(Written for ESPNcricinfo)
It’s the first innings and Uttar Pradesh have lost two wickets at lunch after being put in by Delhi. Suresh Raina, their captain, is yet to come in. It will be his ninth innings of the first-class season when he does, and he’s been at No. 4 for most of it. His only fifty of the season – for India Blue in the Duleep Trophy – came at that position.
Now, that spot is occupied by the 24-year-old Akshdeep Nath, who was pushed ahead of Raina in the previous game and got a fifty. By the end of this game, he will have gone on to score another fifty and a century. Like many players from his batch, Nath, who was vice-captain of the Under-19 team that won the World Cup in 2012, has taken time to make noise at the first-class level. He has played only 11 matches since his debut in 2012. But it seems like this is the year for the batch of 2012, at least for the batsmen. Two of them – Hanuma Vihari and Prashant Chopra – have made triple-hundreds this season.
And so, Raina bats at No. 5. At the lunch interval, he heads straight to the nets where he looks silky against the reserves.
Ever since the world found out they could bother him with the short ball, it appears like Raina sets up in a manner that allows him to be nimble. There’s hardly any weight on his heels as the bowler runs in. On TV, shots off both the front and back foot appear more watchful, aided by movements that resemble hops. But in the nets, there is no sign of that. His weight is on his toes, which allows him to spring sideways or back to get behind the line, without any loss in stability or power.
Out in the middle, he is immediately put under pressure. Delhi captain Ishant Sharma wastes no time testing his ribs from both ends. It isn’t a test he passes convincingly, but he makes it through. He’s spent more than 40 minutes at the crease when he goes back against a part-time offspinner and gets one that sneaks through his defences at shin height. Gone for 10, bang in the middle of a collapse. The same thing happens in the second innings as well; Raina is fourth out for 16, less than six overs after coming in at 2 for 3. After 10 innings, his average now reads 20.40 for the season.
Uttar Pradesh’s chairman of selectors, Rizwan Shamshad, was at this game. He didn’t think there was reason to panic.
“I don’t think there’s an issue with his technique. He’s played mostly one-days and T20 cricket, so [multi] days cricket is a bit of an adjustment,” he said. “When a player comes back to domestic cricket from internationals, a lot of things are different. He doesn’t spot a lot of things at this level. It takes time to understand how to make runs in domestic cricket again. The day he shows patience and sticks in, everything will work out.”
Raina has had a prolonged struggle since being dropped from the Test and ODI teams two years ago. He hasn’t made a century in first-class cricket since November 2015. Even after adjusting for the fact that he has never played a full Ranji season – never more than six games – that’s one century in his last 16 innings. There are plenty of backers waiting, but since being dropped, Raina hasn’t delivered a performance to really stir the selectors.
Sitanshu Kotak has watched Raina up close in the IPL as assistant coach of the Gujarat Lions. Like Shamshad, he doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with Raina’s game. In fact, he dismissed the notion that Raina has a weakness against the short ball.
“No player is good with every area,” Kotak told ESPNcricinfo. “In fact, I’ve seen him play the short ball really well. But when you get out a couple of times and people bowl short at you, then everyone thinks you’re weak at it. A lot of other players never get tested in that area. He still plays outstanding innings and outstanding shots. The only adjustment is he wanted to work on his fitness and I see him doing that. So that’s a good sign. Sometimes in this game, it happens. It’s happening with the UP team too.”
That is true. Raina’s form has mirrored the fate of UP cricket over the last few years. Ranji champions in 2005-06 and runners-up in 2007-08 and 2008-09, and a team that nursed the likes of RP Singh, Piyush Chawla, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Praveen Kumar in their prime, UP is barely recognisable these days. Since a semi-final finish in the 2009-10 season, UP have made the quarterfinals twice. But they have been in the lower half of the table in every season since.
Shamshad, who was part of the championship-winning team in 2005-06, says it’s just a phase.
“A phase like this comes for every team and now it’s our turn,” he said. “Three-fours years ago, even teams like Karnataka and Maharashtra were struggling in this manner. We’re a little worried about it. But we’re hoping it gets better soon. We’ve lost some seniors over the years too. Piyush Chawla left, RP Singh left, PK [Praveen] isn’t around. So that makes a difference.”
If this is indeed just a phase, then it’s a batting-specific one, and it came screaming into prominence when UP were bowled out for 72 in a chase of 94 against Railways in the first round. Even against Delhi, a complete meltdown of their top order meant they couldn’t set a target bigger than 252. Delhi lost six wickets in getting there.
On average, UP have had nearly three bowlers every season taking 20 wickets since 2012. In the same period, there are only three instances of a UP batsman scoring more than 500 runs in a season. Last year, left-arm wristspinner Kuldeep Yadav was their highest run-getter with 466.
Against Delhi, UP’s most experienced batsman in the top seven after Raina was 21-year old opener Almas Shaukat, who had played 11 first-class games. Given the state of the batting in the last few years, and the fact that most of these youngsters – Shivam Chaudhary, Mohammad Saif, Rinku Singh and Nath – have already been tested at the senior level during that phase, UP’s drive to fix this slump seems belated.
“Our batting used to be really good and win us games,” says Shamshad. “The two matches we’ve lost were winnable. It came down to inexperience. Our openers haven’t been doing well. So the middle order is having to face extra load. We’ve found Nath and Rinku and they’ll take us a long way. So when the openers get set, our team will too.
“When the seniors don’t perform it becomes hard on the youngsters. We’ve spoken about it and Raina agrees – the day his performance comes, this team is going to win. The moment the youngsters see him do well, so will they. They’re looking up to him. They’re talented cricketers and we think they’ll bring us results next year.”
This year, though, they look likely to finish second-from-last in their group for the second season in a row.
Standing in the middle of it all is Raina. It’s been a difficult year for him. He made a 45-ball 63 in his last T20I. That was in February, and he hasn’t played for India since. When there seemed to be a hole at No. 4 in the ODI team, he was among the frontrunners until the Yo-Yo test standard sprung up on Indian cricket. Now, he has seen Dinesh Karthik, Shreyas Iyer and Hardik Pandya join the list of aspirants for that slot. And the runs just aren’t coming.
“When a guy plays cricket for 10-12 years, he is bound to have such a season,” Shamshad says. “So there’s no question about his technique or ability. We’re waiting for him to come good. I believe the Indian team needs him.”
That might well be the case, but the battle is much closer to home for now.