Saurashtra on verge of first-innings lead
Punjab 294 for 9 (Ravi Inder Singh 74, Vishal Joshi 4-59) trail Saurashtra 477 by 183 runs
Scorecard and ball-by-ball details
The third day's play between Saurashtra and Punjab in Khandheri was expected to give an indication of which way the Ranji Trophy semi-final would tilt. At the end of it, Saurashtra were favourites to qualify for their maiden final. The credit for that rested with offspinner Vishal Joshi and the medium-pace pair of Jaydev Unadkat and Siddharth Trivedi.
While Joshi emerged as the most successful bowler of the match, Unadkat and Trivedi bowled spirited spells with the second new ball that swung the game in Saurashtra's favour. Neither side had the advantage when Punjab, chasing 477, went in for the tea break on 246 for 3. Openers Ravi Inder Singh and Jiwanjot Singh had been dismissed after a 128-run stand, undone by Joshi's offspin. Mandeep Singh fell to a freak dismissal when a forceful sweep off Joshi lodged itself in the armpit of Arpit Vasavada at forward short leg, as he was trying to duck.
With 232 runs required to lake the lead, Taruwar Kohli and Uday Kaul were looking solid at the crease and Punjab would have wanted a repeat of the 264-run stand that the pair put on in last week's quarter-final. However, it all changed with Kaul's suicidal run out.
With the second new ball in play after tea, Kaul played a defensive push off left-armer Unadkat. While Kohli was applauding him for being sensible, the ball passed the bowler and Kaul took off for a single. Trivedi ran in from mid-on, collected the ball and hit the stumps, and Kaul was left punching his head in disgust on his way back to the pavilion.
Two balls later, Kohli, who had scored the season's fifth triple century last week, had a rush of blood. He had gone past fifty with some sensible strokes but tried to pull a short one off Unadkat and the ball ballooned towards the slip cordon, where Shitanshu Kotak took an easy catch.
Amitoze Singh and Bipul Sharma played tentative innings that ended in edges behind the stumps. When Siddharth Kaul nicked Unadkat to wicketkeeper Sagar Jogiyani, the Saurashtra team were set to secure a huge first-innings lead. In 13.4 overs, Punjab were reduced to 272 for 8 from 252 for 3, thanks in part to Saurashtra's seamers, who bowled 20 overs unchanged with the new ball.
Punjab captain Harbhajan Singh shielded the No. 10 Sandeep Sharma for more than half an hour before Joshi broke through Sharma's defence. Sarabjit Ladda and Harbhajan played out the rest of the overs.
Saurashtra were cautiously optimistic about the result. "I have seen the funny side of cricket too many times, so there is no reason to celebrate yet. We still have to play well for two more days," their coach Debu Mitra said. But even Mitra was aware that if Saurashtra bat out the penultimate day after dismissing the last man early, they could start celebrating before the match ends.
Punjab trail Saurashtra by 183 runs. Harbhajan Singh will first have to shield Ladda for as long as he can, as he tries to reduce the deficit. The Punjab bowlers will have to take their cue from Joshi on a pitch that is assisting spinners to give their team one last shot at making the final. They can draw hope from their match against Mumbai last month, when left-arm spinner Ankeet Chavan took nine wickets for 23 runs.
Amol Karhadkar is a correspondent at ESPNcricinfo