Suresh Raina is the kind of cricketer every captain would love to have in his limited-overs squads. Apart from the fact that he is a muscular left-hand batsman who can give it a mighty thwack, Raina possesses many other attributes that make him a vital cog in the abridged formats. He is an exceptional fielder, a fairly intelligent offspinner and, crucially, he is naturally capable of ensuring shoulders don’t droop and heads don’t drop when things aren’t going your way.
He is the first to converge on a bowler when a wicket falls, no matter whether he is patrolling the covers or is in the deep towards the closing stages of the innings. His energy can be infectious; quick to figure out that the team needs lifting, Raina is a bundle of enthusiasm, urging and exhorting his mates to remain positive and believe that a wicket is just one delivery away.
Yuvraj Singh is cut from a different cloth when it comes to geeing up his colleagues. These days, Yuvraj spends much of his time in the outfield, a far contrast from the days when he used to guard point to left-hander and right, traipsing from one part of the ground to the other during a left-right combination and protecting his patch with utmost ferocity.
He is also, like Raina, a hard-hitting left-hand batsman – ‘The best in T20 cricket’, according to Mahendra Singh Dhoni – who used to be a handy left-arm spinning option until the last 18 months or so. One new ball at each end of a One-Day International innings and no more than four fielders outside the 30-yard circle at any stage, coupled with Yuvraj’s health and form that kept him more out of the side than in it, meant Dhoni has had to learn to rely less and less on Yuvraj the bowler.
Neither Yuvraj nor Raina has been able to nail down a Test spot despite years of trying, now having made way perhaps permanently for the likes of Rohit Sharma and Ajinkya Rahane, well on their way to establishing themselves as permanent fixtures in the five-day game. Since his debut in October 2003, Yuvraj has played only 40 Tests, the last of them in December 2012; Raina, whose initiation into Test cricket came in July 2010 with a hundred on debut against Sri Lanka at the SSC ground, played the last of his 17 Tests in September 2012. It’s fair to say that neither man realistically expects to make a comeback to the Test arena anytime soon. Today, they are battling to regain their spots in the ODI squad, Yuvraj having been dropped after the three-match series in South Africa in December and Raina axed for the Asia Cup in February-March after being left out of the XI midway through the ODI series in New Zealand in January.
The pair will point to the home ODI series against Australia last October as the cause for their latest travails. With an eye on the World Cup in Australia and New Zealand early next year, when India will seek to defend its crown, the think-tank wanted to have multiple options at the pivotal No. 4 position, behind Virat Kohli at one-down. Yuvraj had occupied that position for 58 of his 76 innings between February 2008 and January 2013, including at various stages of the 2011 World Cup when he was the Player of the Tournament. Raina batted at No. 5 or No. 6 for a majority of that time, having grown in stature as the finisher and the provider of late impetus.
The swap against Australia at home was a complete disaster. Raina, batting at No. 4, had scores of 39, 17, 16 and 28 in his four digs, while Yuvraj was infinitely worse off, only mustering 7, 0, 0 and 12 in those same four innings at No. 5. The experiment was shelved the very next series, against West Indies also at home, but the damage seems to be more permanent.
Since returning to No. 4, Yuvraj made 16*, 28 and 55 against West Indies and was dismissed without scoring in the first ODI in South Africa, after which he hasn’t batted in a 50-over international. Back at No. 5, Raina had a sequence of 0, 23, 34, 14, 36, 18, 35 and 31 against West Indies (home), South Africa and New Zealand (both away), making it 12 innings without a half-century and the chop after the third ODI in Auckland.
The World T20 offered both men the ideal platform to showcase their limited-overs skills all over again. For all their Test failings and their recent limited-overs woes, the duo has been at home in the India Blues, dominating bowling attacks in the 50-over game – Raina still averages 35.35 at a strike rate of 91.35 from 189 ODIs, while the corresponding figures for Yuvraj are 36.37 and 87.24 from 295 games – and it was widely believed that, after some time on the sidelines, a return to the 20-over game would reignite the spark.
It seems to have in Raina’s case, though sadly not in Yuvraj’s. Raina has been typically effervescent, seemingly growing a couple of feet taller with each passing day. He muscled the Pakistan bowling while making an unbeaten 35 in India’s first match, this after taking three catches. Against West Indies, he sent down two tidy overs and, walking out with one required off three deliveries but a little bit of pressure created by Yuvraj’s pottering around, promptly sent Marlon Samuels crashing through point for the winning run.
It’s obvious even from afar that Raina feels he belongs in this environment, that the T20 game is his slave, and that he can play with great freedom, without the fear of being peppered by the short delivery that has been his undoing, like many before him and most certainly several after him, too. Yuvraj, on the other hand, is a different story altogether.
Nothing is more reflective of an individual’s state of mind in cricket than his fielding. Yuvraj, electric heels and wanting every ball to come to him at one stage, now spends most of the 20 overs patrolling the boundary, a lumbering, ponderous figure who might give the impression of being a little lost. He has put down two catches, been a trifle slow in getting to the ball and hasn’t exactly inspired confidence with the bat, falling for 1 against Pakistan and taking 19 deliveries for 10 before the last-over dismissal against West Indies.
His teammates have rallied around Yuvraj and Dhoni has made a stirring defence of his one-time main man. It’s not hard to see why. Even today, when he is switched on, Yuvraj is an ultra-destructive batsman who can decisively alter the course of a T20 game in the matter of a few overs. Yuvraj carries with him the potential for mayhem and destruction, something that can’t be said of the only other specialist batsman in the 15-man party here, Rahane. Having opted to give him the opportunity to resurrect his career, India can’t leave him out now, and almost irreparably damage his confidence. Especially when the team is winning, it can afford to carry Yuvraj around for a little while in the hope that he will rediscover his mojo, and that he will be a major force not just in the later stages of this competition, but also leading in to next year’s World Cup. It’s a risk worth taking, backing the proven Yuvraj to come good even if extraneous pressure is mounting. Yuvraj would do well to repay the faith.