Andre Russell’s 97 runs at a strike rate of 269.44 has earned him two Man of the Match awards, and given Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) wins in both their Indian Premier League (IPL) 2019 matches. Coming in at No 5 in two matches, he has played similar roles, first making 19-ball 49 not out in a successful chase of 182 against Sunrisers Hyderabad (SRH) and then chipping in with 17-ball 48 to help KKR post 218 for 4 – the highest IPL total at the Eden Gardens – against Kings XI Punjab (KXIP) on Wednesday. Russell, though, would be the first to admit that he has been able to display his full range of hitting prowess because of the foundation provided by the top-order led by Nitish Rana.
The left-handed Rana first caught attention when he made his IPL debut for Mumbai Indians in 2016. To understand why Kolkata paid Rs 3.40 crores for him at the 2018 auctions (his base price was Rs 20 lakhs), one has to go back to their game against Mumbai in 2017. At 119 for 5 in 16.1 overs in a chase of 179, Mumbai looked out of the game before Rana, who had come out to bat at No 3, shifted gears to make 50 off 29 balls and gave them a win with a ball to spare.
There were 33 rounds of bidding before Kolkata procured his services. Rana has always looked like a batsman with huge potential, and he has further vindicated his status with scores of 68 and 63 in two innings, which puts him at the top of this season’s batting charts.
Adaptability has been the key feature of both the knocks. Promoted to open the innings against Hyderabad after Sunil Narine got injured on the field, Rana batted sensibly, striking crucial partnerships with Robin Uthappa and Russell, before the Jamaican provided the finishing touches in the company of Shubhman Gill.
With Narine back at the top of the order against Punjab, Rana took strike at 36 for 2 in 3.3 overs. Narine had provided a strong start with a 9-ball 24 and the situation demanded consolidation. He and Uthappa once again joined hands to apply common sense in a partnership of 110 in 11 overs. Bad balls were punished, but more importantly, the strike was rotated regularly.
Rana hit seven sixes and two fours, indicating that he has worked out the right mix of average and strike rate for a batsman in Twenty20s. He fell with 33 balls left – just enough for Russell to come out and make an impact.
Like Rana and Russell, Uthappa’s roles in two innings has been important. He held the batting together against Punjab with an unbeaten 67.
What Rana and Uthappa emphasise is the criticality of a franchise to have a strong Indian batting core. While the big stars have greater responsibilities, it is the Indian batsmen who are regulars in the domestic circuit and have the responsibility to ensure that there is depth in the line-up.
It is quite often seen in IPL that once the set batsman gets out, the batting collapses. Only teams that have got the right set of Indian batsmen actually get it right at the end. Chennai Super Kings (CSK) and Kolkata are two examples on the right side of the ledger, while Royal Challengers Bangalore’s (RCB) overdependence on superstars has made it difficult for young Indian batsmen to find their groove.
It really boils down to the philosophy of the franchise. Sure, there is an urgent demand for victories considering the nature of the league, but it is also about keeping an eye on the future. The failure rate is high in teams where there is constant chopping and changing.
Kolkata have got the balance absolutely spot on. In the previous set up they enabled Manish Pandey to flourish, and now players like Rana and Gill are taking the ownership. With Uthappa and Karthik having the experience, the blend is just fine and reduces the burden from the shoulders of the overseas players.
Karthik spoke about it in the last edition when he took up Kolkata’s captaincy and the exposure the young players got then is seeming to pay rewards now.
Considering the high level of competition in the IPL, it is not easy for a young Indian batsman to come and deliver straightaway. There is a gap between other domestic tournaments in the country and the IPL because of the dynamics, and the percentage of those who fade away during this transition phase is very high. This is where it boils down to the team management trusting the players and giving them the necessary confidence. They need the exposure to step up and that can happen only if they are assured of a certain number of games.
Rana took his time, but now is a batting leader not only for Kolkata in IPL but also for Delhi in the domestic circuit. The consistency has earned him the India ‘A’ cap, and brighter things are in store for him.