They aren’t the MVPs, nor the poster boys who’ll launch a dozen products. Rarely hyped up, mostly unsung and almost always available to play whatever role that’s assigned to them, these cricketers also have some of the most fascinating tales.
The train was chugging along towards Agra. Suresh Raina was sleeping on a newspaper spread on the floor, wearing his pad, chest-guard, and thigh pad as protection on that chilly night. So were the other 12 to 15 year-old boys heading to play a cricket tournament at the city of history and romance. Late in the night, Raina felt a weight on his chest and even before he could open his eyes, his hands were pinned down. A big kid was on his chest, and started peeing on his face. After a brief tussle, even as the train was grinding to a halt, Raina pushed the bully off him – “ek ghoosa maara, and threw him off the train”. Raina was 13 then, and struggling to cope in the Sports Hostel in Lucknow.
The train incident had come on the back of a series of bullying episodes that left Raina scarred, and he decided to quit the hostel and return home. Fleeting suicidal thoughts had crossed his brain in the past. It wasn’t easy to process initially why he was being targeted. He reckoned it was because some boys, from the athletics branch, were jealous that Raina was getting the attention from cricket coaches and that he could get ahead in life. “They were there to get certificate from the hostel. Spend four years, take certificate and get a job in Railways or wherever in sports quota.” Soon, it got worse. Trash would be thrown into milk buckets. “We used to use a chunni (worn like a long scarf) to filter and drink.” Bucket of cold water would be splashed at 3 am on a bone-chilling winter night. “You just wanted to get up and beat them but you know if you hit one, five will jump on you. Kya karen.”
It wasn’t just verbal bullying. Raina has been hit with hockey sticks and the situation spiralled so much out of control that Raina recalls a batchmate was so shell-shocked that he went into a coma-like state. Another was so terrified that he will be hit, that he was about to jump off the dormitory floor. “Niraj, a friend, and I managed to stop him and told him, ‘what are you doing? Sabko marwa dega tu. Sab kuch band ho jayega.” It had got so infamous that cops started to do night rounds. Students used to come from Pratapgarh, Raebareli, Gorakhpur, Azamgarh — athletes revolver rakh ke sote tey. How could I show anger, they might just hit me or shoot me, Khatam sab.”
The danger wasn’t restricted to the hostel. Even now in Uttar Pradesh, if you are on road from Delhi and as you approach Muzaffarnagar, you can find kids sitting behind their dads or brothers on bikes, holding big rifles. Of the 40 million civilian-owned guns, only 15 percent are licensed, according to the India Armed Violence Assessment institute, and most violent cities are in Uttar Pradesh. A tough terrain of Bahubalis and ‘Gun-rajya’ as a recent newspaper headline called it.
A young Raina found trouble outside the campus as well. In an ill thought move, he once hitchhiked a truck but to his horror the truck driver, who was with a couple of men, drove on to Meerut, refusing to stop. “I thought kuch kaand hone wala hai. Guess they thought, ‘chikna launda (smooth-skinned kid) hai,’, you know.” Luckily, Raina managed to wriggle free at a toll booth near Meerut, and ran away.
It was the wild atmosphere in the hostel, however, that scared him off and he did quit after a year, re-joining in two months after intervention by his elder brother Dinesh who secured safety promises from the authorities.
It’s February 2016, just a couple of days before his departure to Bangladesh for the Asia Cup, and we are sitting at his friend’s apartment in Bandra, just a few blocks from Shah Rukh Khan’s house where some 30-odd people are standing outside on a weekday afternoon to catch a glimpse of the star. A long charming balcony wraps the living room where a Kashmiri carpet hugs the floor and embroidered Islamic panels adorn the wall, and where Raina is dipping into painful memories.
We had come to find out, if possible, about the man behind the cricketer. The hostel days; the small-town fears of acceptance, English, and expected behaviour; childhood spent in hostel away from the love of parents; desire and responsibility to help his family tide over financial problems has made what he is today.
Before we trace some more of those personality-forming events, it’s perhaps apt to capture one of his best cricketing moments — that 2011 World Cup quarterfinal knock against Australia, a thrilling cameo of 34 under immense pressure and a partnership with Yuvraj Singh that lifted India from 187 for 5 in 37.3 overs to a victory with two overs to spare. It’s best to hear the on-field chatter between Raina and Yuvraj in his own words.
“Yuvi pa said, ‘sambhal key khelna, out ho gaya toh khatam hai game’ (Careful, if you get out, game over). I told him, don’t worry, I won’t get out. “Yadi main out ho gaya toh, yeh mera last match hoga (This will be my last game if I get out). Yuvi pa bole, “Sirf tera nahi saale, mera bhi last match hoga!” (Just not you, it will be my last game as well!)
There was a moment when Brad Haddin started to say a few words to me, and I began to go towards him when Yuvi pa said, “Gussa mat kar, yeh unka plan hai, aisey hi karenge (Don’t get angry, this is their plan, this is what they will do). “Mujhe laga, ‘yaar, yeh banda toh sambhaal raha hai. (He is taking care of the situation) I just need to concentrate more. We started taking singles and then I told him, ‘milega toh maar doonga (If I get it in the spot, I shall hit it), he told me to hit with straight bat. And as soon as I hit Lee for a six over long on, Yuvi pa said, “Ah chalo bas, ab seedhe bat sey khelo!” (Just play with straight bat) and maine kaha, “Aap jyaada pressure le rahe ho meri chakkar mey, aapko khatam karna hai, don’t worry!
Some days to remember, some days to forget. It was a different Raina who came back to hostel two months after quitting. He had decided to channelise anger into improving his cricket.
There wasn’t much money. “I would get 200 rupees in money order from papa — we used to eat samosa, Parle G biscuit. I got tougher in those times.” He also began to be noticed. People wanted him in their teams when they went to villages to play cricket. “I would get Rs 200 – for hitting 4-5 sixes. I would buy spike shoes with that money.” Meanwhile, UP cricket continued to lurch in politics. “A call will come to selectors about some boy or other. Tondu phondu bache hote tey, very average in cricket but these guys will say, ‘You play well, you will be selected’. Kal naam aayega Dainik Jagran mey (Your name will appear in the newspaper).
A call came from Mumbai to play cricket for Air India — an event that he credits as life-changing. “UP mey rehta toh bas khatam ho jaata, chote mote games khelte hue.” At Air India, Pravin Amre encouraged him a lot and things began to flow. In 1999, Raina got a scholarship with Air India that paid him Rs 10,000. “I would send 8,000 to my family. A STD call to home would cost four rupees, and as soon as two minutes would end, I would keep the phone down. All that taught me the value of money.”
In 2003, when he went to play club cricket in England, where he got 250 pounds for a week of cricket, Raina didn’t know English, how to use fork, and how to dress up properly. Things, though, were progressing rapidly in his career. By 2005, he had made his ODI debut for India, and was sharing rooms with a shy Dhoni in camps before series. Raina would sleep on the floor as he wasn’t used to bed, and Dhoni too joined him soon, saying, ‘Mujhe bhi aadat nahi hai.’ “Dhoni bhai is sleeping on one side, I am sleeping on one side and Niraj Patel is sprawled out on the bed!”
The IPL was another turning point in Raina’s life. He had lost some precious months recuperating from a knee surgery — “that was the toughest time, I was afraid my career was over and I had 80 lakh of house loan” — but he did come back. And he ran into the likes of Matthew Hayden at Chennai Super Kings. Raina cues up a team meeting from CSK to state his case. “Hayden, Hussey came to team and I thought, yaar yeh sab toh bade players hain. There was a meeting before a KKR game. Someone said we should take a few balls to settle in, assess the pitch. Hayden stood up, and said: “No I will take Ishant Sharma or whoever from the first ball. I am thinking, ‘Yaar, pehli ball sey marega? (He will hit from the first ball?) and he did exactly that. Went in, and tak-a-tak diya. Then I thought, I should play more freely — main bhi maar saktha hoon.”
In April 2015, Raina married Priyanka Chaudhary, an IT professional in a bank in Amsterdam. “Marriage has brought stability and responsibility. I just used to play and go away. Now I look at the contracts more carefully. How I can utilise time better, plan for future. We might have a kid in the future, and you know about cricketer’s life. Lagta hai kaam bahut jyaada hai, time bahut kam hai. (It seems like there is lot of work, and time is very less).
It’s easy to like Raina for his energy, team-spirit. It’s easier to diss him for the same reasons. There is the perception that he is a ‘pleaser’. Be it the way he rushes to a team-mate to celebrate or even the way he behaves with opponents. It’s said that he likes hanging around with the seniors, captains and tries extra hard to please his coaches, or officials — some have even thrown terms like playacting. There have been traces of a ‘pleaser’ in his career, it can’t be couched as personality flaw. The circumstances have made him the man he is.
His mother is the second wife of his father, who used to be in the army. There were four sons from the first marriage but Raina and his sister developed a great relationship with their half-brothers. However, the father was away with the army, and Raina found himself in the hostel at an early age. “I didn’t get the kind of love and affection that you get if you were staying and living in the house with your parents. Papa was away, and I didn’t stay too long with mother.”
To compensate for the perceived lack, he started to spend time with the seniors and coaches, looking for mentors — be it in the hostel or in the later years. “I am from a small state and you need advice to do well — you just can’t go and do well in cricket or life. So I would hang with seniors, captains, coaches and ask them advice. How to live, what to do, life lessons.” It could be shadowing Rahul Dravid to see how he conducts himself at an embassy dinner, or observe a foreign coach to see how he handles himself in public.
Some of it has also come from hanging together as a group against bullies in the hostels. “It’s natural. I want to enjoy and I want to carry along with everyone in my group. My celebrations are also because of that. It came from my hostel life, with the group of friends who lived there then. If I had 10 rupees in my pocket, I would buy five teas and go and give to the guys. You have to stay together as a group. As for celebrations, see the bowler also won’t go to anyone. He comes to me because he knows he will get a joyful response from me. And what’s required of me, I just have to run a bit, that’s all. I like to keep everyone happy but if people think that’s being a crowd-pleaser, so be it.”
From being beaten up with hockey sticks and bullied around in the hostel days, Raina has indeed come a long way. “God has been kind. I have earned respect with my hard work; no can take that away from me. Logon ka kya hai, jitna bhi karo, khush nahi honge (How much ever you do, some people won’t be happy). I just want my parents, my wife to be happy. That’s it.”