India’s ODI series win in South Africa has been comprehensive, but there is still – as it should be if you are looking for perfection – cause for concern. Now that they have got wristspinners picking up wickets in the middle overs, India’s only remaining bugbear is their batting from Nos 4 to 7.
Despite good starts, in the three matches that India batted first, they scored 133, 116 and 103 in their last 20 overs. Even when making allowances for the slower pitches in this series, this is not good enough, especially keeping in mind India’s middle and lower middle order have been known to struggle in the recent past. Ajinkya Rahane, the new No. 4, might have done enough to continue in that role for another series at least. It is too close to the World Cup to replace MS Dhoni. Hardik Pandya will be important as he gets closer to becoming a 10-overs bowler. That leaves one missing link: a batsman who can go big from ball one or rebuild an innings if required, is flexible with where he bats, and can provide a few overs as back-up for Pandya. A little big-match experience wouldn’t hurt either.
That that spot is still not nailed down makes this upcoming T20I series important. Coming back in this series is a man who can hit big, who has experience, with an average close to 60 from two World Cups, is a good fielder, and a canny offspinner. He also brings some right-left balance to the batting line-up.
Suresh Raina last played for India more than a year ago: all of three T20Is in 2017. His last ODI for India was part of a poor home series against South Africa in 2015, the World Cup year. Since then, Raina has been more out than in India’s limited-overs sides. One of the reasons has been his failing the yo-yo test, which he seems to have cleared now. He recently told TV channel Aaj Tak that he was dropped despite good performances. He also went through a period of innuendo around his commitment and work ethic when he missed Ranji Trophy matches because his father and daughter were unwell at the same time.
Because India are still not set with their middle order, Raina must not give up on a proper comeback. A good T20I series in South Africa can guarantee him a slot in the triangular T20I series in Sri Lanka. If he does well there and in the IPL, there is a real chance for him to travel to England a year before the World Cup. The team management has shown it is flexible by going back to Rahane at No. 4 after having earlier said they were looking at him as an opener alone.
Raina comes with form. He was the sixth-highest run-getter in India’s domestic Twenty20 tournament, the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy. His strike rate nudged 150. He scored an unbeaten century in the Super League part of the tournament, followed by fifties on the next two days.
In the IPL, too, Raina will be in a familiar role: focussing on his batting as Dhoni captains a familiar side, Chennai Super Kings. If he has to impress the India team management, though, he will have to begin doing it now. For, while there is hope for a big comeback, it is just a glimmer. He doesn’t have too much time either, as India have only two ODI series left outside Asia – in England later this year and in New Zealand early next year – before the World Cup.
The only thing is, as every player will tell you, it is more difficult to make a comeback than a debut in Indian cricket. The landscape has changed since Raina last played. While ODI cricket – all limited-overs cricket in fact – has become flatter and easier for the top order facing the new ball, all middle orders are under pressure. If Raina has to come back, he will have to do so the hard way.