Punjab make spirited comeback
Punjab 299 and 45 for 2 trail Saurashtra 477 and 170 (Kotak 53, Harbhajan 4-60, Kaul 3-53) by 304 runs
Scorecard and ball-by-ball details
Accurate bowling from both sides, combined with ordinary batting and an awkward fourth-day pitch ensured that the final day's play of the Ranji Trophy semi-final between Saurashtra and Punjab will be interesting; both teams have a chance of qualifying for the final.
Although Punjab conceded a huge 178-run lead in the first innings, they made a comeback with impressive spells from captain Harbhajan Singh and new-ball bowler Siddarth Kaul, in the post-lunch session, to restrict the home team to 170 in their second innings.
Saurashtra left-arm seamer Jaydev Unadkat then took two key wickets, including that of the season's highest run-getter Jiwanjot Singh, to give his team a slender advantage going into the final day at the Khandheri stadium. Saurashtra almost bagged a third wicket but Shitanshu Kotak at first slip failed to hold on to a catch offered by Mandeep Singh off left-arm spinner Dharmendrasinh Jadeja's bowling in the last over.
The dropped catch aside, Kotak had a good day, scoring a fifty that took Saurashtra closer to what could be their maiden Ranji final. With two decades of experience on the domestic circuit, the southpaw has earned a reputation based more on the time he has spent at the crease, rather than the runs he has scored. But once Sagar Jogiyani was dismissed, with Saurashtra leading by 228 runs, Kotak launched. He stepped out frequently to Harbhajan and legspinner Sarabjit Ladda in order to negate the turn and bounce. This gave confidence to rookie Rahul Dave, who also started rotating the strike freely.
As a result, when Saurashtra went into lunch at 90 for 1, with a lead of 268, all they had to do was bat out the next session without much damage. Punjab, on the other hand, had to effect a batting collapse to bring themselves back into the game. And they did just that.
Despite dropping a regulation catch in the slips of Kotak off Kaul's bowling, it was Harbhajan who triggered Saurashtra's collapse, albeit with a slice of luck: Dave was stuck on the pads by a flat ball from the offspinner and umpire Rob Bailey raised his finger, but replays suggested that the ball was sliding down the legside. Jaydev Shah was dismissed soon after, slashing a ball off Kaul's bowling to Amitoze Singh in the slips.
Harbhajan is a dangerous bowler whenever he picks up a wicket early on in his spell. Having succeeded in the third over of his third spell after going wicketless for his first 12 overs, he quickly took three wickets in nine balls. He first dismissed Kotak, who offered a simple return-catch. At the start of the 48th over, Aarpit Vasavada nicked a ball to the wicketkeeper. Five balls later, Kamlesh Makvana was caught by Mandeep at first slip. In his third spell, Harbhajan bowled 14 overs unchanged from one end, beginning in the second session and extending into the final session of play.
Kaul, too, pitched in and for the second time in four overs, Punjab managed to claim two wickets in an over: in the 51st over, he dismissed Vishal Joshi (caught at second slip) and Jaydev Unadkat, who was bowled.
Having taken seven wickets for just 29 runs, Punjab were right back in the game. However, with a total lead of 308 and two wickets in hand, Saurashtra just needed one of their tailenders to hang around with Sheldon Jackson. And Jadeja proved to be a trustworthy ally for Jackson, batting for 45 minutes as the duo put on 39 runs for the tenth wicket. Although Bipul Sharma dismissed Siddharth Trivedi in the next over, Saurashtra had, by then, already amassed a lead of 349.
Punjab didn't get off to the best of starts in their chase. Despite the pitch assisting spinners, Unadkat impressed with the new ball yet again. He first angled one away from Jiwanjot to force an edge to the slip cordon. After being hit for two boundaries by Taruwar Kohli on the on-side in his fifth over, Unadkat changed the angle and came around the wicket. Kohli went for an extravagant drive only to edge it to Kotak in the slips.
Opener Ravi Inder Singh then curbed his instincts to see the day off along with Mandeep, who was fortunate to have been dropped in the last over. Still 304 runs adrift of their target, Punjab have their backs to the wall. Can they do the unthinkable and live up to the tag of the 'team of the year' of this domestic season? Or will they join the ranks of Uttar Pradesh, who topped Group B but were surprised by Services in the quarters?
Amol Karhadkar is a correspondent at ESPNcricinfo