IPL 2019: Four hours that typified Suresh Raina's decline

Harigovind Sankar

Tuk, tuk, loft: the Suresh Raina mantra that has blown colder than hot this season

At the end of the national highway from the Pocharam village in Telengana, the Rajiv Gandhi International Stadium is waiting with its head cast high. It exudes authority, might, and a certain profligacy.

The groundsmen are watering its lush green outfields, each water droplet caressing its strands of grass in a melange of green and blue. Three kilometres away, the Charminar swanks away its pulchritude, in an entrancing display of regal power and architecture, with the Musi river striking its feet with warmth.

Streaks of light transpire over the waves, arranging themselves in a circular pattern forming a necklace over the city.

It's been waiting for since as long as the city of Hyderabad. Ever since the IPL final was shifted from Chepauk to the capital of India's 29th state, the Rajiv Gandhi International Stadium has sported a smile.

Its pavilions have started bustling with joy, its advertising boards have been on cloud nine, and the furniture that has been craving for more spectators has found a fresh lease of hope. It is because the city of Hyderabad was not in the same league as some others.

There was no World Cup triumph on this pitch, no pathbreaking triple centuries, no belter-of-a-batting-track label, no scenic beauty embellishing its backforth.

The very name of the stadium signifies its simplicity, christened after India's former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.

Perhaps the city's only cricketing stalwart was VVS Laxman, after whom the North Stand of the stadium is named. It was clearly not in the same league as the likes of Mumbai, Chennai, or Kolkata. And that was why the IPL final mattered to them.

So with three hours to go for the commencement of the final episode of the world's most lucrative T20 tournament, there is a sense of anticipation building up.

It is a buzz of euphoria, a buzz of ecstasy, a buzz of passion. A sea of yellow has thronged the gates, erupting into the stands like pestilence.

Blue, albeit being the relative minority, has also made itself conspicuous, in a contrasting juxtaposition of the two colours that have been synonymous with the IPL. It is a sight you would see no where else in the world this, an intricate speciality of the Vivo IPL. The Rajiv Gandhi International Stadium finds its salvation.

Amidst the obstreperousness, amidst the clamour, this crowd of 55,000 is listening on. All ears for the cricket going on. It is the sound of willow caressing the pitch that permeates their ears, and plunges them into life.

They don't recall seeing their Thala walking out to stretch as yet - he rarely does with an hour to go - but they do hope it is him. Then, as one yellow-clad supporter looks on after another, a cry erupts from the North Stand, enough to tear away a thousand vocal cords. "Chinna Thalai!', it comes and reverberates all over the stands for a few minutes. Suresh Raina.

EYES TRANSFIXED ON THE BALL: Harbhajan Singh watches on as Raina lofts the ball over mid on in a practice match for the Chennai Super Kings

Suresh Raina is parrying a short ball. He's made up his mind he's going to make it big tonight. As the bowler steams in, white ball in hand, Raina knows what it's going to be. His malice against the short ball has been well documented in the past, and has been the major bugbear in his batting armoury.

His trigger movement as the bowler reaches his popping crease is accentuated - back and across to his middle stump, body weight concentrated on his left foot, committed to play the pull shot or fend away a rising bouncer. But as they say, the worst thing about net practice is that you know what's coming at you.

Mohammad Asif doles out a perfect leg-stump yorker, swinging in and dipping in on the batsman. The ball tails away as Raina opens his eyes wide and brings his bat down to glance past fine leg. All he hears is the sound of timber - leg stump knocked over and bowler going bonkers. Oohs and ahs envelop the stadium.

Raina knows what has struck him. It was the unexpected again, that key word which makes every story interesting. His mind went back to 2015 when Kagiso Rabada had yorked him out after he was on his backfoot in anticipation of a vicious short ball.

2014, when Steven Finn had ended his tour of England with a frivolous yorker after he'd exposed his leg stump. 2012, when Mitchell Johnson had sent down a searing toe-crusher to send his leg stump flying. The very key word was making his story miserable.

But it was more about the short ball. His inexorable Achilles Heel, the chink in his armoury that had been exploited by seamers ever since he burst into the international scene. As a chubby 19-year old, it was a Muttiah Muralitharan half-tracking doosra that got him out for a debut duck.

In 2013, he hopped and jabbed and played around in front of the Aussies, as Mitchell Jonson sent out a barrage of bouncers that seemed to have his number written on them. He swayed, ducked, and hooked without success before meekly edging a short ball to slips off Johnson.

In the 2015 World Cup, as India geared up for the semi-final against Australia, Raina knew what was coming at him. He toiled hard in the Sydney nets, facing up against racqueted tennis balls, as Dhoni alongside Duncan Fletcher hurled balls at him. He was caught behind by Haddin off a short delivery from Faulkner.

His existent weakness was leading to anticipation of its exploitation, which was throwing the unexpected into the picture. Now he was being yorked, not just bounced. His body weight was on his back foot, but his leg stump was exposed.

But tonight is extra special - there's the motivation of wanting to be the second IPL team to retain their trophy, there's the hunger to incriminate the selection committee that had looked past him for the number 4 spot in the World Cup. Raina has to find a way.

SHORT BALL MALICE: Suresh has been at the receiving end of some hostile short pitched bowling over the years, and has earned himself the evitable tag of being a poor puller

So Mahendra Singh Dhoni calls it wrong at the toss (for a change) and CSK are fielding first. Raina scurries from mid-on to long-off to point to covers to deep square leg. He used to be CSK's premier fielder alongside Ravindra Jadeja. When he sticks his hands out, the ball usually goes in.

He already has a catch under his belt, that of the marauding Ishan Kishan who was beginning to strike the long handle after stringing together a partnership for with Suryakumar Yadav.

But now two giants are at the crease, Hardik Pandya and Kieron Pollard, and when these two get going cricket balls begin weeping for mercy. CSK need their wickets. Else they're staring down at a score in excess of 170 to chase. And then the opportunity lobs up.

Hardik Pandya has skied a Shardul Thakur bouncer, and the ball is up in the air for grabs. It goes up a mile, and is coming back at the speed of light. Thakur cries, 'catch it!' as Raina positions himself under the ball and reverse cups to take the catch.

His hands move automatically with the ball, and he judges the ball perfectly; years of experience come to the fore. But wait....one, two, three. He juggles with the ball from right hand to left, as the cherry begins to leave him with every nanosecond. Raina grasses the ball, and lies down on the ground defeated, deflated.

'Stick, stick, stick! Let's give it up now.'

Age? Eras? Passion? What was catching up with Suresh Raina, once dubbed the next big thing in Indian cricket and later touted to be the fittest cricketer going around? What was meddling with his prodigious cricket, that had once levitated him up the ranks of the international arena and tagged him a superstar of Indian cricket?

How could a global icon, who'd scaled several peaks wearing his country colours on his sleeve, shrink to a measure as low as this downcast spectacle from a few days ago?

2017, with the Gujarat Lions. Anyone who was seeing Suresh Raina after a while would've had their jaws dropping. Flabbergasted. He turns up at the toss for the first match absolutely paunched and corporated. He's carrying himself around like a big fat monster, with a large protruding belly. Dropping catches, conceding misfields, a bulky thirty year old looking like a ball of yarn. Nowhere near giving the impression of being a professional sportsman.

Raina carried around his weight throughout the 2017 IPL, on occassions cracking self-deprecating jokes about his corporation

By this time, he was already out of the Indian ODI team, trying to force his spot into the T20 side, and had last played a Test match for India three years back.

His domestic performances were appalling to say the least, averaging 17.86 in 11 Vijay Hazare games across 2016. All he had going for himself was the tag of inveteracy he carried around. He capped off his season failing a yo-yo test, making a score of 15 when the norm was around 18. Illegible for selection.

The backfoot pull shot demands core strength. It requires the batsman to judge the line of the ball early, and move accordingly to get behind its line in preparation.

The final retrenchment involves the legs moving with the bat, enabling the body to open up and get a free flow of the bat. To a searing pace bowler, more often than not you're too late to judge the ball, so the only sensible way to get behind the ball is by working your torso. And, as is obvious, love handles don't help here, rock-solid abs do. Suresh Raina had the first.

But the fifty thousands in this stadium don't see it, they don't feel it. All they want is a triumph of yellow - or yellove as it has been redolently misspelt this season - a reason to cheer in unison for their beloved franchise, a reason to hold that Chennai Super Kings flag up aloft. Raina has to deliver.

Same shot, same strike, same angle: but the belly's back in place

So he walks out to bat at the Rajiv Gandhi International Cricket stadium, with the scoreboard reading 33-1, with Chennai in dire need of a partnership. The in-form Faf du Plessis is gone, and Shane Watson is slowly getting into his own. Time in the middle, Raina tells himself as he punches gloves with the Aussie. He bobs his sleeves to give him a free swing of the bat, and is raring to go. Enter Mitchell McClenaghan.

It's the bouncer that Raina knows is coming....it's quick and wobbling on its seam. Raina gets into a terrible position to play it, just leaving his hands up there....the ball goes past him and the wicketkeeper claims the catch, and umpire Ian Gould puts his finger up. But Raina reviews the call straightaway, and the third umpire rules it not out. Misses it between the cup and the lip. Raina survives.

Throughout his fourteen-ball stay at the crease, Raina remains really iffy, blowing cold more than hot to yield a meagre eight runs. It would've been an innings that would have come under major scrutiny had it not been for Watson's blitzkrieg from the other end. And to make matters worse, Raina took away a review with him as he crawled back to the dressing room intimidated.

It was mirroring of his 2019 IPL season. A season that he came into with hopes of sneaking back into the national side.

The World Cup squad was due to be picked, and Suresh's only hopes of staking a claim for the anachronous Indian No.4 spot was by smashing down the IPL roof.

However, he walked more than he sprinted, in taking the lonely amble back to the pavilion after getting dismissed for low scores. He did make three fifties, but two of those came against the misfiring bowling lineups of KKR and Punjab. It's been a downward spiral for Raina, one at that which he hadn't seen coming.

EFEATED, DEFLATED, DOWNCAST: A moment of agony as Suresh gets dismissed by a David Willey bouncer in 2018 on his ODI return

In early 2018, Raina was indeed bringing the roof down at a domestic T20 league. Scores of 51, 50*, and 81* in three consecutive innings as Uttar Pradesh captain in the Vijay Hazare Trophy were slowly bringing him back into the selectors' radar again. Then came that epic 126 not out off 59 balls, when he cut, pulled, and drove the cherry in enrapturing style enroute a match winning knock, as Raina walked back into the T20I side in Africa.

There he was the Man of the Match in the third T20I, as India defeated the hosts 2-1 in the three-match series. The belly was back in, the cheeks were skinnier, and Raina was sprinting between the wickets like the good ol' days. His golden arm was being rolled over, and occasionally yielding the wickets. Bullet train in the field. It was vintage Raina.

South Africa had within its ranks the likes of Junior Dala, Chris Morris, and Duanne Olivier who could combine raw pace with deception to make the perfect blend to exploit Raina's short ball woes.

He decides, for a change, to counter fire with fire this time. Raina would go on to strike short pitched deliveries at a strike rate of 167.67 over the three games, mercilessly whacking anything short or overpitched.

A newspaper headline from the next day reads, "Suresh Raina is back." Or so we thought.

Ousted from the national side, a determined Raina brings his A game to the fore in a Vijay Hazare trophy. On this occasion, he pulls his way to 126*.

And here he is today, head filled in hands, teary-eyed, sinking into his changeroom chair, as he sees the Chennai Super Kings going down against Mumbai Indians by one run. It was a situation when he couldn't help but think what if he hadn't missed that straight leggie from Rahul Chahar, and batted on for longer periods with the likes of Jadeja for company?

What if the umpire Gould hadn't raised that deadly index finger that batsman across the globe dread, and signalled him out? Why play that ball across the line, when he could always have skipped a few yards down and played it through the offside? Raina sinks deeper into his chair in introspection, and clenches his face tight.

All throughout the season, he looked like a man who did not want to be there in the first place. He wasn't smiling 24/7, he wasn't clapping for his teammates, he wasn't ready with celebratory hugs after wickets - in stark contrast to what we've associated him with over the years.

His face looked as inanimate and morose as a pumpkin, struggling to find the plastic smile he's been using in advertisements inside the Chennai camp. It is such a saddening sight.

And so his four hours went by - four hours that saw the Rajiv Gandhi International stadium erupt in his eulogy and subside, four hours that saw an age-old apprehension from over a decade back being reinforced, four hours of warding off the unexpected, four hours of mediocrity and parity that ultimately culminated in 'the team that made lesser mistakes' triumphing. Four deadly hours for Suresh Raina.

Between the devil and the deep blue sea?