GURGAON: His place in the Indian team has often been subject to scrutiny and his ins-and-outs part of an oscillating international cricketing career that has spanned almost 13 years, but in Chennai Super Kings, Suresh Raina has always found a home.
Both CSK’s and Raina’s graphs have always gone hand in hand. Over the last decade, as the franchise established itself as arguably the premier T20 franchise in the world, with two IPL championships and two Champions League T20 titles, Raina developed himself into a top-order behemoth around which CSK’s batting revolved. The records speak volumes: 172 matches, 4855 runs at an average of nearly 34 and a strike rate touching 140. Raina is an IPL legend in every regard.
And while CSK have marked a triumphant return to the IPL by making it to the play-offs – they have done so in every IPL they’ve been part of – Raina, with over 300 runs including three half-centuries, has once again been at the centre of their success. More importantly, he has shown shades of his earlier self, scoring at a strike-rate of over 135 and dealing with the short ball fairly well. The numbers may not entirely be in his favour, but the quality of Raina’s knocks have been extremely influential in CSK becoming the second team to cement a place in the final-four of IPL 2018.
“We (CSK) have done really well. Some of the boys have really chipped in and taken the responsibility and that is why every game we have played, we have played it like a champion side. We have played our matches with a fearless approach,” Raina told TOI Sports in a chat.
He was quick to follow up this statement by singling out one weak link for the returning franchise.
“I do think we need to improve our fielding a bit, an area that our coach and captain have pointed out this season,” said Raina. “We need to hold on to our catches and manage to get more run-outs. Getting into the play-offs, we need to step the game up a notch. We just need to go out there and play like the champion team that we are. The real test of the tournament begins now, since every team is fighting for the third and fourth spots and no team is going to make it any easy for us. Hopefully, we’ll play the final in Mumbai.”
As confident as Raina is of CSK making it to the IPL 2018 final, he seemed pleased with the way he is batting. The calf injury at the beginning of the season brought his record 158-match streak to an end but since then a determined Raina returned to score three half-centuries for CSK. Against Sunrisers Hyderabad, when CSK were reduced to 32/2, his unbeaten 43-ball 54 played second fiddle to Ambati Rayudu’s bonkers of a 79-run knock that gave CSK a winning total of 182. Against Mumbai Indians, Raina contributed with a 47-ball 75 in a losing cause, but that was the closest he was seen to being at his flamboyant best. His third fifty also didn’t win CSK the game, but again indicated that he was not willing to give up his place in the Indian team just yet.
“I’ve been batting really well. I missed out one game because of the injured calf. I wasn’t in the right frame of mind back then because I thought it will take at least three weeks to recover. So every time I stepped onto the field, I had to work really hard on my calf. But thanks to our doctors for managing it so well that I ended up missing just one game,” Raina said.
“I’ve been hitting the ball well; scored a couple of fifties and more importantly, the team has qualified so that’s a good feeling. We have a couple of more games to go and hopefully I can help in the team’s cause.”
CSK’s return was greeted with plenty of emotions, and for obvious reasons. Here was a side that, despite being one of the most consistent teams, was cast aside due to matters that transpired off the field. Ever since CSK were welcomed back into the IPL, and the crux of the team retained during January’s player auction, the next target was to banish the thoughts of uncertainty. Raina admits that figuring out whether CSK still had what it takes to succeed was one of the prime challenges the team identified at the beginning of the season.
“I think the biggest challenge for us was to maintain the standard at which CSK have performed. And since we have secured a play-off berth, I assume we have lived up to the reputation of CSK being one of the strongest IPL sides,” he said.
“Apart from the players, I think we have a wonderful coaching staff too that are equally critical to our success this season. We have a player from Tamil Nadu, who is our bowling coach. Then we have Michael Hussey, who has been a match-winner for Australia for so many years, and now is our batting coach. And obviously, then you have MS [Dhoni].
“So we have all these guys, who you’ve played with, shared the dressing room, flights and had numerous meetings with. You need someone who can give you the right sort of approach. We have a core group that always believes we can win from any situation, and heading into the play-offs, every team needs that belief,” he said.
The years 2016 and 2017 were perhaps the toughest phases of Raina’s career. His place in the Indian team was lost and CSK were suspended for two seasons, during which time Raina was appointed captain of Gujarat Lions – a fresh opportunity to get back among the runs. He cashed in and scored 399 and 442 runs respectively in two seasons, but while Lions topped the league table before bowing out in the qualifiers in their debut season, the franchise fell flat the year later. Decked with big-hitters at the top of the order, Lions went in to the season with one of the weakest bowling units in the tournament and not surprisingly, struggled in defending totals. Add to that the injury woes that ruled out allrounder Dwayne Bravo entirely and sidelined James Faulkner and Ravindra Jadeja for the early part of the season, and Lions failed to provide any kind of threat to their opposition.
Despite the team’s failings, Raina believes he gained a lot as a leader from those two seasons.
“It [leading Gujarat Lions] helped a lot in changing the outlook of my game. I’ve captained the Indian side, UP side, Air India side, and now in the IPL. I think the best thing that happened in Gujarat was that I had the same group of guys which I did in CSK, the likes of Brendon McCullum, Dwayne Bravo and others. So nothing changed much,” said Raina. “When I was with Gujarat, I just needed to sit with all these quality players, form the team and make the decisions. And all these guys were always present to offer help along the way. Overall, the captaincy stint with Gujarat made me a lot wiser.”
Following the IPL that year, Raina’s form dipped and he turned to domestic cricket in an attempt to get back into the scheme of things. The Yo-Yo test episode, that Raina reportedly failed to clear and resulted in his snub from the Indian limited-overs side for the Sri Lanka series last August, made matter worse. Besides, his five Ranji Trophy matches for Uttar Pradesh produced 105 runs at a dismal average of 11.66. But just when all doors were beginning to shut, pieces began falling back in.
In December, Raina tweeted that he had cleared the Yo-Yo endurance test and roared back to form with a 49-ball century against Bengal in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy a month later. There were three more fifties there, and Raina was deservedly rewarded with a call back to Indian T20 side that toured South Africa.
“It was an important knock (126* against Bengal). I was representing my state and I hadn’t gotten among the runs. I was getting out on the first or the second ball, so scoring a hundred against Bengal in Kolkata came at the right time and it was very pleasing. After the match, I and Harbhajan [Singh] went to Sourav Ganguly’s place for dinner. We had a discussion about how he made a comeback to the Indian team in 2006. I was in the same boat as his back then. That pep talk was extremely helpful and luckily, I was drafted back into the T20 team and did well against South Africa and Sri Lanka,” Raina said.
While his current target is for CSK to win the IPL title for a third time, tying Mumbai Indians for the record, you can’t help but think that Raina’s next aim will be to cement a place back in the Indian one-day side. With the World Cup less than a year away, and India’s middle order far from settled, there may still be a glimmer of hope for Raina, provided he soon rediscovers the element that once made him a big threat in limited-overs.