A little over one hour into the day, it seemed Mumbai had sewed up the game and eyeing a big first-innings lead. Badri Alam had struck twice in two overs to knock out Rujul Bhatt and Parthiv Patel and leave Gujarat on the edge at 139 for 5. A situation that had turned more dire with news coming in from Indore that Gujarat’s chief competitor for the knockout spot, Madhya Pradesh, were on course for an innings win against Andhra.
However, Bhargav Merai, who was recognised by the Indian cricket board as the best U-19 batsman in 2009-10, hit his first ton of the season, an unbeaten 150 accrued over nearly eight and half hours. He was a tired man but its not over yet as he will come out to bat on Friday to continue the knock that has already seen him retire to bed for two nights.
A magnificent effort that has dragged Gujarat back in contention. He added 155 runs with Axar Patel in 50.3 overs as Gujarat reached 355 for 7. After batting for almost seven hours on Thursday, in an extended day’s play, they still need 176 runs for the lead, but Merai has managed to keep MP on tenterhooks for one more day.
Gujarat need to draw this game, and get one point which would put them on par with MP, who are on 24 points with a Net Run Rate of -0.059. Gujarat, whose NRR was +0.028, had to avoid a defeat and keep their rate up as well. As the afternoon wore on, Merai and Patel did their bit to keep thoughts of defeat at bay.
Unsurprisingly, Merai, who had four fifties before this game but no hundred, started off cautiously, trying his best to get on the front foot and play close to the body as possible. He dealt in push-drives through the off and tapped the ball around to rotate the strike. The first hour crawled along, with Merai and Bhatt, adding 24 runs in 14 overs and seeing out Shardul Thakur’s five-over spell. Bhat didn’t look all that comfortable, often shuffling too far across and edging and jabbing his way, but he fought on.
Just when it looked they had done the hard yards, in came the skiddy Alam. With an action reminiscent somewhat of Karnataka’s Abhimanyu Mithun, he ran in round the stumps and got the ball straight and full, into the left-hander.
Bhatt shuffled across and tried to work a delivery across the line to the on side but ended up playing around the ball which threaded through the bat-and-pad gap to fall on the off stump. The diminutive Patel walked out, his midriff strapped up after that blow on his ribs on Wednesday that had put him out of action for a while, but didn’t last long. Alam got another one, full and tailing in with the angle, and Patel pressed his front pad too far across, couldn’t get his bat around in time and was trapped lbw in front. Half the side had gone for 139 and this is when Patel and Merai took charge.
There wasn’t much help for turn on the track and without that assistance the left-arm spinner Iqbal Abdullah can be quite ordinary bowler. And so, Aditya Tare, the captain, tried to rely on his seamers a lot more and though they did try hard, Merai and Patel countered the oldish ball without much fuss.
They plugged away in their contrasting ways, Merai more conventional and compact and Axar Patel on the lookout for runs. Patel started to grow in confidence after a few whips to the onside and soon, started to unfurl punches through the off as well. Merai started by standing outside the crease to counter any swing and defended well. Soon, he brought out the occasional over drives and punches, and the pair tided over the testing phase, and soon started to flow.
Elsewhere, by now, Madhya Pradesh had sealed up an innings win, taken the bonus point and joined Gujarat on 24 points. It was clear that Gujarat needed to ensure that they don’t let their NRR dip, and not lose the game and in the middle the pair were on the attack. Merai, who survived a loud caught behind appeal, trying to cut Abdullah on 88, brought up his ton and Patel in particular was severe on the mediumpacer Balwinder Singh Sandu; first whipping him through the on side for three fours in an over, and followed it up with two extra-cover driven boundaries in the next over against the new ball. On 88, against the run of play, after 50 overs, Patel fell, trying to flay Thakur over the off-side ring but Nikhil Patil leaped at covers to intercept.
Merai found good support in Rush Kalaria for a while but Kalaria, who received quite a few bouncers , finally fell, edging behind an attempted pull off Thakur. Merai remained positive, hooking Thakur and driving straight to keep Gujarat in the hunt for the knockouts.
Brief scores: Mumbai 531. Gujarat 355/7 in 125 overs (Bhargav Merai 150*, Axar Patel 88; Shardul Thakur 4/75).