During his customary ‘run’ to the pitch, Andre Russell deliberately made it a point to greet the outgoing batsman. Just a brief high-five. There may or may not have been any notes exchanged on the how the pitch was playing – Russell, after all, has been wired differently. But while the packed Eden Gardens couldn’t wait for Russell Mania to begin, walking back to a standing ovation from their franchise’s owners in the VIP stands was Nitish Rana.

With Sunil Narine fit again to claim his spot at the top of the Kolkata Knight Riders’ batting order, Rana dropped down to his customary No. 4 position against Kings XI Punjab. Nevertheless, he followed up his 68 in the tournament opener with his second half-century in as many games – a 34-ball 63 that was instrumental in setting KKR up for their match-winning total of 218 for 4 against Kings XI Punjab. More than the number of runs scored though, it was the manner in which he scored them that made the Delhi batsman the unspoken hero, overshadowed obviously yet again by the pandemonium called Dre Russ.

On Thursday (March 27), Rana walked in to bat when things were just about beginning to stagnate a little for the hosts after a flying start. Chris Lynn had fallen for another low score, while Narine was walking back after providing just the kind of start he is expected to. The firepower was back in the hut, too close to each other for KKR’s comfort, and it was time to consolidate. And with Robin Uthappa looking in good nick at the other end, the southpaw didn’t mind playing second fiddle to start with. Rana’s first 21 balls had resulted in only 22 runs and included just two sixes to long-off when R Ashwin threw in freebies. And then he upped the ante in his typical style, fetching 41 off the next 13 balls he faced, including five more hits into the stands – all in the V in front – and two boundaries.

Such was the acceleration in the middle overs that Rana not just quickly out-scored his senior partner at the other end, but also laid into the KXIP attack. He was particularly severe on Ashwin – clobbering the KXIP captain for a total of four sixes – and neither did he spare the part-time medium-pace of Mandeep Singh or debutant Hardus Viljoen. The seven balls KKR’s No. 4 faced next, en route a 28-ball half-century, read 6,6,1,6,6,1,4, and a helpless Ashwin could only follow the ball as it sailed over the ropes. Rana added a six and a four more before shutting shop.

“Today the situation was such, they were going to deploy Ashwin and the their other spinner(s) in the middle overs, and I knew I had to play [against them]. My plan was clear – if I was going to get a loose ball, I was going to hit it. And then, let DK or Russell take over for the last four-five overs,” Rana said after KKR’s 28-run victory at the Eden Gardens.

“It wasn’t pre-planned that I’ll go after Ashiwn. I was just trying to build my innings. I was taking it ball by ball at the start and then when I thought I can charge, I did that, irrespective of who the bowler was. It doesn’t matter to me who the bowler is – I thought that was the time to attack and I did. That was the plan for the two overs, of Ashiwn and Vijloen, simple as that,” he added.

Rana’s knock at No. 4 was a role distinctly different from what he carried out in KKR’s tournament opener, but equally important in the context of the game for the team that had been pinned down and needed a rescue act. In a chase of 185 against SRH over the weekend, when KKR suffered a minor injury scare to one of the key players – also their opener – Narine, they backed Rana as the ad-hoc replacement ahead of the more obvious choices in Uthappa or Shubman Gill. And Rana repaid the faith with a stroke-filled 47-ball 68, laying the platform through an 80-run partnership with Uthappa that provided Russell the launchpad to explode in the death. A floodlight malfunction-induced break in concentration might have cost him his wicket there, but for the 15.3 overs Rana stayed in the middle, he stepped up to anchor KKR’s chase after losing more prominent partners at the other end at regular intervals.

If the two knocks had anything in common, it was the typical Nitish Rana flavour. Even though both the efforts were towards stabilising the innings, the left-hander didn’t compromise on the strike-rate whether it was in keeping up with a chase or racking up an imposing total. In the larger context, the twin half-centuries couldn’t have come at a better time for a batsman who, admittedly, was riddled with self-doubt not too long ago.

After a successful one-day leg of the Indian domestic season, when form deserted Rana in long-form cricket as well as T20s in the lead up IPL 2019, he checked into the KKR Academy in Mumbai. Rana credited the conversations with the franchise’s consultant Abhishek Nayar and skipper Dinesh Karthik in helping declutter his mind.

“I was pretty disturbed [by the lack of form]. I had so many things going on in my mind. But more than my technique, I worked on the mental toughness. I spoke to Abhishek bhaiya, and DK bhaiya. [The stint at the] KKR academy was quite helpful in that sense because I got one-on-one time [with them]… I didn’t work on batting as such, but the conversations I had helped me clear out my thoughts. I wasn’t backing myself, I realised, and talking to these guys there helped me clear self doubts. Now, I feel, I’ve become a better player.”

Rana proudly flaunted the Orange Cap in the second-half of the game, having overtaken his fellow Delhi teammate Rishabh Pant’s tally of 103 with his 131 in as many games. As satisfied he may be with the way he’s kicked off, Rana, by his own admission, has disappointed himself by not sustaining the good form he starts the season with throughout the length of the tournament. For two successive seasons – 2017 with Mumbai Indians and the subsequent one with KKR – Rana has shown some sparks of brilliance here and there but eventually ended at the lower end of the spectrum with 333 and 304 runs respectively. It’s a pattern the 25-year-old is very keen to depart from this season.

“I haven’t thought too far ahead. But the last couple of seasons I started well and my form fizzled out towards the later half of the tournament. So this time around, I want to work on that. I want to carry forward the form I have started in till the end of the tournament,” he concluded.

While Russell is doing Russell things, and hogging all limelight, it is Rana’s form and, more crucially, the adaptability shown by him in two very different match scenarios that has made KKR’s batting look very formidable in the very little the tournament has seen of it thus far. Before they hit the road for a schedule of four away games on the bounce, KKR have not only sampled another left-handed opening option – should they need to surprise the opposition – but, more crucially, nailed down the vital No. 4 cog in their batting line-up.Now for Rana to ensure the threat doesn’t wear out with time, yet again.


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