Pandey, Ojha help Madhya Pradesh to safety
Madhya Pradesh 256 (Bundela 53, Rameez 54, Rajan 45, Pankaj 4-63, Rituraj 4-68) and 200 for 1 (Ojha 102*, Zafar 54) lead Rajasthan 379 (Parida 108, Bist 85, Khatri 47*, Pandey 6-92) by 77 runs
After being outplayed on the first two days in Jaipur, Madhya Pradesh ended the third in a better position by restricting Rajasthan's first-innings lead to 123, and then setting up a strong second innings. They may now escape with a draw, and not suffer outright defeat.
Fast bowler Ishwar Pandey and wicketkeeper-opener Naman Ojha made MP's recovery possible. Rajasthan were dismissed 379 due to Pandey's six-wicket haul, and then Ojha's unbeaten century took MP to 200 for 1 at stumps, ahead by 77. With the green wicket not offering much assistance to the bowlers, and without a quality spinner, Rajasthan may find it difficult to force a result on the final day.
Pandey had taken four wickets on the second day, including those of stand-in captain Vineet Saxena, Ashok Menaria and centurion Rashmi Parida. He claimed two more on the third morning. Resuming at 306 for 6, wicketkeeper Sidhant Yagnik and Madhur Khatri began the day well for Rajasthan, hitting four boundaries in four overs. But then Pandey settled into a nagging line to left-hand batsman Yagnik, who edged one in the ninth over of the day to keeper Ojha.
Before Rituraj Singh could get his eye in, Pandey put in some extra effort, and the additional bounce had Rituraj edging his delivery to Zafar Ali at second slip. Though Khatri, primarily in the side as an offspinner, played an effortless knock, he ran out of partners on 47 when Anand Rajan bowled last man Aniket Choudhury to earn his 100th first-class wicket.
Rajasthan's lead wasn't a small one, especially with more than a day and a half remaining in the game. After a disastrous performance by MP's top order on the opening day, when they were reduced to 71 for 5 in the first session, the openers had to come good to earn one point. Ojha and Ali learnt from their first-innings mistakes to put on 134 before Ali was trapped lbw by Rituraj.
Ojha, however, was the star of the day. In the first innings, he had poked at and edged a delivery that moved away from off stump. This time, Ojha didn't flash his bat outside off for the first hour. He preferred to leave as many balls as he could.
Ojha didn't go into a shell either; he chose the balls he wanted to score off. Soon after he reached his fifty, he went after the part-time spinner Ashok Menaria, hitting two sixes over long-off and cutting to the point boundary. In the next over, however, Ali was dismissed. With Pankaj Singh and Rituraj steaming in, Ojha, batting on 78, defended for the next hour.
Only in the last over of the day, when Khatri was brought on, did Ojha attack again. He stepped out to hit a six over long-off and then swept the next ball through square leg for a boundary to raise his ninth first-class century.
"[Ojha] was terribly disappointed after being dismissed in that manner (in the first innings)," MP coach Mukesh Sahani said. "We had a chat about it. He realised that he hadn't justified his position of being among the senior players in the team by getting out in that manner. It was heartening to see him rectifying it."
Despite playing first-class cricket for 12 years, Ojha has not fulfilled his batting potential "I haven't converted as many starts into hundreds as I should have but over the last few years, I have realised the need for scoring big hundreds and have been working towards it," Ojha said. "Since I came to the Ranji Trophy days after playing the Champions League [for Delhi Daredevils], it took time for me to switch into the first-class mode. But now that I have, I hope I can continue for the rest of the season."
After stumps, most of the MP squad played a game of football until the light faded, unlike other days. Though the team had conceded three points with the first-innings lead, their relieved faces indicated that their primary objective at the start of the penultimate day - to avoid being in a position to concede an outright victory to Rajasthan - had been achieved.
Amol Karhadkar is a correspondent at ESPNcricinfo