Ever since Cheteshwar Pujara landed in the Uttar Pradesh capital on Monday afternoon, he has been the cynosure of all eyes. They have mobbed him, clicked selfies with him and followed him with zeal right up to the precincts of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee Ekana Stadium, where he trained with his Saurashtra teammates on the eve of the Ranji Trophy quarter-final.
Pujara is no stranger to such adulation. This time, however, the hype surrounding the 31-year-old was not unexpected, especially as he was coming from his career-defining 521 runs that were pivotal in India’s first-ever Test series triumph in Australia. The Uttar Pradesh team management saw him as the obvious threat.
When Pujara strode out to bat on Wednesday morning, tension was palpable. Uttar Pradesh has notched up an impressive 385 in the first innings, and Saurashtra were put in immediate strife by Uttar Pradesh’s bowling lynchpin Ankit Rajpoot with the twin dismissals of opener Snell Patel and No.3 batsman Vishvarajsinh Jadeja. Pujara was the ideal man to bail his team out of trouble.
One would have thought that his sublime form, class and high confidence – after quelling the threat of Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood, Patrick Cummins and Nathan Lyon Down Under – would have been too much for the hosts.
However, Pujara struggled on the cloudless, nippy winter morning. And it was not Rajpoot, but 19-year-old Shivam Mavi, who tested his reserves, before grabbing the prize scalp. The teenager was pinpoint accurate, extracted raw pace and got the ball to move prodigiously and lift precariously. Mavi’s sensational spell to Pujara post lunch was the highlight of the day.
He mixed his lengths cleverly, and in one such irresistible over, tested the batsman with a series of vicious inswingers, before pinning the 68-Test veteran with a brute of a short-pitched delivery, which was gloved to the short-leg fielder. Pujara departed for 11, after an agonizing 47-minute stay. If Rajpoot’s eight-over burst gave Uttar Pradesh the opening, it was Mavi who broke the back of Saurashtra.
Playing in only his fifth first-class game, Mavi displayed maturity and astute match awareness that illustrate the strides he has made as a bowler. After dismissing Pujara, he returned to remove Saurashtra’s dogged opener Harvick Desai and all-rounder Kamlesh Makvana in quick succession to leave the visitors on the ropes at 170/7 when stumps were drawn on Day 2, still adrift of UP’s first innings tally by 215 runs.
At the end of a fruitful day, Mavi was quick to assert that he did not have any particular plan to counter Pujara’s threat. He attributed his success to the lengths he was hitting, which enabled him to extract extra bounce from the track.
“There wasn’t any particular plan as such to counter him (Pujara). I managed to hit the correct length, and there were certain deliveries that reared off a good length. That played a role in Pujara bhai’s dismissal,” he explained. Apart from the short-pitched delivery, it was Mavi’s stock delivery – the inswinger – that had planted doubts in Pujara’s mind. “It was not easy to bat in the morning session. It was nippy and the ball was moving around,” he noted.
Mavi’s comments put the focus on the importance of the morning session, and how vital it is for fast bowlers to hit their straps at the onset to seize the early advantage. After two days, Uttar Pradesh’s three-pronged pace attack has stolen a march over their counterparts from Saurashtra. On the first morning, barring the opening spell from Jaydev Unadkat, Saurashtra’s attack was rendered toothless. On the contrary, UP’s attack was relentless, purposeful and offered rich variety. Ankit Rajpoot relied on seam movement, left-armer Yash Dayal swung it both ways, while Mavi extracted disconcerting bounce. The trio managed to do all this at good pace, clocking, on an average, at least 15kmph quicker than Unadkat and Chetan Sakariya. Such was their effectiveness on Wednesday that Uttar Pradesh captain Akshdeep Nath introduced his experienced and in-form left-arm spinner Saurabh Kumar as late as in the 32nd over.
Nath’s team has sprinted into the Ranji Trophy knockouts because of this variety in bowling. Just to put things in perspective, Rajpoot, despite missing two games, has still managed to prise out 40 scalps, while Kumar’s 50 scalps is the highest by a bowler outside the Plate Division.
Even Mavi’s returns in his debut season have been impressive, picking 18 wickets less than halfway into his fifth game. As Nath succinctly puts it: “In the past, Uttar Pradesh failed to compete in the Ranji Trophy because we did not have the bowling attack to take 20 wickets. This season, we have claimed more outright wins because we have regularly managed to get the opposition out twice.”
Brief Scores: Uttar Pradesh 385 (Rinku Singh 150, Saurabh Kumar 55; Jaydev Unadkat 5/86) lead Saurashtra 170/7 (Harvik Desai 84; Shivam Mavi 3/39, Yash Dayal 2/35) by 215 runs.