During one of his pep talks with players on tour, Lalchand Rajput, who was India A coach to Australia, asked wicket-keeper Naman Ojha what his goal was and how he would go about achieving it. Ojha knew that cracking the Indian team was going to be difficult, as the Indian wicket-keeper was the Indian captain. The only way Ojha could have made it to the national side was through his batting.
Rajput then gently chided Ojha saying the 70-80’s he had been scoring might not be enough. Ojha remembers his reply: “I told Lalu sir that if I need to get into the Indian team, I need to score 100’s. Not only 100’s but big hundreds.”
What followed was Ojha’s turnaround. A season like he has never experienced before. He scored 209 not out, 101 not out, 110 in three innings against Australia A which later ensured he travelled to England, with the second-wicket-keeper Wriddhiman Saha injured before the fourth Test. He came back from England and later went on to score 217 against North Zone in Duleep Trophy and was asked to board the flight to Australia as a back-up wicket-keeper after MS Dhoni was ruled out of the first Test due to thumb injury.
Bundela shines too
On Wednesday, Ojha scored 155 against Mumbai in the Ranji Trophy league game at Wankhede Stadium. The 31-year-old batsman also added 258 runs with his centurion captain Devendra Bundela (115) which helped MP take a 134 run lead. At stumps, MP were 538 for 7 with their tailender Ankit Sharma and Puneet Datey batting on 35 and 16 respectively.
Ojha’s is not a new name on the domestic circuit; he broke into the MP side even before Dhoni made his first-class debut. He has more than a decade of first-class seasons behind him and he has more than 7000 runs in those years.
Ojha never looked to speed up his innings, one could sense he needed to stay as long as he can. His concentration was unmatched and he just waited for one lose ball from Mumbai bowlers. The in-experienced pace attack came round the wicket to him, targetting his ribs but Ojha left the deliveries alone. After MP resumed their third day on overnight score of 221 for 3, the first real challenge for Ojha and Bundela was playing out the first session on the pitch, which helps bowlers for first couple of hours.
Mumbai bowlers were erratic and chasing the negative line, Mumbai captain Suryakumar Yadav urged his bowlers to exploit the bowling patch, calling upon left-arm spinner Iqbal Abdulla to do his bidding. But there was no turn on offer and the MP duo had no problems in playing out the spinner. They kept rotating singles. It was a gentle back-foot punch for Ojha, which brought him his first hundred of the season but he never looked satisfied. “70-80 se kya hoga, ab yeh score dekh ke mazaa nahi aata. I need big, really big scores to make a strong case,” he said later.
His innings were studded with 19 fours and a six. Ojha and Bundela batted out 566 balls combined, nearly 94 overs which was enough to see Mumbai’s bowlers slumping their shoulders. Bundela got to his 25th first-class hundred off a Abdulla delivery. It was ten years ago, that the MP captain had scored his first hundred at Wankhede Stadium against a start-studded Mumbai side.
While he was walking back to board the bus, Ojha politely asked a scribe, “Do you think, I can play as a batsman?” At the Wankhede, Ojha had made a strong case as a specialist batsman.
Brief Scores: Mumbai 404 vs Madhya Pradesh: 538 for seven in 162 overs (Naman Ojha 155, Devendra Bundela 115, Iqbal Abdullah 3/123)
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