Dry pitch awaits MP in Rajkot
Rajkot? Batting paradise? It could be time to alter that overwhelmingly prevalent perception somewhat. If not now, maybe after the Ranji Trophy match between Saurashtra and Madhya Pradesh ends, in what is being expected on both sides, an outright result. It is that same old domestic ploy again. Win needed, dry wicket prepared. The pitch at the Saurashtra Cricket Association's splendid stadium in Khandheri outside the city, set to make its international debut with the first ODI against England in two weeks, hasn't been watered for a couple of days. While there is some grass around the centre of the pitch, there are long cracks running from the bowling crease towards the good length area.
Saurashtra's reasoning can't be faulted. They are placed the lowest of the four Group A teams with a realistic chance of making the quarterfinals, the other three being Gujarat, MP and Mumbai. Gujarat play Mumbai, and only one of them will likely go through. A first-innings lead will do for MP, but nothing less than an outright win will help Saurashtra.
Further, pace is MP's strength by a long margin. Ishwar Pandey and Anand Rajan have picked up 74 wickets between them in seven games. Jalaj Saxena has taken eight with his offspin, and he isn't even a specialist spinner. Ankit Sharma, slow left-arm, has four at an average of over 70. In contrast, two spinners, Ravindra Jadeja and Kamlesh Makvana, lead Saurashtra's wicket-tally.
It's a gambit that could backfire on Saurashtra. Especially, given that Jadeja is travelling with the Indian team, and that Nayan Doshi, the experienced left-arm spinner, is out of the game with a finger injury.
For starters, no one is doubting the pitch will turn, and turn early. Devendra Bundela, the MP captain, hinted that his side may not play three fast bowlers, as they usually do, which could mean young Amarjeet Singh, with 15 wickets this season, missing out. When asked what he would do if he won the toss, Bundela's reply was a swift, emphatic, "Bat."
Spin has had a big role in generating results on the Khandheri surface. Saurashtra's slow bowlers have taken 46 of a possible 60 wickets in their three victories here. Overall, four of the 11 first-class games here were decided outright. That compares favourably to this season's figure of 38 in 96 matches. Not exactly a draw-only venue then, where Cheteshwar Pujara and Jadeja plunder double and triple-centuries for fun.
There is no Jadeja for this match, but the presence of Pujara looms large over MP's hopes. Pujara showed during the recent Tests against England what an outstanding player of spin he is. Today, while the rest of his team-mates were practising in the outdoor nets beside the stadium, Pujara, along with fast bowler Jaydev Unadkat, walked to the pitch and spent several minutes inspecting it, especially the full and good length spots. "Definitely less pressure playing first-class," he grinned.
Pujara's reference point was Test cricket, but Bundela's wasn't. "There is pressure on Saurashtra," Bundela said. "They need the outright win. A first-innings lead will do for us."
We could have a cracker of a game over the next few, may not be four, days. Of course, it all depends on how the pitch actually behaves after all the pre-match predictions and expectations. "We will find out after the toss tomorrow what happens," was all Sunil Chauhan, the BCCI curator deputed for this match, had to say. Over to Saturday morning then.
Abhishek Purohit is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo