In his maiden first-class season, it took Nitish Rana nine innings to be dismissed for fewer than 25 runs. It was his only single-digit score in the 2015-16 Ranji Trophy. The first hundred, though, came in the last innings of the season, and in the second innings, which is rarely counted as important runs in this tournament. Rana went up to seniors, including Gautam Gambhir, and asked, “Why am I getting out on 50? 70? Why am I not scoring big runs?”
The reply he got from them had to do with concentration. “They told me when you play under-16, under-19 or under-23, you get one or two quality bowlers in the opposition. So you can get away with breaks in concentration after you have seen off the main bowlers. In Ranji Trophy there are more quality bowlers, and you have to concentrate for longer.”
Rana says he went to the nets and started to bat longer and harder, and made sure he was only concentrating on the next ball. He also got an IPL call-up from Mumbai Indians, with whom he said he grew mentally and technically as a player. All of that was on display at the Airforce Sports Complex in Palam, Delhi, where his innings of 174 buried Maharashtra under a mountain of runs (419) on a pitch with uneven bounce. Delhi bowlers used the advantage handsomely to leave the visitors on the brink of a follow-on at 59 for 8.
Delhi began the day at 260 for 4 with Rana unbeaten on 110, but the 23-year old showed awareness that his job was far from done. He batted through the first session, in partnership with impressive debutant Lalit Yadav who scored 52, and only after he felt Delhi were secure did he try to get adventurous. This was his fourth first-class hundred and his highest score.
The significance of that innings showed in how Ishant Sharma – back from the India squad once he was not picked for the Kolkata Test – ran through the Maharashtra top order with the quality of bowling India could have done with at Eden Gardens. Ishant was on the target – full but short of driving length just outside off – from ball one, and it was almost unfair on the batsmen facing the new ball after 111.1 overs in the field.
The bounce had been uneven for other bowlers too but, largely, it deviated on the lower side. Ishant started hitting both bands of the spectrum. Rututuraj Gaikwad fell in the first over, forced to play outside off. Murtaza Trunkwala fell to similar fate, and Ankit Bawne was rapped on the gloves as soon as he came in. Rahul Tripathi, another IPL star, hit Ishant for a four but would soon nick another length ball outside off. Ishant’s spell of 6-2-14-3, in which he barely bowled a loose ball, left Maharashtra reeling at 14 for 4. Nitin Saini then got rid of Rohit Motwani to make it 51 for 5.
Maharashtra would have sighed in relief when bad light sent players off early but 10 minutes later the conditions improved, and they lost a further three wickets in the 15 minutes of play possible after resumption. Lalit added two wickets to his debut half-century, and Manan Sharma chipped in with one. Despite the loss of 43 overs to bad light on the first two days, Delhi were now almost assured three points, and could even dream of a full complement of seven if they can enforce the follow-on and then win by an innings or by 10 wickets. The latter could ensure their progress to the knockouts even before the final round of league matches.