Vishal Dikshit is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo
Gautam Gambhir and Nitish Rana have been team-mates in the Delhi state team for a few years now. In March, during the Vijay Hazare Trophy, Gambhir, a senior player in the Delhi team, had a spat with coach KP Bhaskar over the exclusion of a few youngsters, including Rana, from the team. Gambhir felt Bhaskar was "creating an atmosphere of uncertainty" among youngsters, who were left feeling insecure, and insisted he was trying to make a secure environment for them.
"I could not have let this man (Bhaskar) play with careers of young players like Unmukt Chand and Nitish Rana," Gambhir had said last month. Gambhir may not have thought then about the bundles of confidence his actions would have drilled into Rana.
On Sunday, in the IPL 2017 match between Kolkata Knight Riders and Mumbai Indians, the two were on opposite sides. Sitting in the dug-out because of the hot and humid conditions, Knight Riders' captain Gambhir watched Rana take the match away from his side. Mumbai had promoted Rana to No. 3 in a surprise move, and he more than surprised the opponents.
With the Mumbai openers adding 65 in a chase of 179, the stage had seemed set for Rohit Sharma at No. 3. Instead, Rana, who had batted at No. 4 in Mumbai's first match, emerged unexpectedly. Mumbai soon lost Jos Buttler and Rohit in the space of nine balls and, at 74 for 3 with the required rate over 10, and the onus was mostly on Kieron Pollard. Rana did his bit too. Offered some flight by Kuldeep Yadav in the 12th over, he slog-swept a four and executed a beautiful lofted drive over cover for a six.
A collective effort of accurate bowling from Kuldeep, Chris Woakes and Sunil Narine brought the equation to 60 off 24 before Pollard fell for 17. Rana and Hardik Pandya were the only recognised batsmen left in the Mumbai line-up. Two points to
Gryffindor Knight Riders, almost certainly.
Rana, however, showed exemplary composure and brought out his lower-order experience. He dispatched two international bowlers - Woakes and Trent Boult - to different parts of the ground, using drives, pulls and flat-batted shots and, with help from Hardik, brought the equation down to 30 from 12.
That innings alone would have made Gambhir proud of Rana, although the Knight Riders' captain would also have wanted his side to win. Instead, Rana was gifted two full tosses by Ankit Rajpoot: one was scooped all the way and the other lofted over mid-off for 10 runs in two balls. Rana brought up a half-century off 28 balls and with 20 to get, the Mumbai crowd was not going anywhere. He handed a catch straight to point the next ball but Hardik stayed on to clobber a six and two more fours to stun Knight Riders.
Mumbai coach Mahela Jayawardene later said Rana was moved up the order to get the left-right combination, and was part of a strategy they intend to try out against different oppositions.
"We've just been very flexible with our line-up since we have that left-hand right-hand combination, we can play around with different oppositions," Jayawardene said. "The way Nitish batted today…he's a very talented player and showed a lot of character. Hopefully, he grows stronger in the tournament and we can see more of that from him."
Gambhir would have liked it had Rana struck a quick-fire fifty a month ago for Delhi - he was dropped after scores of 5, 5, and 0 - and if he had played more games. Had Knight Riders held on to their catches and won the game, he may have been singing praises of Rana's valiant fifty in a losing cause. Instead, Rana caught Gambhir and his team by surprise after they had done most of the hard work for a win, creating some uncertainty over whether Knight Riders can shut out oppositions in close matches.