Pujara's dominating double stuns MP
Madhya Pradesh 135 and 89 for 2 (Saxena 46*) need another 322 runs to beat Saurashtra 242 and 303 for 4 dec (Pujara 203*, Vasavada 55, Pandey 3-51)
For the rest, there was the slowness of the Khandheri pitch, its low and at times unpredictable bounce, and the zip in the new ball to tackle. For double-centurion Cheteshwar Pujara, all of that didn't matter. Over five hours of top-class batting, Pujara went from free-flowing to aggressive to downright dismissive, remaining solid all the time. He was like a marathoner accelerating gradually through his first 30km or so and then retaining enough stamina and focus to sprint through the final fourth of the distance as if it were a 100m dash. His first fifty came in in 88 balls, the second in 63, the third in 51, and the final one in just 17.
Saurashtra had been 23 for 3 in the morning. Pujara's dominance crushed whatever pressure that scoreline suggested, reducing it to an entry on the card. By lunch, Saurashtra were 128 for 3. By tea, they had bolted to 303 for 4 and declared to set Madhya Pradesh a target of 411. The stunned visitors gifted two wickets to Saurashtra, leaving them with eight more to take on the final day to reach the quarter-finals.
MP would have had thoughts of a chase in the region of 250 after Ishwar Pandey's probing opening spell of 6-4-2-2. Pandey jagged one across Shitanshu Kotak to trap him leg-before, though the ball had pitched marginally outside leg stump. There was nothing marginal about the Saurashtra captain Jaydev Shah's dismissal, Pandey getting him to drive and sneaking a length delivery through the gate to uproot the middle stump.
With Pujara's presence, though, not for one moment did it appear as if Saurashtra were feeling the pressure, or that the MP attack, especially the spinners, was capable of making them feel it. His forward stride was big and assured, his defence was tight, and he made sure he put away even slightly loose deliveries. MP knew they were up against a special innings, and slowly, their fields went from aggressive to defensive. Aarpit Vasavada played an important knock as well, defending resolutely to make his second fifty of the match, but the day was all Pujara's.
Jalaj Saxena was getting some slow turn and bounce but Pujara dealt with it superbly, delaying a steer to beat deep point, and guiding one past slip even as he was surprised by the extra lift. He reached his hundred with successive fours off Saxena, one by stepping out and driving through extra cover and then, pulling hard to the deep-square boundary. Next ball, he was back to calm forward defence.
After motoring to his 150, Pujara went berserk. He reverse-swept Rameez Khan from leg stump to the deep-point boundary. A fielder was put there, so Pujara reverse-paddled the next ball to the third man rope. Devendra Bundela turned to his best bowler, Pandey, who was shredded for five successive fours. First ball, Pujara charged out to Pandey and lofted him over mid-on. The second was tickled to the fine-leg rope. He charged out against third ball, took it on the full and slammed it through extra cover. The fourth was an exquisite flick over midwicket, and the fifth a powerful pull that split the gap between deep square leg and fine leg.
Sixteen minutes after getting to 150, Pujara had his fifth first-class double hundred in the final over before tea. Saurashtra declared, giving MP four sessions to make 411. Naman Ojha and Saxena started positively before Ojha threw it away. Like in the first innings, he lofted the debutant left-arm spinner Dharmendrasinh Jadeja for two fours in his opening over. With MP needing at least a draw (and a Gujarat loss to Mumbai) to make the knockouts, Ojha tried to hit a third four in the over, and holed out to mid-on. There was to be one final sequence in MP's nightmare of a day.
Satyam Choudhary worked Jadeja to square leg, and Saxena raced halfway up the pitch. He then stopped, only to take another step or two, before finally withdrawing. By that time, Choudhary had been done in. Saxena and Rameez survived till stumps, but Pujara has already put Saurashtra far, far ahead going into the final day.
Abhishek Purohit is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo