We have celebrated Mahendra Singh Dhoni for the 2011 World Cup win and very rightly so. He steered the ship and the buck stopped with him but one person who was pivotal in winning India the two key games, the quarter final against Australia and semi-final against Pakistan, also decided to leave the scene on the same day: August 15, 2020.
A white ball champion, Suresh Raina’s contribution to the 2011 World Cup win was second to none. And while I look back at an excellent career, that one tournament stands out for me as his highest moment.
Raina, barely 25 at the time, was not in the playing XI for the initial few games and to put in his words: ‘‘I was doing everything I could to attract attention that I was the best option at number six. I would spend maximum time doing fielding practice and was determined to make a case to Gary (Kirsten) and Dhoni for my inclusion. Playing the World Cup at home was a dream and playing Australia and Pakistan were two of the biggest occasions for any player playing the sport.’’
He did get an opportunity in India’s last group encounter against the West Indies in Chennai but that was because Virender Sehwag was sitting out with an injury. With Sehwag back in the playing XI against Australia, it was a toss-up between Raina and Yusuf Pathan and Dhoni opted for Raina. Sitting next to Tendulkar in the dressing room, Raina must have had a thousand ideas flooding his mind when the Little Master told him: ‘‘Look at this as an opportunity. A World Cup quarter-final with 78 runs left and you have a chance to win it for the country. It is your day, go win it for India.’’
Raina, a Tendulkar fan since childhood, was lost for a second or two. ‘‘It was Sachin paaji who was speaking to me. He had waited for six World Cups to win the trophy and here he was urging me to do it for him and India. With Dhoni out and 75 runs still to get, I could not have asked for a better opportunity to make a mark. All I told him was, “Paaji aaj jita ke aayeenge [Will win it for India tonight, elder brother]”’ recounted Raina.
Keeping him company in the middle was a well-set Yuvraj Singh. Raina made a 28-ball 34 during his unbeaten knock on the night. The nearly one-hour stint he had in the middle, batting with Yuvraj, was perhaps the most invigorating one hour for people in the stands. Starting with three dot balls, he soon asserted himself with a pull shot off Brett Lee and followed it up with regular singles and another four and a six to seal it for India.
How does a 25-five-year-old react to shouldering a billion dreams? Did Raina think of the crowd when he was batting out there for himself and India? Did it matter that one false shot could lead to bowing out of the World Cup at home and miss out on an opportunity to play Pakistan in a historic semi-final?
‘All Yuvi paaji and I were seeing was Brett Lee, Mitchell Johnson and the others. To tell you the truth even when I hit those boundaries or sixes, I did not feel any sense of elation. The job was still not finished. All I was thinking was, I had got this opportunity after a lot of effort and I couldn’t let it go.’
Thanks to his priceless 34, Raina was now a certainty at number six for the rest of the tournament — the semi-final and final. ‘‘Wahab Riaz (of Pakistan) was bowling really well in the semi-final and getting the ball to reverse,’’ Raina said. ‘‘At 205/6 in 42 overs, and with Dhoni out, we weren’t safe. I walked up to Bhajji pa (Harbhajan Singh), who came to the crease and told him we needed to get 60 runs more to make it our game. We had to forge a partnership and there was no need to try and hurry things up.’’
Chasing 261, Pakistan did have a chance but as has often been the case with the side in recent times, they disintegrated after a reasonably good start - and the hosts had booked a historic final with Sri Lanka.
For Tendulkar, it was his last chance to win the World Cup. It was now or never. ‘‘Right through the tournament, we used to listen to Sachin paaji. There was something about him this tournament. First he was playing some great cricket himself: he scored two hundreds already. And when he said our fans wanted us to win, you could see a very different confidence in his eyes. He was calm but confident and each of us drew inspiration from him,’’ Raina recalled. Raina ended up getting 36 off 39 deliveries against Pakistan, but as Tendulkar says: ‘It was an innings as important as any in the context of the match. 260 was a competitive total and Raina had a major part to play in it.’
In the end India won by 29 runs, just a few less than what Raina had scored. He had redeemed himself and in doing so, had made sure Tendulkar had an opportunity of fulfilling his lifelong dream win the World Cup for India in front of his home crowd.
As he gives up playing in blue (he will be very much a part of Chennai Super Kings in the upcoming IPL in the UAE), it is time to remember that he was the key to giving the sea of blue a voice in 2011.
Well played, Suresh Raina!
- The author is a sports journalist and scholar based in India