There are few things more unattractive in the game of cricket than watching Suresh Raina “expect” a short ball to be bowled at him. It’s another sight altogether when he plays the ball – shifted over to outside off-stump, crouched, unsure and, worst of all, fearful. For the record, he assumes this position for almost every ball he faces from a seam bowler.
The longer the run-up, the more Raina shuffles across even before the ball leaves the hand. An indication was the way he played Delhi Daredevils all-rounder Chris Morris on Monday night. Morris runs up from almost the boundary line, and he has begun to hit the high 140s. But he isn’t what you’d always call “express pace.” Raina seemed to have played most balls even before Morris started his run up. You could almost sense that, in anticipation of a fast bouncer, every sinew of Raina’s slightly overweight body prepares to leap around the crease like a frightened hare. By the time Morris bowls a fuller fast one, Raina is already playing way outside off-stump, in the process of looking extremely ungraceful while desperately flicking away the ball from his pads. It looks like a last-ditch attempt to not get out, instead of being a shot to get some runs.
Quite often, the bowler is quick enough to make Raina feel like a fool – the ball is simply a fast Yorker or full-toss aimed at the leg stump, and Raina has moved too far across to reach it. It’s a psychological dismissal more than anything, because he isn’t beaten for swing or seam. He is just beaten because he was trying not to be beaten by the short ball.
This patented Raina hop-skip-jump has only become more frantic over the years. You’d think that a middle-order batsman in international cricket who has survived in the Indian team for more than a decade would have found a solution by now – heck, even Sourav Ganguly looked more comfortable against the bouncer by the end of his career – but Raina has only gone from bad to worse. And now, he isn’t “surviving” in the team anymore either. T20 is the only format he is a sure pick in, more so because of his reputation of having played every T20 game ever, his energy and because there is nobody who can just come in and hit the ball like he tries to. Credit to his attitude, but his mind has stopped being able to handle the fact that many bowlers know exactly what his weakness is. In the ongoing Indian T20 league, as captain of the Gujarat Lions, Raina’s batting flaws have been largely disguised by his solid team. Coming in at number 3, he hasn’t looked convincing in any of the 8 innings he has played – not even the boundary-laden 75, the only fifty so far of his tournament. All the time, he looks so spent and intense while facing the seamers, that when a spinner comes on, like Amit Mishra did on Monday, he lets his brain relax and fade away, eventually getting foxed as if he has switched off. Mishra bamboozled him, and others will too, down the line, and this is only because of the big, bad fast bowlers who have built the platform prior to his dismissals. Even his dismissive swipes across deep mid-wicket have lost their fizz, and he misses the ball with shocking consistency these days.
In 2011, during the ODI World Cup that India eventually won, Raina hadn’t been selected for the initial stages until they reached the quarterfinal. It was in Ahmedabad, against Champions Australia, that Raina’s late flourish – especially his confident, straight six off Brett Lee –turned the tide of India’s campaign; for the first time, it dawned upon many, including his own teammates, that they could win the whole thing, and that they had a man for every moment. Raina’s break back into the team was timely and fearless back then, and he was even young and agile enough to hop around without getting beaten. He never looked totally at ease, but he knew how to make the most of it when he wasn’t beaten.
Perhaps, we will never see Suresh Raina at his best again. But then, his best was always a defense mechanism to avoid the worst.