The players who will represent India in this ICC Under-19 World Cup, or the batch of 2018, embody a fresh start. They are the first set of players India has picked since the 2016 BCCI ruling that no player can play more than one edition of the tournament, an attempt to discourage age-fudging. So all the players picked here are first-timers, full of vim, most having entered the national Under-19 set up only in the last two years.
But there is one player who draws his roots from the batch of 2016, like an old stow away on a new boat. That player is Himanshu Rana.
Rana was among the 20 probables picked for the India Under-19 side to play a tri series against Bangladesh and Afghanistan in Kolkata in November 2015. But he never made it to the team that went on to play the final of the 2016 Under-19 World Cup. According to his coach Sanjeev Malhotra, he was diagnosed with dengue during the camp in Kolkata and had to be sent home. That put paid to his chances of claiming a place in the side.
“It was a setback”, says Malhotra. “He knew that Ranji Trophy and IPL are always there, but Under-19 World Cup comes only once in one’s life.”
Fortunately, age was on his side, only just. The 2018 tournament is open to players born on or after 1 September 1998, with Rana's date of birth falling exactly a month after the cut-off date. This proved to be a blessing in disguise; in 2016 the top-order batter would have been competing for a slot with Rishab Pant, Washington Sundar and Ishan Kishan. Now he has established himself as one of this team’s top four batters, and has captained the side as well.
Rana was eight-years-old when his father brought him to Malhotra’s Sankalp Cricket Academy in Sonipat, Haryana. Malhotra had just set it up, and Rana was one if its first three students. Malhotra’s own cricket career had ended when a motorcycle accident had caused rods to be inserted into his arms, making holding a bat difficult. But he was quick to notice Rana’s habit of playing straight and in the V without any formal coaching. “I felt that if he works hard in the next few years he has a good career ahead," said Malhotra.
Haryana is not the breeding ground of cricket that Mumbai is, nor is it a Ranji Trophy heavyweight like neighbouring Delhi. But being a talented player in a relatively smaller team has significant advantages. Rana made his Ranji Trophy debut in 2015, at the age of 16, and amongst the players in this current Indian team, has the most first-class experience, having played 15 games so far. On debut he notched up a gritty 80, in a game where Virender Sehwag scored 147 for the opposition.
The next season, Rana was sharing the dressing room with Sehwag, as the veteran shifted states due to turmoil at the DDCA. Rana and his team mates benefitted from the osmosis of experience. There were plenty of local mentors in the team as well, with capped players like Yuzvendra Chahal, Jayant Yadav and Amit Mishra all hailing from the state.
Besides his first-class record, Rana has one more factor in his favour. With a tournament in New Zealand, there is always the chance of playing in cold conditions with some help in the pitch for the fast bowlers. Rana has considerable experience of these quantities, having played all cricket in the north Indian winters. Also, Haryana play some of their home games at the CH Bansi Lal cricket stadium in Lahli, Rohtak, a ground that is famous for being a batter’s graveyard and a fast bowler’s paradise. Rana has scored both his Ranji Trophy hundreds at this venue, and is no stranger to cold, foggy mornings where the first hour must be given to the bowlers.
When his second shot at the Under-19 World Cup came around, he grabbed his chance with hands that had been waiting nearly a year. In the 2016 Asia Cup, he bagged the 'Man of the Series' award with 283 runs in five matches, including a half-century in the final. When England visited India, he started with a hundred and a fifty in the first two ODIs, and was named captain for a part of the series.
Since then though, things have not been as smooth for Rana in the Under-19 ranks. He was named captain for two Youth Tests when India travelled to England, but had a lean tour with the bat. He only managed three double-digit scores in nine innings across both formats, and only one half century. Then under his captaincy, and under-strength India were beaten by Nepal and Bangladesh in the Asia Cup last month; Rana scored a century in the tournament opener against Malaysia, but could not contribute against the stronger oppositions.
So when the Challenger Trophy came around, there was pressure on him to justify his position as the most experienced batter in the team. By the end of it, he was the third-highest run scorer with 180 runs in four innings at an average of 45. He also led his side India Blue to the title.
It is a far cry from the player who feared his chances of playing an Under-19 World Cup were over two years ago. Malhotra recounts the encouragement given to him by India coach Rahul Dravid when Rana was sent home. “Rahul Dravid told him not to worry”, recalls Malhotra. “He said, ‘work hard, there is a lot of cricket left in your career.’ That encouragement helped him get back faster.”
Rana knows exactly what millennials mean by the term FOMO — 'Fear of Missing Out'. Luckily, he has a second chance. Watch out for what he does with it.
The author is a former India cricketer, and now a freelance journalist and broadcaster. She hosts the YouTube Channel, ‘Cricket With Snehal’, and tweets @SnehalPradhan