Life's a Fastball

Suresh Raina has played all formats of cricket, but right now he is playing with his toddler and learning to play the saxophone.

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Ghaziabad boy, cricketer, dad. Scratch that. Dad, family man, cricketer. Suresh Raina is constantly evolving, meeting and conquering challenges like a man of steel, yet is as soft as whipped butter ready to melt at the sight of his little girl.

In his early 30s, with physical fitness that can be the envy of someone 10 years younger, Suresh Raina also has the wisdom of someone three times his age. This dedicated family man and besotted father smiles shyly when complimented, but agrees that he is a doting daddy. “Gracia is my first priority,” he says. His formal, basement-den has two massive portraits of the little one and he is unapologetic that the agenda during his time off is decided by the toddler. “I have played cricket for the last 12 years.”

Are the wild partying days over for the charming Mr Raina, who surprised his fans when he settled for an arranged match with the beautiful Priyanka? Nah, not really, he has always enjoyed the company of those closest to him and has not been a party animal.

His teenage years were dedicated to training and playing. “As a 12-year-old, I would lug my kit and travel long distances in local buses for coaching.” A family friend recommended the sports college in Lucknow, which was affordable, and Suresh finished his schooling from there. By 14, he had earned a scholarship from Air India and had begun to send money home as all his needs were fulfilled at the sports college. “I kept some money for the phone calls home, on weekends. I took a year to adapt to Lucknow, especially to the polite language,” he says, with a laugh. “I just wanted to play for India, and played for the under-15 the first year in Lucknow. Starting young made me tough.”

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He learnt life lessons with every bump that fate dealt him, and taught himself to take things positively. He has the same mental process on the field, too. His mantra is simple—“be humble, and with every win, strive for more, better yourself…” for Suresh, teamwork is crucial both in life and in sport. “You play as a team and know your role.” The moment he wears the Indian jersey, he knows he has to do better than his best. “You don’t play for yourself, you play for the country,” he says. In the T20 format, he has been a staple at number three. “It is a good slot; I can play till the end,” he says. “In ODIs, I bat at six.

Being in the public eye should be bothersome, but it isn’t, nor is the criticism. “I like the challenge of being under scrutiny, I like working hard. I focus on the game. I am busy training, and with family. I have no time.”

He is super busy at home, too, sharing parenting responsibilities with wife Priyanka, who runs GRF (Gracia Raina Foundation), an NGO that works to empower young women. Team Raina travels together a lot, both for work and for pleasure, and often the lines can blur in a happy haze. “Travelling with the family gives you confidence,” says Suresh. A career in sports is unpredictable. “You don’t know what comes tomorrow, injuries can happen. You can die!”

As alarming as that sounds, he is not a fatalist, just pragmatic—a man who lives in the moment. He knows he is in good form and works every day to stay on top of his game. Fitness, physical and mental, is of utmost importance. “I have a trainer, a dietician and a doctor. Once a week, I take a cheat day, and then work harder.” He shuns junk food, but gives in to an occasional aloo paratha cooked by his mother. Each helping is, of course, neutralised by a strenuous workout the next day.

The thirties can be hard. The slide begins to take root. But Raina disagrees. “The 30s are the best for sports; you have experience, you are mature and take better decisions, you are happy.” A sportsman’s life is uncertain and nothing can be taken for granted, especially not the comebacks. “Comebacks are always tough. I have learnt that the harder you work [is when] you get rewards.” The goal now is to win the next World Cup for India. “All matches are important for me. I have played 230 matches for India. I won the first World Cup I played—it is like a gold medal. You need to enjoy the winning moment. You have to be a greedy sportsman. You want to win every game you play for the country.”

Life after cricket isn’t planned; the future is hazy. “I don’t plan so much. When cricket ends, we shall see. Maybe take a break and enjoy life.

Comebacks are always tough. I have learnt that the harder you work [is when] you get rewards.

“I am learning to play the saxophone. My wife gifted this one to me in Holland when I completed 10 years of professional cricket. I am also learning to play the piano. One day, my daughter will play with me,” he says with a grin, and plays a gentle tune.

The game of life is sure getting sweeter, and Suresh Raina is more than ready to play.

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