The understated artistry of Sneh Rana

Sneh Rana likes to keep it simple. She is old-school that way. Three long steps, three quick steps, and she bowls. A run-up as straight as they come. As plain as they can be. In the nets and in competitive games, you can recognise Rana from a distance despite the vanilla bowling routine. The motion of her bowling is art. Straight out of the coaching manual – high-arm action, coming from a good height, imparting serious revs on the ball.

That’s how she has made a name for herself at Railways over the years. That’s what has brought her success over the years. And that’s how Nooshin Al Khadeer, the head coach of the victorious India side at the Under-19 Women’s T20 World Cup this year and the head coach of Railways, has shaped her to be. Al Khadeer had observed a few seasons ago that Rana was not using her trunk enough to give the ball a rip and made her work on it. As Railways captain in recent times, Rana has had the benefit of working on her bowling and ideas over the years with Al Khadeer, one of the sharpest minds in the Indian cricket circuit and a seasoned offspinner herself. Which explains why she was tactically ready when she made an India comeback after five years in 2021.

On day one of the one-off Test against Australia, Rana knew the gravity of the task at hand. She was brought into the attack first change after Australia had raced to 56 for 2 in 11 overs. India had struck twice in the first two overs, but an aggressive Tahlia McGrath had wrestled back the momentum.

Inside three overs, Rana had already created two chances: an lbw appeal against Beth Mooney, her Gujarat Giants team-mate, that could have turned into a wicket if India had taken a review; and an outside edge off McGrath that Deepti Sharma couldn’t hold on to following a deflection off the wicketkeeper’s pad.

On commentary, the former India Women coach WV Raman observed that India had not attacked the stumps enough and given McGrath a lot of room to free her arms and get going, enabling her to race to her half-century off 52 balls. The line of the bowling became a lot tighter when Rana came on, the stumps in play far more often. She kept McGrath quiet, and by the time she chipped tamely to midwicket in Rana’s sixth over, she had faced 11 balls from the offspinner and scored just four runs. Later, McGrath would admit to finding Rana difficult to face.

Rana took four wickets in Australia’s first innings, and when she was introduced in the eighth over of the second, it was as if a cat had been set among the pigeons. She worked the two left-hand openers – Mooney and Phoebe Litchfield – over, with occasional low bounce compounding their problems. It seemed to have a psychological effect on the batters too. In Rana’s third over, Mooney dug a fullish ball out towards silly point and, while the bowler appealed for lbw, wandered out of her crease, unmindful of Richa Ghosh collecting the ball and throwing the stumps down.

The stranglehold was too tough to handle for Litchfield, who went for an ill-timed reverse sweep off a very full ball and dragged on. The shot is one of her strengths, and she has scored a lot of runs with it in the WBBL, but it was a dangerous ploy against the guile of Rana on a pitch with uneven bounce.

For a large part of the next two hours, McGrath and Ellyse Perry managed to stave off India’s bowlers, but they didn’t let the Australian pair get away either. The third-wicket pair held fort for 173 balls, but scored at less than three an over in that time.

The relentlessness of Rana finally dislodged Perry, strangled down the leg side while trying to flick.

“Their relentless with the ball stood out to me,” Australia captain Alyssa Healy later said of India’s bowlers. “Their three spinners worked really, really well together and made it hard for us. At times it felt like we weren’t scoring, or the game was stagnating a little bit and we couldn’t really throw a punch and get the scoring going again.”

With Australia effectively resuming at 46 for 5 on the last day of the Test, Rana once again posed problems by exploiting the rough outside the right-handers’ off stump, bowling from the pavilion end. The result of the squeeze – coupled with Pooja Vastrakar’s incisive spell from the media end – was two wickets in two balls for Rana. She had Annabel Sutherland gloving a sweep before Alana King squeezed a full ball onto the stumps via the inside edge. That hastened Australia’s end, leaving India just 75 to chase, which they achieved with eight wickets to spare.

“The preparations were very simple,” Rana, the Player of the Match, told the media later. “There was no need to experiment because red-ball cricket is a long game. As far as my bowling is concerned, my preparations have always been around bowling the right channels and back my strengths. So, I did the same in this Test and the previous one. I remained calm and did not experiment.”

That she stood in the slips for large parts of the match also helped her work out her plans. “When you stand in the slips, you get to know the turn and bounce from the wicket, the help you get from pitching in certain areas. I could judge the turn, bounce, whether the ball was keeping low, how the pitch was behaving etc. So, we used to convey that to each other.”

Between her two contributions with the ball was a vital innings with the bat. Rana came in as nightwatch with 14 balls left on the first day. She frustrated Australia the following day, stretching her innings to 57 balls and putting on 50 with Smriti Mandhana. Along the way she kept Mandhana away from the strike against the offspinner Ashleigh Gardner, who turns the ball away from the left-hander. Memories of Rana’s dogged 80 not out to help India draw the Bristol Test against England in 2021 came to mind.

As with her bowling, there is a simple understatedness to Rana’s batting. It’s easy for her to slip under the radar, but her importance to India’s red-ball team won’t be lost – certainly not after her feats at the Wankhede.

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