For someone with a record that is quite encouraging,Suresh Raina often gets talked about for perceived weaknesses rather than obvious strengths. There is some merit in the discussion on whether or not he handles the short-pitched ball well enough but there is a lot more to Raina than just that (One-day international average 36.5,strike rate 91.60). And so I am delighted that he features prominently in the early thoughts on the World Cup of 2015.
Like almost everyone else,I assumed Yuvraj Singh would slip in at number four once he had proved his fitness,his form and his hunger. Batsmen must aspire to move up the order and with Yuvraj it was,really,just a case of returning to where he had once been. And so it was interesting to see Suresh Raina not just batting there for the first couple of games but having the mandate from his captain to get an extended run at number four. The thinking behind looking for an alternative at that crucial position is immaculate. Yuvraj is coming back from a lay-off,and a very serious ailment,and if for some reason his body isnt geared to the demands of incessant cricket,you must have someone ready to move in. Once that was established,it was a question of who won the mandate.
The two most obvious choices were Rohit Sharma and Virender Sehwag. For all the question marks on his temperament the one overwhelming factor in Rohits favour is that he is comfortable with pace and bounce and has the back foot horizontal bat shots needed to score runs against that kind of bowling. But he is now enjoying a good run at the top of the order (average 41.46 from 17 games in 2013 vs a career average of 32.5 from 103 games) and,from the point of view of the team,those skills are best utilised as an opener. Both Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma must believe that their best days are ahead of them and if they can bat together for the 35-40 one day games that India will play before the World Cup,India will have a critical component of their line up settled.
Sehwag at number four is a tempting thought. The scoreboard will rarely be static,he can manufacture shots and ensure that the innings doesnt stagnate. But the World Cup is seventeen months away and by then Sehwag will be well into his 37th year. He isnt now the quickest mover on the field and that is an aspect that Dhoni is very concerned about because he now has a core that is perhaps the best fielding side India has put out (though the 1985 limited overs side might contest that statement). And fielding did play a significant role in the winning of the Champions Trophy.
That leaves a short list of Ajinkya Rahane,Cheteshwar Pujara and Gautam Gambhir,each a potentially serious contender but for a place in the top three. The option of trying Pujara as an opener is genuinely exciting. His List A record is an eye-opener (average of 54.47 from 68 games with 9 centuries),he is unhurried by pace and would be just the person India can array its strokeplayers around. Just as Dhoni is looking for options at number four,he will need to guard against a loss of form from one of the openers in the lead up to the World Cup and at least one of those three has to be ready.
Raina provides an exciting option in the top order. Even when he is building an innings,he is unlikely to get marooned. He runs hard between wickets and seems to have the ability to pick the right time to change gears. Now he needs to convince everyone that if the scoreboard is reading 10 for 2 at Perth,he is the man to walk out for India (in Australia,average of 26 from 8 innings,in South Africa 23 from 7 innings). By giving him the opportunity so early into the World Cup campaign,Dhoni is ensuring that he has enough time for a course correction,should it be required.
Indeed,bounce is the factor India will have to prepare against because with hard pitches and two new balls there will be no place to hide. Raina and Jadeja,amongst the top seven,are work in progress on that front and even Yuvraj needs to convince a few more people that he is the best 10-2 man in Australia. I believe India will need one old-fashioned test match batsman in their squad and Pujara could well be that person.
Dhoni has always said that he would like whoever goes to the World Cup to have fifty games behind him. With the batsmen India is heading towards that comfort zone but there are a few hard calls that the selectors need to take with the bowling. That is for another day.