Seventeen Tests into his career, Suresh Raina is no closer to making a place for himself in the side than he was the previous time he played a match for India in the five-day format.
Making a comeback to the Test side after being dropped for the Australia tour, Raina’s three innings against New Zealand have still not confirmed his potential as a Test batsman. The 2012 World Cup-winner, who has a strong ODI and Twenty20 record, has struggled to nail down his place at No. 6 in India’s Test line-up, and most glaring was his dismissal in the fourth innings of the Bangalore Test.
India were chasing 261 to win. Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir gave India a 77-run start before falling to loose shots, and then Cheteshwar Pujara and Sachin Tendulkar put on 69 for the third wicket. Their dismissals left India in a delicate spot, when Raina walked to the middle. At 158 for 5, with Virat Kohli yet to open his account, what was required of Raina was a cool head, maturity. India were still 103 runs away from victory and consolidation was the need of the hour. Instead, after nine scoreless deliveries against Jeetan Patel, Raina jumped out at his tenth. It was the first of a new over from Patel, and Raina dashed out while making room and was bowled, having missed the ball completely. He made 0 off 10 balls. A needless, reckless, ugly shot.
Though he scored a crucial half-century in the first innings of the Test, Raina’s disgraceful departure in the second innings has raised uncertainty over his Test career. With scores of 3, 55 and 0 in three innings we are nowhere nearer to getting a better sense of Raina as a Test batsman. He has two half-centuries in his last six Tests. Three of his seven half-centuries came in the West Indies. At home, he averages 20.20; overseas, 33.29. With the likes of Subramaniam Badrinath, Rohit Sharma and Manoj Tiwary waiting in the line, and Ajinkya Rahane an option in the top order, the pressure is on Raina to score.
Raina has had a topsy-turvy journey in Tests. He began with a century on debut against Sri Lanka in July 2010 and followed up with scores of 62, 41* and 86 in his next three innings. Two ducks in his next four innings followed. When it was time to secure his place, he failed against New Zealand during the 2010 home series and was dropped from the XI. Recalled for one Test against South Africa at Centurion, he made scores of 1 and 5 – both times steering Jacques Kallis into the slips. Half-centuries in three Tests against West Indies in 2011 seemed to bring a golden for Raina, but a disastrous England summer, which ended with a pair at The Oval, saw Raina dropped.
A strong run in limited-overs cricket and Rohit’s woeful form earned Raina a Test recall for the New Zealand series. After three innings, he has failed to convince his detractors that he’s overcome his technical weaknesses.
What Raina does appear to have in his favour is the support of MS Dhoni. Backing and defending him from the critics, Dhoni in a recent press conference said, "It's important to have a left-hander at six or seven. This series [Daniel] Vettori wasn't playing but if a left-hander is there, the mix becomes ideal. Gambhir is at the top of the tree and then you have a fair number of right-handers. Then it's useful if you have a left-hander at six."
Regardless of what Dhoni says in his defence, however, there are still questions over Raina’s abilities as a Test batsman.