THE GENTLE applause made way for loud cheers from the Saurashtra players, stationed near the boundary line, as Cheteshwar Pujara and Sheldon Jackson began their feast on Uttar Pradesh bowling after lunch interval on the final day.
As the duo scorched the lush green turf of Lucknow’s Atal Behari Vajpayee Ekana International Stadium with their scintillating stroke-play, the overwhelming sense of inevitability began to creep in. Precisely at 1.21 pm on Saturday, when Jackson slashed left-arm spinner Mohammad Saif past the point region for a boundary, it triggered manic celebrations. The scenes in the middle were much more mellow and restrained though. Saurashtra’s two most experienced batsmen removed their helmets; shook hands, hugged each other as they walked towards their joyous team-mates.
Moments later, the entire contingent assembled, all smiles, to pose for a selfie. These celebrations typified what Saurashtra have achieved in their Ranji Trophy quarter-final clash against Uttar Pradesh. Their batsmen orchestrated an extremely composed display to ace a 372-run chase with six wickets to spare and seal a spot in the semifinal. In doing so, they broke the record for the highest chase in Ranji Trophy, eclipsing Assam’s 371 against Services at Delhi’s Palam Ground in the 2008-09 season.
This result looked improbable two days ago when Saurashtra were bundled out for 208 in the first innings and had conceded a 177-run lead. In the end, what looked like an arduous climb, turned out to be a saunter for Saurashtra.
The stellar chase was fundamentally built upon two splendid partnerships. The 132-run opening stand between teenager Harvik Desai and wicket-keeper batsman Snell Patel that calmed the nerves in the dressing room, and set the platform for Pujara and Sheldon to script the finishing act with their unbeaten 136-run alliance.
On the final day, Saurashtra still had some way to go, requiring 177 runs more, while Uttar Pradesh needed eight wickets. The onus was on the home team’s three-pronged pace attack to seize the early advantage. That would not happen as Desai, unbeaten on 83 overnight, struck a flurry of boundaries to get the scoreboard ticking along. The 19-year-old brought his maiden first-class ton, barely 30 minutes into the proceedings. His knock will long be remembered for the composure and fortitude. But beneath the veneer of calm was a nervous wreck who had endured a sleepless night, with the impending personal landmark looming large. “I was not able to sleep yesterday and was really nervous today. I had scored fifties on six occasions, but had not been able to cross the three-figure mark even once,” he said. Desai has been quite a revelation in his debut Ranji season. Apart from vital contributions with bat, he has been bankable at slips, plucking 16 catches from 9 matches.
When Jackson joined Pujara following Desai’s exit, Saurashtra needed another 136 runs. But the home team were already worn out by then. Their captain Akshdeep Nath marshalled his resources, but on a pitch that hardly offered much assistance to his bowlers, Saurashtra romped home with relative ease.
Last throw of the dice
Looking back, it was Dharmendrasinh Jadeja’s four-wicket haul on Day 3 that turned the tide in Saurashtra’s favour. Captain Jaydev Unadkat talked about that decisive afternoon session on the third day, when he summoned his left-arm spinner as the last throw of the dice. “There was one point in the afternoon session on Day 3 when we told ourselves, ‘It’s now or never’. Uttar Pradesh were batting on 107/1 and the lead had swelled. We had put in all the hard yards throughout this season, and one good hour was all we needed to turn this game around. It had to be Jadeja for us as he has been our trump-card this season. Fortunately, there was some rough for him, which he exploited, and his two back-to-back wickets swung the game in our favour,” Unadkat explained.
Saurashtra will have their task cut out when they face a rampant Karnataka on their home turf — the Chinnaswamy Stadium — in the semifinal next week. “Karnataka are the team to beat this Ranji season,” he added. For the moment, Unadkat and his team will step back to savour this win. The celebrations refused to cease even as the Lucknow sun slipped into the horizon.
Brief Scores: UP 385 & 194 lost to Saurashtra 208 & 372/4 in 115.1 ovs (Harvik Desai 116, Sheldon Jackson 73*, Snell Patel 72, Cheteshwar Pujara 67*; Akashdeep Nath 1/17) by six wickets.