Vijay Lokapally

'I learnt to be brave and mentally strong to face anything and anyone'

JAMSHEDPUR: His kitbag dangling precariously behind him, this kid would smartly weave his tiny scooty dexterously in heavy traffic, creating space as he zipped past bewildered drivers on the busy roads of Lucknow. The lessons in striving for a place under the sun had been truly ingrained from the early days of Suresh Raina's cricket grooming.

Reaching the `nets' on time was paramount and he had mastered the art of beating the traffic, just as he beats the challenging field that the opposition sets for him. Raina's ability to pick gaps is the most outstanding aspect of his batting that has earned him rave reviews from some of the past masters of batting.

It has taken him years of toil, living away from home and learning the facts of life and cricket the hard way.

An example

The time he spent in sports hostels in Lucknow, fighting off spells of depression and disappointment, and rising above the hardships is an example for the current generation.

His cricket lessons were not learnt at luxurious academies. Raina had the backing of his family but not the financial pampering. He hails from a background where academics, and not sports, formed the basis of a career. The only time he got a spanking was when he hitch-hiked his way home and knocked the door at 2 in the morning. "In the last five years, I have hardly been home for 30 days," he smiles.

Raina takes pride in mentioning that he has been a first-class student right through, quite like his father and elder brothers (Dinesh, Mukesh and Naresh). "Dinesh bhaiyya teaches English," his face lights up as he says that; he also mentions the support from his sister (Renu). "She always backed me and also nudged me whenever I paid more attention to cricket. Of course, my mother has been my greatest supporter."

On his sister's wedding day, two year ago, Raina was missing from the scene. Quite right, he was busy playing a Deodhar match against East Zone, at Rajkot. He shared the joy with a sparkling statement a stroke-filled century. "She was more thrilled than me."

It was not easy for Raina. He had to study and only then play cricket. The move to shift him to Lucknow from Muradnagar in Ghaziabad district was taken after much thought. The family feared for Raina. He was naïve in many matters, except cricket. On the field, he was different.

The hostel days were hard. "I enjoyed the hardships. I learnt to be brave and mentally strong to face anything and anyone. Seniors ragged me but nothing deterred me. I had left the comforts of home as a challenge and I never lost my concentration and focus."

Focus was something that became part of his life. "Don't lose your focus," his family had counselled. "Don't lose your focus," said his coaches at various stages Deepak Sharma, P.K. Gupta and S.P. Krishnan. "Keep your focus," Greg Chappell now advises. "I will never lose my focus," Raina too asserts.

Exacting conditions

The dream of wearing the India cap pushed Raina into a mean competitive world at Lucknow. The conditions were exacting. Sharing rooms, washing his own clothes, guiding oneself at an age when most kids would fall back on elders and maintaining a strict schedule all by himself. He grew into a responsible `man' at a young age of 16, because he wanted to be a successful cricketer.

Raina recorded his experiences of growing up, the bliss and the tribulations, in a diary. His mother read it once and wept, for her son had endured lot of pain in his desire to become a cricketer. To this day, he writes a daily diary, just like his father. Only it now records his views on the game.

After school hours, it was cricket and nothing else. "We would be at the ground within minutes. Those days were great. Cricket was our life. We were cricketers and ground staff rolled into one. We had to water and roll the pitch and we took care that it remained in what we thought was the best of condition." Under a scorching sun and harsh winter, Raina's cricket lessons continued relentlessly.

Actually facilities at the sports hostel were non-existent. "We used to play on basketball courts with wet tennis balls. We did not have proper pitches, no bowling machines. But we learnt a lot as we helped each other at every stage of our hostel days. We learnt the meaning of unity and friendship. We learnt to be aggressive cricketers because we had to fight for our places. One had to be good to survive."

Serious cricketer

Raina evokes praise from various quarters. National junior selector Pravin Amre observed: "Suresh has fantastic batting skills and technique. He has all the strokes and can handle the short stuff. I appreciate his ability to stick to his natural game."

Rahul Dravid is convinced India has secured a serious cricketer for the next decade. Raina remembers many from his formative years. "Gopal (Sharma) sir, Shashi bhai (Khandekar), Kaif. They all helped me a lot." He makes a special mention of state coach Rajinder Singh Hans who taught him "self belief."

Hans insists, "He has the best punch among youngsters. His shots in front and square are flawless. Great timing."

A shy lad, the 19-year-old Raina has a steady shoulder on his head. He remembers his roots. He has preserved that tiny scooty and a skoda has replaced the rickety two-wheeler. On Lucknow roads, people now make way for this rising star of Indian cricket.

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