Kohli, Mandeep give Punjab the advantage
Punjab 435 for 3 (Kohli 151*, Jiwanjot 131, Mandeep 96) lead Jharkhand 401 by 34 runs
Punjab overhauled Jharkhand's first-innings total of 401 on a wicket that didn't have anything in it for the bowlers to all but ensure themselves of a semi-final showdown against Saurashtra with a day to spare in Jamshedpur. Only two wickets fell, as Jiwanjot Singh and Taruwar Kohli helped themselves to centuries, while Mandeep Singh fell four short of his ton.
Starting the penultimate day 251 adrift of Jharkhand's total with nine wickets in hand, it was imperative for Punjab to see off the first hour. Jiwanjot, overnight on 77, scored his fifth first-class century - in his maiden season - with a single to the covers off the medium-pacer Shankar Rao.
Jiwanjot was set for a big haul, with an eye on CM Gautam's tally of 943 runs. However, it took a special delivery to leave the Punjab opener 28 runs shy of reclaiming the top spot in the highest run-getter's tally. Jharkhand captain Shahbaz Nadeem, who toiled without much success, bowled an arm ball that Jiwanjot failed to read and shouldered arms, only to lose his middle stump. It ended Jiwanjot's chanceless knock that lasted almost six hours.
Mandeep walked in with Punjab still 170 behind. But Kohli and Mandeep curbed their aggression to help Punjab pass the Jharkhand total without any hassles. Though both youngsters never failed to put away the loose balls, neither of them attempted to manufacture shots. It prevented them from being bogged down under pressure.
The forbearance on display was remarkable, especially from Kohli. One of the stars of India's triumphant Under-19 World Cup campaign in 2008, Kohli was making a comeback to Punjab's senior side after more than a year. Playing his first game of the season, he restrained himself from taking any risk that could have breached the faith that was placed on him by the team management. Both Jiwanjot and Kohli would have impressed the national selector Roger Binny, who had been watching for the last two days.
"It was difficult to control myself, especially with the wicket just not doing anything. But I was constantly reminding myself that I should not let myself down with a false stroke. I had to make the most of this opportunity," Kohli said. He not only raised his second first-class hundred but also remained unbeaten, having surpassed his previous best of 118.
Once the duo had guided Punjab to a safe 341 for 2 at tea, Kohli and Mandeep started playing more freely. Mandeep was the first to change gears, targeting Rao with two boundaries on either side of the wicket in the third over after tea. Kohli then dispatched the offspinner Sunny Gupta over long-on for a six.
Punjab overhauled Jharkhand's total the first ball after the final drinks break, when Kohli pulled Nadeem for a boundary through midwicket. Then on, the only interest in the game was if Mandeep could reach his second hundred of the season before stumps. It wasn't to be. Facing the part-timer Manish Vardhan, bowling the last over of the day, he pulled the first ball ferociously to Ishank Jaggi, who pouched a sharp chance at short midwicket to deprive Mandeep a deserving ton. Though the day ended on a high for Jharkhand, it came a little too late for the home team.
Amol Karhadkar is a correspondent at ESPNcricinfo