Harshit Rana is KKR’s second-highest wicket-taker in the 2024 Indian Premier League, picking up 17 wickets at an average of 21.1. He talks exclusively with Sarah Waris ahead of the final about his journey with the team so far, the reasons for his success, and his ambitions of opening the batting.

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Main aisa hi hoon [I have always been like this]”.

One of the first glimpses of the 22-year-old Harshit Rana in this IPL was of him giving Sunrisers Hyderabad opener Mayank Agarwal a flying kiss after dismissing him during his side’s tournament opener at the Eden Gardens. Mayank tried to play a pull shot against Harshit’s well-directed bouncer but a top edge saw him pick out Rinku Singh at deep backward square leg. As Mayank headed back, Harshit celebrated by blowing a kiss at him. It was met with a stare from the batter, a few wise words from Sunil Gavaskar on air, who questioned the bowlers’ antics, and later, a reenactment from Rohit Sharma.

Harshit had played only six games last season but was touted as a player to watch out for due to his bagful of variations and his pace. This year was an opportunity for him to further build on that reputation by displaying his improvement, but the “unnecessary” gestures in the first game left many unimpressed. In a country where a strict unwritten code of morality for the cricketers exists, any trespass is scoffed at and seen as an easy means to gain popularity, especially if they are newcomers.

But Harshit clarifies and says that wearing his emotions on his sleeves tends to get the best out of him. “It’s not that I have started doing these actions only since I came into the IPL and to hog the limelight. I have been this way ever since I started playing cricket. If you look at my India A games or even state games, I have always played with aggression. I have always been like this. I never think before going to play that I will react a certain way and not react in another. Things just happen in the heat of the moment.”

A repeat of the offence saw him get banned for a game against Mumbai Indians. But, unlike the previous occasion, the conversation had shifted to how he would be a miss for KKR after arguably being their best bowler in the first half of the season. By the end of April, he was KKR’s joint-highest wicket-taker, despite having not played two games due to a shoulder injury.

It’s not just mere numbers that prompted viewers to sit up and take note. Harshit’s form glossed over the ineffectiveness of big buy Mitchell Starc at the other end. What particularly stood out was his sharp analysis of the conditions, mixing up deliveries according to the batter in front of him instead of just relying on bowling fast.

In KKR’s first game against SRH, the one headlined by Harshit’s air kiss, his last over helped the side through by four runs. Defending only 13 against the unstoppable Heinrich Klaasen, Harshit conceded a six off a quicker delivery first ball but reduced his pace thereafter. It got him instant rewards: He had Shahbaz Ahmed out on the third ball before sending back Klaasen with another pace-off delivery, which the batter looked to slog away.

Harshit went wicketless during Kolkata’s match against Lucknow Super Giants at Eden Gardens but his defensive skills were critical in the team’s win. His battle with Nicholas Pooran, in particular, was interesting. Harshit kept bowling wide lines to him from over the wicket, looking to bang the ball into the pitch, a ploy that was also aided by his good height. He conceded only 16 off 11 balls to Pooran, who had hit a six every seven balls in the IPL till then.

Throughout this season, Harshit has also shown his mastery of the inswinger and the off-cutters, especially at the death. He is KKR’s most successful bowler in the last five overs of the innings, taking eight wickets, and giving only 9.04 runs an over. Overall, it is the third-best economy rate in the death among bowlers with at least 75 deliveries, after Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Siraj. Harshit’s control in pressure situations stands out in an edition where the run rates are at an unprecedented high.

He admits that having several options can be intimidating when bowling to power-hitters but preparing for those game situations in the nets helps: “The situations are extremely intense when we are playing on the ground. The earlier you assess the conditions and the wickets, the more advantageous it is for me. So, my first focus and priority are to find out what will work on this wicket.

“It is tough but I have been working hard on these. I keep working on these in the practice sessions, and it becomes easier for me to implement them during the game. It is tough but as I have worked hard on it during training, I know exactly what to bowl when – I have put that pressure on myself to excel in various situations.”

Another match where Harshit stood out was against the Royal Challengers Bengaluru at Eden Gardens. Defending 223, RCB were well-placed, needing 49 in the last five overs, but the trio of Harshit (two overs), Varun Chakravarthy and Andre Russell brought KKR back into the game, giving only 28 runs for two wickets in four overs. Starc then conceded 19 in the last over as KKR somehow scraped through by a run, bringing the contrasting game plans of the young Indian quick and the international star in focus.

After the game, Harshit said that he planned to bowl slower deliveries on a track that was holding up, which is what he proceeded to do in his last over, where he gave away six runs. The quick, who has touched 145 kph this season, bowled between 109-117 kph in the over, making run-scoring stiff. Starc, on the other hand, did not send down a ball below 135 kph in the over, with five balls over the 140 kph mark. Earlier in the game, Harshit had also dismissed Virat Kohli with a slower ball that dipped on the batter.

Harshit, though, refuses to be drawn into talks of overshadowing Starc. Instead, he has tremendous praise for former India bowling coach Bharat Arun, who has been with KKR since 2022. “He [Bharat Arun] keeps making plans for me during training, tells me what to focus on and perfect on a particular day. More importantly, he always asks me: What my aim is for the net session and then we move accordingly.”

Previously hailed as an “angel” by Siraj, Arun has played a massive role in Harshit’s growth over the last three seasons. It started by shortlisting him as a promising talent in 2022, when Harshit, on the insistence of his current KKR and Delhi teammate Nitish Rana, went for the KKR trials even before he had made his senior debut for Delhi. Harshit was then a net bowler for Gujarat Titans but a back injury to KKR’s Rasikh Salam prompted Nitish to coax Harshit into trying out for the side.

Rumour has it that the KKR management, led by Arun and assistant coach Abhishek Nayar, were left impressed by Harshit on the very first day he turned up. The soft-spoken bowler, however, plays down the incident. “There’s nothing like that. The first day I came for the trials was also the first day I met them. They were also seeing me bowl for the first time. They liked my bowling and told me: You might play for KKR, just take care of yourself and your body.”

It is an advice he has now learnt to take seriously, after missing the recent domestic season in its entirety due to an injury.

Harshit is also a handy batter down the order, with former KKR mentor David Hussey joking that he could be as “good as AB de Villiers”. Predicting that Harshit was going to have a “long and successful” career for KKR in 2022, Hussey had said, “Not just bowling, he can also bat. With the bat, he’s Mr 360. So hopefully expecting him to be as good as AB de Villiers within a year. He’s a ripper.”

The right-hander, who made his first-class and List A debuts in 2022, has a high score of 122* in the Ranji Trophy, making 343 runs at an average of 49, to go with his 28 scalps with the ball in seven games. He also has 22 List A wickets in 14 games but is yet to leave a mark with the bat in the format. Harshit harbours dreams of opening the batting and sheepishly says, “I can bat. I focus on my batting a lot, but I am not at the level where I can open yet (laughs).”

A consistent all-round show has helped KKR reach the final and Harshit has played a massive role in the side’s run. Many might not believe when he says that staying calm is the reason he attributes to his success. “I think the reason for my success this year could be that I try to remain as calm as I can inside the ground. We all will have good and bad days and this is something I have learnt from my dad. He always tells me, ‘Son, whatever happens, you need to be careful on the ground.’”

His words might seem paradoxical, considering he remains the only player to be suspended for breaching the Code of Conduct twice this year, but there’s a thin line between using aggression as a means to fuel yourself up further while remaining composed enough to perfectly execute plans, and aimlessness. Harshit, only two years into professional cricket, seems to know the difference even if popular opinion suggests otherwise.