“I am playing the 2019 World Cup in England. It’s the final. India is playing Australia or Pakistan. And I hit the winning shot, a four. She is clapping in the stands. The tricolour is flying. Everyone is cheering for me. That’s what I want. That’s what I dream of.”
The first frame of the next ‘cricket film’? The thought Hardik Pandya or Manish Pandey wake up with every other day? It might well be one or both but, for now, it’s Suresh Raina talking about his career, his future, and 15-month-old Gracia, his daughter whose name is tattooed on his left forearm. Of course, Raina would want his leading lady, Priyanka, to be there too.
You normally don’t hear this from someone who has a World Cup winner’s medal in his cupboard already. But, at 31, Raina’s career is at a crossroads. He last played a One-Day International – his 223rd – back in October 2015, and his last outing in India colours was on February 1, 2017, in a Twenty20 International against England in Bangalore, where he scored 63 in 45 balls from No. 3 in a match India won by 75 runs.
Raina on Gary Kirsten’s advice to him:
“When we won the World Cup, he told me the same thing: Enjoy your game, work hard, train hard, don’t complicate things, do what you have been doing all these years, do what has brought you success. He told me again, ‘You were brilliant, you are still brilliant’. It’s the same; nothing has changed.”
He is still somewhere on the selectors’ radar, one supposes, but with more and more youngsters coming in, Raina’s immediate future is a little uncertain. Despite Yuvraj Singh being dropped – or is it rested, or rotated? – Raina isn’t travelling to Sri Lanka. He isn’t part of the latest rota of centrally contracted players either, and that must mean something.
Raina understands where he stands. “I don’t care about money, name-fame … all that will be there, and I have done it already. But there’s no greater kick than playing for India, with fans cheering. That’s what I want again.”
He was away in Amsterdam for a while between the end of the Indian Premier League 2017 and now, looking after his body, running it through the wringer in an attempt to get fitter than ever before. It seems to have worked (though Raina reportedly failed the yo-yo endurance Test at the National Cricket Academy last week). And you’d have to agree that he knows what he needs to do to get back into the Indian ODI team.
It might be getting tougher but it’s far from impossible.
“Follow the process – I know everyone says it, but that’s what it is. Look after my body, enjoy as much as possible, score runs when I get the opportunity,” he says firmly. “When I first picked up a bat, as a child, and then I continued doing it, it was because I enjoyed it. I still enjoy it a lot, but the main thing is to play for India.”
It’s a very different Raina from the younger version, one among the boys, living the good life.
“I used to travel here and there, play cricket, have fun with my mates. Now, when I saw Priyanka giving birth to Gracia, it was a strange, new experience for me. She was giving birth to a new life. I felt quite emotional. I spoke to my wife a lot. I spoke to my mom. I had never thought about all this in the past,” explains Raina.
“My awareness has gone up since I’ve been married, that’s true. I used to say this and that earlier, now when she says something, I feel she is right. When she was delivering, I was with her for five days. That changed me. For the better, I think.”
Speaking after Raina was left out of the Board of Control for Cricket in India contracts, Rizwan Shamshad, the Uttar Pradesh coach, suggested that the star batsman’s focus had shifted away from cricket following his marriage.
We bring up the topic – did he start feeling that there was more to life than just the game?
“I was thinking the other way,” he says. “Two years back, when I was training and all, and my wife was expecting, I was thinking that cricket is all right, but there is so much more to life. I should have fun with my wife. But when I saw my daughter, I thought the other way – cricket is everything. In the sense that I thought I should be even more serious, so I can make sure her future is good. I told my wife, this is me; I love my daughter, I love you, I love my family, but I love to play for my country. I know I have four-five more years of cricket. She said she would support me whatever I decide.
“Two years back, when I was training and all, and my wife was expecting, I was thinking that cricket is all right, but there is so much more to life. I should have fun with my wife. But when I saw my daughter, I thought the other way – cricket is everything. In the sense that I thought I should be even more serious, so I can make sure her future is good. I told my wife, this is me; I love my daughter, I love you, I love my family, but I love to play for my country. I know I have four-five more years of cricket. She said she would support me whatever I decide.”
“So I became more responsible, and everything became more enjoyable again. When I came back home, I saw my Gracia and I thought this was my life. When you are young, you spend your time doing this and that – useless, I would say, not very important for your life. As you get older, it changes. Once you have a daughter, a child – boy or girl – you need to plan, you need to grow up.
“I work hard, I am not thinking of things I can’t control. I have become calmer, disciplined. I know what I want from life … After marriage, you go into a different shell. Wife says you are mine, mum says you are mine, my mum-in-law also gives me a lot of love. You have to respect that, but I switch off. Balance everything. Morning – this, afternoon – that. My wife is a very positive person. And that helps a lot.”
Raina speaks passionately about his wife’s social work. The two of them – Priyanka is the more active, while the celebrity husband lends his name and helps with his connections – run the Gracia Raina Foundation, which works with underprivileged mothers and children, chiefly in the rural areas of Uttar Pradesh.
“These women don’t know anything about their recovery after childbirth, and don’t have the option to take time off. The moment they have a baby, their husbands want another baby. So the women don’t get time to recover. In any case, they need to hold their babies in one arm and do housework with the other hand. Then the husbands also have drinking problems. I did not think of these things earlier, but I understand that I should use my position to make a difference. Not just be a face, but be active. My wife does the main work, she knows the people and the NGOs, but I am with her all the way.”
While there may be some truth or none at all to Shamsad’s analysis of the new, changed Raina, it’s true that after the birth of their daughter, Mr and Mrs Raina have been distracted. First by Raina’s bout of poor health and then Gracia’s, which required them to go back to Amsterdam – where Priyanka had worked for many years before marriage and where Gracia was later born – for her treatment. In a way, that forced Raina to put his cricket on hold. A bit.
A chance meeting with Gary Kirsten while away in Holland – from where he is also bringing in a Vietnamese and an Iranian fitness trainer to work with the Uttar Pradesh team this season – was one of the highlights of the past few months for Raina.
“He was training some of the Under-19 boys there. I had a good discussion with him,” says Raina. “We chatted a lot. We met three-four times. When we won the World Cup, he told me the same thing: Enjoy your game, work hard, train hard, don’t complicate things, do what you have been doing all these years, do what has brought you success. He told me again, ‘You were brilliant, you are still brilliant’. It’s the same; nothing has changed.”
Rahul Dravid and Virender Sehwag, two former team-mates that Raina holds in high esteem, apparently told him the same thing: ‘Just keep doing what you are doing’.
Raina suddenly remembers a conversation with Dravid, apropos of nothing. “I was young then, and Rahul bhai would bat all day in the nets, not stopping. I wanted to do it too. He said he enjoyed it. I did too, so I told him, ‘Rahul bhai, you can bat all day if you want to, but who will bowl at me all day?’ He told me, ‘Just get hold of a couple of bowlers, take them out for dinner, unko pata lo (butter them up), and they will bowl at you all day.’ It worked!”
When Raina came into the Indian team – the second of the Under-19 class of 2004 to get a national call-up after Dinesh Karthik – he also barged in pushing aside bigger names, ones already established in the setup. Exactly how it always works.
Does he feel he is in the same position as those seniors were when he waltzed in?
“In a way, yes,” says Raina with a touch of the philosophical. “But you need experience and you need younger players also. Rahul bhai, Viru bhai, VVS (Laxman), Gautam (Gambhir) … they were there then and I came in. I was doing my work then also, and I am still doing it.
“Our team is doing so well. New players are needed,” he adds. “Most of the new boys are doing very well, but I can do well too. Nothing’s changed there.”
Has the Indian team’s shift from the era of MS Dhoni to Virat Kohli’s made a difference to his career?
It’s easy to understand why Raina won’t sway one way or the other on that, but he does say, “I have been so successful for Chennai (Super Kings in the IPL) because I batted at No. 3. Even at Gujarat Lions, and I scored runs there too. You get a lot of license to play your shots your way at No. 3. Even at No. 6, you can do that, but your chance might come after 12-15 overs in a T20 game. Under Mahi bhai, my role became that of a finisher (for the Indian team).
“But Virat, he asked me to play at No. 3. I’ve done well in all positions, I have finished matches, but Virat was clear that I should play at No. 3. He told me that I was the most khatarnaak (dangerous) there. There are others to hit later, he told me. Both Mahi bhai and Virat did what they thought was best for the team and for me. I am happy anywhere.”
Since the subject came up: Back to CSK, hopefully? “Who knows what will happen, but I enjoyed myself a lot there.”
His career is at an intersection, but he feels he sees the road ahead clearly. He is emerging from his setbacks; marriage has done him a lot of good; he looks hungry. And the fire to go out in India’s colours, that’s burning as bright as ever.
One wonders … the route to Test cricket might be blocked, perhaps for good, but is there a fling or two in coloured-clothes cricket left? What is the road to that?
Tough questions, without clear-cut answers. Raina thinks he knows the first step to the big answer, though, when he says, “If I sleep six-seven hours, I need to do the right things the rest of the time. That’s all.” Maybe that will do it for him.