Sreshth Shah is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo
It was the 2016 Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy that put Nitish Rana on the map. Representing Delhi, Rana made headlines by smashing 21 sixes en route to becoming the leading run-scorer for his side. That form pushed Mumbai Indians to retain him ahead of IPL 2016. And when he struck consecutive half-centuries for Mumbai in IPL 2017, Rana showed that he could belong at the stage.
What seemed like a fairytale start to the 2017 season, though, quickly fizzled out. Having made 255 runs in his first six matches of IPL 2017 with three fifties, his next six innings brought him only 78 runs with a highest of 27. By the later stages of the tournament, he was dropped from the Mumbai XI. Those are the kind of margins for players in franchise cricket - invaluable when in form, disposable when not.
The switch to Kolkata Knight Riders in 2018 couldn't have come at a better time. While Rana couldn't emulate the sizzling form he showed during his Mumbai stint, he had a designated role - to dominate spin - and provided a sort of level-headedness to a team of power-hitters.
As IPL 2019 kicked off, Sunil Narine's injury in the side's opening game against Sunrisers Hyderabad pushed Rana into uncharted territory. He was sent in to open the batting for the first time in the IPL, but he seemed at ease, anchoring the innings with a 47-ball 68 to help Knight Riders chase down 182.
The worry for those who follow Rana and the Knight Riders closely was whether he could back one solid batting performance with another. He had not scored consecutive half-centuries since IPL 2017, and when Knight Riders were asked to bat first against Kings XI Punjab on Wednesday, Rana found himself in the middle by the fourth over, with the team's score 36 for 2.
As an opener, Rana had had no choice but to display his full array of shots in the pursuit of 182. At No. 4, however, and batting first he also had to quickly gauge what an ideal target would be. His first 21 balls earned only 22 runs, a strike-rate of below 100. Knight Riders still had their power-hitters in the dug-out, but Rana had already consumed nearly four overs. Surely he had to make amends, or face criticism for scoring at less than six for nearly 20% of the team's innings.
That's when Rana's switch turned on. Ashwin came on for his final over and he was welcomed with a six over midwicket. A massive strike over long-off followed and in the space of three balls Rana had moved on to a 24-ball 35. At that stage, he was only dealing in sixes. In the IPL, Rana strikes at 138 to pacers and at 140 to spinners, but in an age teams believe in player-v-player match-ups, Rana's role is to not let spinners settle, and he showed that on Wednesday.
By the time he was out for 63, his strike-rate had climbed to a whopping 185.29, with 41 runs off his final 13 balls. This kind of acceleration was unexpected - he was after all the accumulator, remember? - but it came about because he was not crippled by self-doubt.
"I didn't have a great Ranji season, nor the T20s, so I was pretty disturbed [coming into IPL 2019]," Rana said after the match. "I had so many things going on in my mind. But more than the technique, I worked on the mental toughness with Abhishek Nayar [Knight Riders' mentor] before the season.
"The sessions were quite helpful in that sense because I got one-on-one time. I didn't work on batting as such, but the conversations I had there helped me clear out my thoughts. I wasn't backing myself, I realised. Now, I feel, I've become a better player."
Two fifties in two games have earned Rana the Orange Cap but he knows he cannot rest on those laurels. There is a perception that his form dwindles as the season goes by. It happened in 2017. It happened in 2018. And Rana is very aware of that.
"I need to continue this form," Rana said. "I haven't thought too far ahead, but the last couple of seasons I've started well, but fizzled out towards the latter half of the tournament. I want to work on this. I want to carry this form till the end of the tournament."
Rana has top-scored for Knight Riders in both matches, but hasn't yet won a Man-of-the-Match award. In a way, that shows what he is about as a batsman: the potential to be reliable without making too much noise. In the presence of Knight Riders' big-hitters, it can also make him a blind spot for the opposition.
The question is whether he can emulate this through the season. Having established himself as the batsman who sets up the innings for Andre Russell and Dinesh Karthik, he will know that bowlers will come at him with specific plans. That could make batting more challenging for Rana as the season progresses, but it's also an indirect compliment to his skill and threat he poses.
Rana wouldn't mind that.