With 178 matches and more than 5,000 runs in his kitty in the IPL, Suresh Raina is a purist in this world of fast-paced cricket. We sat the southpaw down to get an insight into his mind before a game… And believe us, it’s the mind that wins games…

The Earliest memories of a cricket match that i haveis the forgettable 1996 World Cup semifinals between India and Sri Lanka at the Eden Gardens. After a dismal collapse with the bat, the crowd disrupted the match, which was eventually called off, and Sri Lanka were given the ticket to the final. As a kid, I was isheartened, because we were not supposed to lose that match. And clearly not from that commanding position! However, there was this little kid who was getting ready to become a fan of Team India! As fans, we believe that when those 11 boys go out on the field, they are not just a bunch of players; they are demi-gods, getting ready for a battle of 100 overs.

Years passed and my obsession for the game too reached new levels. It was the 2003 World Cup, where the stakes were high, when I had become a die-hard fan of cricket. So much so that my school report card reflected team India’s scorecard sometimes (haha). Years passed and in came the leaguestyle cricket in 2008. Just like the English Premier League or La Liga of the football world. From big money to the marquee players to surprise dollars for newbies, we saw it all in the auction. From the Sachins and Dravids to Gangulys and Dhonis, everybody was on display at the auction. Come 2019, 12 long years later, one player has shown how to do it right in the T20 format.

He might not have made it big in the Test format, he might not have emerged as an ODI great, but when it comes to the shortest format of the game, he is the undisputed king! Suresh Raina. From the highest scorer of the IPL (with 5,000 plus runs) to playing most number of consecutive matches, there are numerous records to his name in the domestic T20 league. However, I will not go into those details. I will rather talk about the man who becomes another version of himself in the yellow of Chennai Super Kings. Having played 10 seasons, except the 2 years when the team was suspended, Raina is an indispensable part of the CSK setup. And the love for him has grown to an extent that, in a city that gives Rajinikanth and MS Dhoni the same status of Thalaiva, Raina is called the Chinna Thala, meaning the young boss.

So when it came down to the cover shoot discussion and the impending IPL starting in the last week of March, a lot of big names were thrown around during the edit meet. But the one that everybody agreed on was Suresh Raina. The boy from a small town of Muradnagar in Uttar Pradesh moved to Lucknow, the state capital to get better opportunities. And in 5 years, he had stepped out of the dressing room for the Men in Blue. The second favourite son of Chennai isn’t a scary 6-feet tall plunderer of the ball; he isn’t even a muscular hulk who hits boundaries at will. He is the craftsman of an innings. From the singles and doubles during the initial phase of his innings to the big sixes at the death, he is capable of switching gears in a hurry. So, after five days of regular talks, we locked down a date! When our man came down to Delhi after the first game of IPL, plundering RCB, half asleep and totally exhausted, the entire crew wished him for his latest achievement. We briefly talked about the looks and the entire vibe of the shoot, which was pretty easy for him to understand, given his experience. After all, which cricketer would not know how to get ready for the game, right? So, 2 hours, 5 looks, Gracia’s (his daughter) cute interuptions, and Priyanka's tidbits later, we sat the man down to get an insight into the mind of a cricketer, his kit bag and chances at the international arena. Here’s how it went...

Back in the yellows of Chennai Super Kings, how are you shaping up for the current season?

It’s great to be back with the Chennai team and management. It really does feel like being back at home. We had an intense preparation camp in the month of March before the IPL began. It has been a strong start to the season for us. I’ve been happy that I have contributed in the winning efforts. As defending champions, the pressure is on us to perform and deliver yet again. Our fan base keeps us motivated with their love and support; they are truly the 12th man of this team!

All cricketers have a superstition. Sachin had one about his pads. Ganguly wore the lockets. What’s yours?

I’ve tried to stay away from getting caught up in superstitions, because when you don’t perform, you tend to blame these external factors. I do have an affinity and a connection with the number 3, so I prefer that on my jersey whenever possible.

Every fan in India wants to know about their favourite cricketer’s kit bag. What are the things that you keep in them apart from the usuals?

My kitbag is my tool box for my work! It has the basics in it – pads, bats, gloves. Other accessories like helmets, medical kits etc. Nothing unusual as such!

So, what exactly goes in the preparation before a game?

Cricket, or any sport for that matter, is all about visualising - imagining yourself in the situation - experiencing the future and planning accordingly. I know it sounds a bit outlandish, but this technique helps you plan ahead – the good and bad that’s about to happen in the game. Often, I think of the moments that are going to take place in the match – the catches I’m going to take, the shots I’m going to hit and those thoughts help me mentally prepare for the games. Apart from that, long term preparations are also needed. To flourish in any sport, one must follow a disciplined life - which means, waking up at a certain time, eating the right food, getting sufficient exercise and including rigorous practice sessions to build on form and technique. If one does this year round, there’s no added stress right before the game.

Right when you are about to step out to bat, what are the thoughts that surround you?

In 15 years my career (and counting), whenever I step out to bat, what really works for me is keeping my head in the game, focussing on the target and helping my team cross the finish line, regardless of the circumstances. When I have a target to chase, I only think of the positive outcomes. I know I have to contribute significantly; I have to build a partnership with the batsman on crease and not be hasty. Having these organised thoughts have always helped me in pressure situations.

We believe that cricket is more about mental pressure than physical exertion. What’s your take?

It’s a mix of both physical and mental pressure. Sometimes in Test cricket you will have to bat an entire day and that’s 90 overs of keeping your concentration! As a batsman you are only allowed to make one mistake and it’s over. And that is why it’s important to break down the target or task at hand into mini goals and try to achieve those, while chipping away at the larger task at hand. Breathing techniques, short chats with your batting partner and playing each ball as a fresh start help cope with the mental pressure.

As one of the main men in CSK, how do you deal with all the expectations of the management and the fans?

The expectations that our fans and management have from us is what drives us to greater success. It’s not by chance that CSK is the most successful IPL franchise and has the most amazing fan base. The two things go hand in hand. We see a sea of yellow wherever we play in IPL. There are large number of fans in CSK colours. When you see that kind of support and love pouring in across the country, it automatically motivates you to play at a higher level. The management has been fantastic and it’s no secret that I call Chennai my second home!

What’s your go to motivational line?

Cricket is a unique game when compared to other sports, each ball allows you to start afresh. And this is what motivates me, take each opportunity that comes your way; seize that moment!

What does your fitness regime look like?

My fitness regime includes a mix of muscular strength, endurance, power, speed, agility and flexibility. On a regular basis, I do a lot of cardio, cross-fit, weight training, intense circuits and full-body stretching. I work out twice a day, for an hour each time; else the muscles don’t heal enough for the next day. Following a tight workout schedule has helped me remain fit for the game and I feel better than ever today for it has made me light, energetic and ready to take on everything that comes my way!

And what about your diet regime? How do you maintain that?

I follow a low carb and high protein diet. The timings and portions of my meals are the key. For breakfast, I eat egg-white omelette, toast and a few slices of avocado, a serving of seasonal fruit. My typical lunch/dinner looks something like this - fist-sized portion of protein (chicken, fish) and a side of steamed green vegetables. In between my big meals, I snack on almonds, walnuts, cucumbers, carrots and top it all with herbal teas throughout the day.

Do you cheat on your diet? What are the things you eat when you sneak out?

Yes, I do! And that’s once a week. I usually indulge in a serving of mutton or kadhi-chawal. With some strong performances in the IPL, do you think you can take your spot back in Team India? My job is to give my all and hope for the best. I am currently focussed on helping CSK win matches. Of course, if my performances this season convert into a spot in the Indian team, then nothing like it. The blue jersey will always be special. But at times, situations aren’t in one’s control and then, all you can do is give your 100 per cent and wait for the magic to unfold.