Visakhapatnam: On a surface that didn't deteriorate as much as New Zealand A would have hoped it would, Manprit Juneja stamped his authority with a dominating century as India A ended the third day of their four-day fixture at 408 for 7, trailing New Zealand A's first innings total of 437 by just 29 runs, with Juneja unbeaten on 178 at the ACA-VDCA Stadium in Visakhapatnam on Wednesday (September 4).
Juneja, playing in only his 12th first-class match, batted through the day. He joined hands with VA Jagadeesh, the Kerala opener, in a fine exhibition of batting in the first session that set the tone for the day. The third-wicket partnership of 197 put to rest any fears of India A's middle-order being exposed against the moving ball early on.
Juneja's composure and Jagadeesh's determination ensured New Zealand A were left searching for options in muggy conditions. Jagadeesh brought out a different dimension in his game, playing more freely against the pacers, unlike on Tuesday, where he was happy offering a dead bat. And with the conditions perhaps being at their best, the change in approach brought him runs.
At one stage, Jagadeesh even matched Juneja stroke-to-stroke as New Zealand A quickly went on the defensive by adopting a negative line. Jagadeesh wasn't always fluent, but his gumption and willingness to put a price on his wicket was admirable. He played on the bowlers' patience, and as they lost sting on a sapping morning, accumulated runs to race into the 90s.
While Juneja breezed through to a century, nervousness got the better of Jagadeesh on 91. Doug Bracewell, brought into the attack for a ten-minute burst before lunch, struck straightaway by knocking over Jagadeesh's leg stump with a delivery that nipped back in sharply. Jagadeesh, who suddenly appeared to have shut shop with the lunch interval round the corner, played outside the line of a delivery that sneaked through bat and pad as New Zealand A got a much-needed lift going into the break.
After lunch, the pace of the game picked up as Abhishek Nayar, the India A captain, counter-attacked by repeatedly piercing the offside field against Todd Astle and Ish Sodhi, the legspinners, even as Juneja suddenly struggled for timing, the heat visibly taking its toll. Nayar raced away to a fifty off just 47 balls with seven fours and a six, forcing Tom Latham, the New Zealand A captain, to take the second new ball five overs after it was made available.
That move worked straightaway as Bracewell broke an 88-run stand by dismissing Nayar (57), who played on while trying to force a length ball through the off side. A few minutes later, CM Gautam (1) hung his bat out to a delivery angling away to be caught behind by Luke Ronchi as India A slipped from comfortable 301 for 3 to 304 for 5.
Even with wickets falling around him, Juneja didn't change his game drastically. He scored only 33 runs in the post-lunch session, but that was more a sign of how well New Zealand A tied him down by maintaining a tight line. But to Juneja's credit, his unwavering concentration and the determination to grind the bowling helped him steer clear of any pressure.
But with wickets tumbling at the other end, Juneja was forced to take more of the strike. Jalaj Saxena (20) and Shrikant Wagh (19) didn't stay for too long as the match quickly turned into a battle for the first-innings lead. But Dhawal Kulkarni then lent able support to Juneja as India A hung on till the close of play. A result looks unlikely now, with only one day's play left.
But on a day that produced 314 runs, Juneja's knock was a reassuring sign of the batting depth in India, and of the fact that old-school principles of valuing one's wicket were still being ingrained at the domestic level.