Sometimes, the best-laid plans don’t work out but at times they come off. At 79 for 2, Saurashtra had weathered the initial wobble but it was clear that much depended on their king Cheteshwar Pujara. Vidarbha had rallied superbly to move on from the overnight 200 for 7 to a very competitive 312 on a track that had begun to aid spin on the second day and Saurashtra needed Pujara to do his thing.
Everything was set up for a Pujara classic: he is India’s best player of spin, is in great form, and has the best soft hands in the business. Which meant Vidarbha didn’t have much time: they had to get him early before he settled in. The field was calibrated wisely: the close-in cordon, including the slip, stood really close to pouch anything that the soft hands would try to stub. They had to get him early, else he would sting them.
It was in this context that Pujara started to play left-arm spinner Aditya Sarwate. It took just a couple of balls, and an edge to the leg side, for Vidarbha to fortify their field and send out a strong signal. They already had a slip and a silly point but post that edge, a short-leg materialised. All crouching, pretty close to Pujara. He had used his feet a lot to Nathan Lyon in Australia and tried it here on a couple of occasions, but it seemed he was wary of the men near him. The ball was turning, and he didn’t want to make any mistake. Instead, he would rely on his hands to kill the spin.
Sarwate would later say that the field setting had come after watching Pujara bat in Australia. “We felt that initially he is a bit tentative and he jabs at the ball. That’s why we kept a short-leg. If the odd ball turns, then there is the silly point. He had just come out to the crease with tea also not far away. So our plan was to attack. We didn’t want him to step out, which he does a lot. We thought the more we make him play from the crease, the better it will be for us.”
So that was the plan. Try to stop him from coming down by the length and the turn. Three times in one Sarwate over, Pujara stepped down the track. Next over, Sarwate sent one on the legs, one outside off stump. Then came the killer blow from the good length. Pujara went back and didn’t play for the turn, kept his hands soft but sort of hung the bat out. Not away from the body, but sort of let it limp out there. The ball kissed the edge and went low to first slip where Wasim Jaffer didn’t make any mistake. Pujara had to trudge back for just one run. A huge moment in the game.
Of course, Saurashtra isn’t all about Pujara. They had moved into the knockouts on the strength of their own performances and Snell Patel, the wicketkeeper-opening batsman, played superbly for his unbeaten 87 to keep their hopes alive at 158 for 5. Here is where the runs scored by the lower order of Vidarbha might come to bite Saurashtra on the third day, especially with the increased assistance that the spinners are getting from the pitch.
The 112 runs added for the last three wickets by Vidarbha on the second day were invaluable. Akshay Karnewar hit a memorable unbeaten 73 and Akshay Wakhare made 34 with Umesh Yadav chipping in with 13 runs to take Vidarbha to 312, probably 75 runs more than what Saurashtra bargained for at the end of the first day.
Vidarbha brought on Sarwate as early as the third over despite the presence of Rajneesh Gurbani and Yadav and he struck soon, trapping opener Harvik Desai lbw with his third delivery. Snell and Vishvaraj Jadeja looked to counterattack, especially Snell, who played the turning ball pretty efficiently.
They reached 71 when Sarwate changed ends to make use of the rough created by the left-arm pacers. Jadeja was beaten once, with the ball turning sharply. A delivery later, the ball landed on the same spot and Jadeja played for the turn this time. Mistake. The ball came in with the arm to hit his pad flush in front of the stumps. Then it was Pujara’s turn and Saurashtra sunk into the mire, but Patel stood firm.
To counter the left-arm spinner, Saurashtra decided to send left-handed batsman Arpit Vasavada ahead in the order. He was lucky to be dropped off the second ball, but soon settled down and got a partnership going with Patel. Off-spinner Wakhare came on and got one to turn and bounce and a surprised Vasavada edged it to Jaffer at slip.
Wakhare had a double strike when he removed Sheldon Jackon – the inside edge had the ball ballooning off his thigh pad for an easy catch to wicketkeeper Wadkar. Vidarbha had got everything right, from reading the pitch to playing three spinners. And the pressure of a Ranji final did the rest. Much now depends on the plucky Patel.