At a venue that has seen runs aplenty, Punjab did well to not let their shoulders droop after losing the toss and being asked to field against Saurashtra on day one of the Ranji Trophy semifinal at the Saurasthra Cricket Association Stadium on Wednesday (January 16).
Saurashtra ended the day at 274 for five in 87 overs, with Sheldon Jackson (70) and Kamlesh Makwana (13) sharing an unbroken 45-run stand for the sixth wicket. However, at no stage did Punjab allow Saurashtra to run away with a big advantage on a pitch that looked as green as the outfield from a distance, but didn't provide too much assistance for the bowlers once the initial moisture dried out.
Saurashtra will feel a little let down by their top-order batsmen, none of whom could carry on to make a big score despite getting their eye in. Siddharth Kaul made an impact straightaway in the fourth over with Sagar Jogiyani (5) playing down the wrong line to lose his off stump.
Shitanshu Kotak, Jogiyani's opening partner, was happy to blunt the bowling and take the shine off the ball. For a while it looked like he would be consumed by his overcautious approach even as Siddharth probed away in his first spell. A change of ends worked for Siddharth as Rahul Dave (16) was caught behind by Uday Kaul, attempting an expansive cover drive.
With Saurashtra's second wicket falling at 58, Kotak opened up with a couple of delightful strokes - first a superb off drive and then a flick through midwicket - to kickstart his innings. He wasn't freeflowing by any means, but he was happy to hang in there and make Punjab work hard to get his wicket. On the other hand, Jaydev Shah, the Saurashtra captain, came out at No.4 and attacked the bowlers at every available opportunity.
Given how well the seamers operated in the morning session, it came as no surprise when Sarabjeet Ladda, the legspinner, was introduced only in the 36th over.
The first hour after lunch saw Punjab pressing for wickets while the batsmen seemed intent on defying the bowlers, making for an intense passage of play. One ball lobbed off Shah's glove only to fall short of short leg, and a couple of deliveries later, Shah played an uppish drive off Harbhajan, just past the outstretched hands of cover to bring up his fifty. Soon after, a couple of outside edges flew past the slips off Ladda and it looked like Saurashtra were floating on thin ice. They managed to weather that storm with Ladda being extremely unlucky to not get a wicket.
Shah was severe on anything short and Kotak was happy to attack once he got himself in, with the shot of his innings being a superb flick against Harbhajan Singh.
Whenever Harbhajan flighted the ball, he managed to extract something from the pitch, but he wasn't able to sustain that pressure for long. Punjab had a lucky break in the 45th over when Kotak (54) fell to a soft dismissal, guiding a shortish delivery from Harbhajan to Mandeep Singh at slip to end a 92-run stand that had promised a lot more.
Jackson, fresh from a century against Karnataka in the quarterfinal, then dug in as the bowlers started to tire. That is when Punjab received a gift in the form of Shah's wicket. Well set on 87, Shah tried to loft Bipul Sharma out of the ground in his first over, only to hole out at long on, putting Saurashtra in a spot of bother at 194 for four. Shah's mood might not have been helped with Bipul giving him a gangnam-style send off.
Siddharth was brought back into the attack as Punjab looked to slice through the lower order. Given the reverse swing on offer, Harbhajan introduced Taruwar Kohli, a handy part-time medium pacer, who struck in his first over to dismiss the in-form Aarpit Vasavada as Saurashtra slipped to 229 for five.
Jackson had a slice of luck just before stumps, when he was dismissed off a no-ball on 70, but he and Makvana managed to hold on till the close unscathed.
Siddharth was undoubtedly the best bowler for Punjab. His intensity and hunger to create opportunities stood out and he was rewarded with two wickets. Ladda too bowled with a lot of patience and brought out all his variations, troubling the batsmen with a few sharp legspinners and the occasional flipper.
Despite the spinners bowling 44 overs, Punjab were slow with the overrate andÂ had bowled only 87 of the stipulated 90 overs despite a half an hour extension. With the new ball yet to be taken, Punjab will hope to keep Saurashtra down to a manageable total day two.