Yusuf, Utkarsh put Baroda on top
Saurashtra 215 for 6 (Jackson 74, Utkarsh 3-46) trail Baroda 400 (Yusuf 68, Unadkat 3-58) by 185 runs
The threat of low bounce on the second-day pitch in Rajkot was enough to create doubts in the minds of the batsmen, as the hosts Saurashtra learnt. Having come back well in the morning to keep Baroda to 400, after they had threatened a bigger score, a Saurashtra line-up minus Cheteshwar Pujara and Ravindra Jadeja stumbled in their pursuit of the first-innings lead with untimely dismissals, and ended the day needing another 185 with only four wickets remaining.
Saurashtra have a reputation for chasing big scores, as they did against Tamil Nadu, aided in no small way by Pujara's marathon knock. Since Pujara and Jadeja departed for national duty, their weakened line-up has been put to test in the last two games. After failing to overhaul Madhya Pradesh's 619 in a draw, even Baroda's relatively less daunting 400 seemed a task. The variable bounce, witnessed as early as the morning session, meant the batsmen had to concentrate harder.
Saurashtra's seamers were made redundant on the opening day, but on the second, they were on top. Jaydev Unadkat started Baroda's lower order slide when he had Pinal Shah edging to the wicketkeeper, trying to cut. The pitch played its part, with the ball keeping low. Utkarsh Patel lost his off stump to another one that stayed low, and Murtuja Vahora then spooned a catch back to Unadkat, giving him his third wicket of the morning.
A 450-plus score, which could have been taken for granted on the opening day, suddenly looked unattainable. Much rested on Yusuf Pathan, who dropped anchor and started farming the strike. He wasn't afraid to play the uppercut each time the seamers tried bouncing him. The tail, however, couldn't hang around long enough as the innings ended at 400, with five wickets going down in one session for just 52 runs. Yusuf remained unbeaten on 68.
With Munaf Patel rested and Irfan Pathan playing purely as a batsman, pace was never going to be Baroda's trump card. Therefore, it was no surprise to see spin as early as the third over, with Utkarsh and Bhargav Bhatt bowling in tandem with close catchers. There were plenty of enquiries with the umpire but Baroda managed just the one breakthrough before lunch via the left-arm spinner Bhatt, when Chirag Pathak fell lbw to one that didn't rise up enough to pull.
Utkarsh struck soon after lunch, getting the previous game's centurion, Sagar Jogiyani, caught at silly point, before Sheldon Jackson and Bhushan Chauhan brought some stability with a stand of 87. Jackson didn't let the spinners tighten the noose by using his feet and lofting inside-out over the infield. He took on Yusuf's offspin with a six over long-off, followed by a whip through midwicket.
However, Baroda prevented the stand from inflating further when the offspinner Utkarsh trapped Chauhan lbw. Jackson fell within reach of a century for the second innings in succession when he misread one from Utkarsh and was bowled playing on the backfoot.
At 165 for 4, Saurashtra still had their last recognised pair of Jaydev Shah and Aarpit Vasavada at the crease, to be followed by two allrounders. The introduction of pace, however, shifted the balance firmly in Baroda's favour. Vahora, the right-arm seamer, struck twice in one over, getting Shah caught behind trying to cut and trapping Chirag Jani lbw. Balls continued to shoot through low, leaving the door open for yet another wicket. It left Saurashtra banking on their only remaining specialist batsman, Vasavada, to guide the lower order and first get past the follow-on target of 251 before trying to knock off the deficit.
Kanishkaa Balachandran is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo