'An amazing but harrowing day'
Lahli in Haryana is a village 14 km from Rohtak, which is a further 70km from Delhi, the nearest city you can trust an average cricket fan in India to know of. It is cold there these days. Temperatures have begun to fall to a low of single digits. On Tuesday, though, two Ranji teams warmed the place up with frenetic action.
Fourteen wickets fell in the space of 30 overs and 81 runs, a total of 17 fell on the day, the ball turned and seamed, there was a 'mankading', an injured opener batted at No. 7 to help his side, a desperate fast bowler bowled 15 overs on the trot, there was a six hit by a No. 11 batsman with 16 runs to win, and finally the visitors, Baroda, went on to register only the 14th one-wicket win in the history of Ranji Trophy.
Only a handful watched the match, and the players don't know of any reporter's presence. Yet it was a day everyone was proud to have been a part of. "There was action in every over," Ambati Rayudu, Baroda's captain, told ESPNcricinfo. "It's one of the best games of first-class cricket I have been a part of. I am fortunate and privileged to have led the winning side."
"An amazing but harrowing day" is how Baroda's coach, Sanath Kumar, described it.
Even the vanquished, although bitterly disappointed, took a lot out of it. "Yes we are gutted," Amit Mishra, Haryana's captain, said. "But we also look at it the other way. If we can fight this well when defending 130, we can do a lot more." Haryana are in need of that belief. They have already registered two of their lowest totals this season - 55 and 66 - and are the only team without a point.
The overwhelming feeling, though, remains that of disappointment. They began the day at 127 for 2, with a lead of 98, one of their better starts in recent history. But too soon the craziness began with the run-out of Abhimanyu Khod, in the second over of the day. The partnership was broken, and as it happens with sides low on confidence, Haryana couldn't arrest the slide.
Rayudu had sensed that too. He said Baroda knew they could convert their first-innings lead into an outright win if they could get early wickets. They were relying on reminding Haryana of their previous collapses. It worked. A little more than an hour later, Baroda could sniff those six full points. Haryana had lost their last eight wickets for the addition of just 33 runs.
Lahli is set in open fields. The water table is high too. The pitch hardly ever loses its moisture, and the wind keeps the bowlers interested too. Mishra said that the Baroda bowlers managed both seam and reverse swing.
"When we got them all out for 150-odd, we felt a target of around 130 shouldn't take much out of our batsmen," Sanath said, before adding he couldn't have been more wrong. For starters, they couldn't open the innings with their first-innings centurion, Saurabh Wakaskar, who was injured and had been off the field.
Mishra, on the other hand, told his side that they have won such games in the past too, and they just needed to keep fighting. He also thought that if they could get a couple of early wickets, Baroda would have everything to lose -- not only the opportunity to gain six points, but also the three they had already secured via the first-innings lead.
Mohit Sharma, who had taken four wickets in the first innings, began with the wicket of Kedar Devdhar with the first ball of Haryana's defence. The real collapse, though, began with the run-out of No. 3 Abhimanyu Chauhan in the eight over. That was the last ball before lunch. Thereafter, it became a contest between a bicycle stand and house of cards. Four wickets fell in the next 28 balls, and Haryana were now favourites at 48 for 6.
Wakaskar, though, came out to bat, without a runner, and he and Gagandeep Singh took Baroda to 85. The needle was on, and so was the heat. Mishra, who saw the help for the quicks and brought himself on quite late despite a five-for in the first innings, lost the grip on the ball as he was about to deliver. He saw Wakaskar was backing up too far ... And this is where the stories from the two sides differ: Haryana say they clearly warned Wakaskar here, Baroda say they didn't.
A little later, Ashish Hooda 'mankaded' Wakaskar. Baroda say they were shocked. The umpires confirmed with Haryana whether they wanted to go through with the appeal. Haryana did. And Wakaskar was gone. The Ranji Trophy, where teams try every trick for every single point, is not the place for such charity. Moreover, there is legally nothing wrong with 'mankading'. Neither side reported ugly scenes. Eighty-five for 7 then.
Mishra said it was difficult to take the ball away from Mohit. He was enjoying bowling here, had had a tea break in between, and wanted to continue bowling until he had won the side the game. Three overs after the run-out, he produced the wicket of Gagandeep too, completing his second first-class five-for. At 91 for 8, Haryana were favourites again.
However, Murtuja Vahora, who had triggered the Haryana collapse, was not going to watch his hard work being washed away. He hit two boundaries in a crucial 12, taking Baroda to 108 before he fell to Mishra. Twenty-four still required. Just the time for the biggest partnership of the innings.
Enter left-arm spinner Bhargav Bhatt to join offspinner Utkarsh Patel. A reaffirmation that this is the week of spin twins in India (though not necessarily to the benefit of the home side). "When I walked in to bat after Murtuja was dismissed, not much was said in the dressing room," Bhatt said. "When I joined Utkarsh, all we said was 'humein khade rehna hai' [we have to stay at the wicket]."
They did more than just stay in. Both began to attack. Mishra was taken on but kept himself on. With 16 required, Bhatt played the shot that rang around Lahli. The ball turned into him, and he stretched and lofted it for a six. "That wasn't predetermined," Bhatt said. "We required 16 or 17 then. He tossed it up and I felt I could reach it and stepped out and connected well."
Mishra opted for Sachin Rana now. He felt the different pace could do the trick, but it didn't. "It was sensible batting," Sanath said. "They were positive, very positive. When the ball was there to be hit, they played their shots. One over of Mishra - they hit him for 12 runs. They were scoring off the balls that needed to be scored off. As a result, they didn't let the tension rise."
In 3.5 overs, the two added 25 to take Baroda to the top of the table in Group B, and broke Haryana's hearts. A game of four days was won or lost in the final 23 balls.