong performances in the IPL gave a fillip to his career and brought him back to the national side. The stint at CSK brought him close to skipper Dhoni, who developed faith in the abilities, which stood him in good stead from then on in his career.
The years between 2008 and 2011 were the best ones for Raina in the national side. He scored the first of his five centuries in One-Day Internationals during the 2008 Asia Cup match against Hong Kong. He became the first Indian to score a century in the shortest version of the game when he hit 101 against South Africa at Gros Islet in West Indies in the third edition of the ICC T20 World Cup in May, 2010. His good form earned him a call to the Indian Test squad and he repaid the trust placed on him by the selectors by hitting a fine century (120) on his debut against Sri Lanka at Colombo in July, 2010. While doing so, he also became the first Indian batsman to score a century in all three formats of the game in the international arena.
Raina was a certainty in the Indian squad for the 2011 ICC World Cup. However, he found himself left out of the playing side during the initial matches as the team management preferred to play Yusuf Pathan, who had been in terrific form in the run-up to the tournament. Raina could get an opportunity only in the last match of the league against the West Indies, where he could not contribute much with the bat. However, in the quarterfinal against Australia, he showed his real value to the side by helping the hosts win in a closely contested match. Walking in to bat when India were five wickets down for 187, needing 84 off 75 balls, Raina showed no signs of nerves as he counterattacked with gusto to strike a quick-fire unbeaten 34 that came off a mere 28 balls, thus snuffing out whatever little hopes that the Aussies might have nursed till then. He continued his good form in the semifinal game against Pakistan also where he anchored the lower order skilfully and ensured that the side reached a respectable total of 260/9 in the allotted 50 overs. His undefeated 36, compiled off 39 balls, was instrumental in preventing a batting collapse after Dhoni left in the 42nd over, with the scoreboard reading 205/6. Raina was not required to bat in the finals as the duo of Dhoni and Yuvraj Singh sealed the victory in style.
At this stage, it appeared that Raina would soon cement his place in the national side in all formats of the game. The absence of Yuvraj due to illness and the impending retirement of the the “Fab Four”, called for moulding a new set of players who could take over the responsibilities from them. But Raina could not grab the opportunities that came his way. A weakness against the short ball was exploited mercilessly by fast bowlers in England and Australia, resulting in a run of low scores and he soon found himself out of the side for Test matches. He continued to play in ODIs and T20 matches, where his contribution as a fielder inside the circle remained as valuable as the runs that came off his bat.
There were the occasional hundreds from Raina in the post 2011 phase as well, with the century against England at Cardiff in 2014 being talked about highly by those witnessed it. He started off well in the ICC World Cup 2015, where his innings of 74 off 56 balls in the first match against Pakistan laid the foundation for a comprehensive win. In the game against Zimbabwe, India was in a spot having lost four wickets for 92, chasing a target of 288, when Raina and Dhoni got together. Raina struck a superb unbeaten 110 and, with the support of Dhoni, guided the side to a facile victory. He scored another half-century in the quarterfinal against Bangladesh, hitting 65 off a mere 57 balls.
However, this streak of good form proved to be the last glow of a failing candle as Raina got bogged down with injuries and could not touch peak levels of physical fitness after that. Runs also dried up and despite the occasional calls for national duty, he was out of the reckoning for big tournaments. He lso created a bad precedence by skipping domestic first-class and List A matches and playing only the IPL, as happened during the 2019 season.
However, Raina can claim credit to being one of the most consistent players in the history of IPL . With 5,368 runs to his credit from 193 matches, he stands second only to Virat Kohli in the total number of runs scored by an individual batsman in this championship. He was a real asset for the CSK side, scoring more than 400 runs in every season till 2015. He led Gujarat Lions XI during the 2016 and 2017 when CSK were suspended from the championship. He also struck good vibes with the Chennai crowd, who named him as “chinna thala”, after Dhoni, who was the “thala”.
As Raina quits the scene, the obvious question that pops up is whether he did justice to the immense talent that he was blessed with. He was an important member of the national side, especially in the limited overs format for many years. It is true that his contributions would not always find reflection in number of runs scored as many a time he had walked in when very few overs remained and he was required to accelerate the run scoring. He played the role of a floater with great success during his peak and his fielding skills was always a great asset to the side.
However, when it came to Test matches, the feeling somehow remains that he did not try enough and put in the effort required to iron out the weakness against the short ball. If he had conquered this deficiency, he would have become a permanent part of the Indian side and even a contender for national captaincy. It might have been that he saw himself more as a limited overs cricketer and did not feel the need to get over this failing. Or the success, both monetary and fame, that came his way from doing well in the IPL and shorter formats of the game sated his hunger completely leading to some element of complacency.
Whatever the reason, the sad truth is that Raina remains an underachiever in the world of cricket. Despite his prodigious talent, he could not exactly get going in international cricket, except in some patches where he demonstrated his full potential. This awry sense of timing, which throttled his career unfortunately extended to the announcement of retirement as well.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)