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Rana breaks century drought against Mumbai, and is now hungry for more

"I had lost the habit of scoring hundreds. I now know how to [make] hundreds. A big one is around the corner this season."

File photo: Rana says presence of players like Rinku in the UP setup makes things familiar  •  KKR Knight Club

File photo: Rana says presence of players like Rinku in the UP setup makes things familiar  •  KKR Knight Club

When Nitish Rana soaked in his team-mates' applause after going from 99 to 100 on Saturday, he was experiencing a feeling both familiar and unfamiliar. It was his seventh first-class hundred in 47 games, but his first in more than four years.
So much had happened between his sixth and seventh hundreds, a time during which he had averaged 27.07 in first-class cricket and passed 50 only twice in 17 innings.
One event in particular had contributed significantly to both Rana playing so few innings in that period and enduring that lean run. Covid-19 had swept through the world, disrupting among other things India's cricket calendar. There was no first-class domestic cricket in all of 2021, a year when the pandemic's second wave in India had forced the IPL to be played over two legs in two countries. As all this happened, Rana took his eye off the red ball.
"During the Covid years, when the IPL was held in two phases, I had stopped focusing on red-ball cricket a little bit," Rana told reporters at the Wankhede Stadium. "So that set me back somewhat. This year I have worked very hard with the red ball because I wanted to prove, not to anyone else but myself, that I can be a good red-ball player."
That Rana can play innings of immense impact in red-ball cricket is well-established. His last century, for instance, was an unbeaten 68-ball 105 in a successful fourth-innings chase of 347 against Vidarbha, who had won the Ranji Trophy back-to-back in the previous two seasons. Saturday's knock was not too different in terms of the challenge Rana surmounted.
When he walked in, Uttar Pradesh were 136 for 4 - which soon became 152 for 5 - in response to Mumbai's total of 198. Mumbai had come into this game having won each of their first three games, two of them with bonus points.
Rana's response was entirely characteristic: he got off the mark with back-to-back sixes off Shams Mulani's left-arm spin, the first grazing the fingertips of a leaping deep midwicket fielder.
"Playing strokes is in my blood," Rana said. "I try to play according to the situation. We were chasing [347] when I scored the 68-ball hundred. Today, the wicket was so good that I wanted to keep my shape and play my game.
"I have played for three years on this wicket for Mumbai Indians. There is value for money on this wicket, and I always wish that I should get at least one match on this pitch every year. I was trying to back my shots."
Rana eventually hit 12 fours and five sixes in a 120-ball 106 that helped UP take a 126-run first-innings lead.
It was a gratifying effort in more than one way. It reinforced Rana's belief in himself as a red-ball player, and it proved the perfect outcome for UP, who made him their captain after he moved away from Delhi before the start of the 2023-24 season.
"Hundred always gives you satisfaction," Rana said. "It was my mistake that I wasn't focusing on red-ball cricket. A lot of people had started talking that I wasn't a red-ball player and I would not have had to listen to that talk [if I had given the format more attention]. From the time I switched from Delhi, my target has been to make my name in red-ball cricket again."
The UP dressing room, Rana says, hasn't felt unfamiliar at all.
"I know 14 of them in the 15-member squad," he said. "I have played with Ankit [Rajpoot] from Under-16 days, with Rinku [Singh] for six years [at Kolkata Knight Riders], Akshdeep [Nath] for eight years. One of the reasons is, I know everyone here. I never felt like I came to a new team."
Rana played for Delhi for over a decade but feels no regrets about moving away.
"It was in my mind that the dressing-room atmosphere was not good for my career," he said. "I felt that a change was necessary for my career. The switch was necessary. I have always looked at UP as an elite team and I know people here. I have luckily got a team where I am getting respect here."
He's also ended his century drought, but Rana is hungry for bigger things.
"I won't call it a big knock," he said. "A big knock is 300. But I remember in 2020 or 21 I [made] my last hundred. I had lost the habit of scoring hundreds. I now know how to [make] hundreds. A big one is around the corner this season."
Rana's exploits in domestic cricket and the IPL earned him a call-up to India's squad for a white-ball tour of Sri Lanka in 2021, but he dropped out of the reckoning after that, after playing just one ODI and two T20Is. He wants to keep pushing for a recall but is aware of the pitfalls of placing too much emphasis on selection, a thing he has no control over.
"It is always at the back of the mind of every player," Rana said. "Even I want to play for India. But the hard work that is needed to make it is what I am willing to work for. Since 2018, my name has been doing the rounds. Sometimes, that frustration has only affected my game."