Pankaj runs through Baroda top-order
Baroda 163 for 6 (Waghmode 79*, Pankaj 4-60) v Rajasthan
This was an interesting match for Rajasthan since they were playing without a professional after a number of years. The selectors had already dropped Ramesh Powar from the squad. On Sunday, captain Hrishikesh Kanitkar, who had played with a muscle tear in his leg in the previous round, ruled himself out. Kanitkar had been the backbone of Rajasthan's climb from the Plate to Elite ranks and the force behind their winning the Ranji Trophy twice.
But Rajasthan still had Pankaj Singh. The tall, broad-shouldered Pankaj has been Rajasthan's go-to man with the ball as much as Kanitkar has been their brain over the last few seasons. From 2010, Pankaj has taken over 25 wickets every Ranji season, and has twice been among the top five wicket-takers.
This season, before this match, Pankaj had taken 35 wickets at 20.97, including three 5-fors. He was a wicket away from taking his tally to 40 when bad light stopped play halfway through the second session.
On an avocado-green pitch with good bounce, Rajasthan opted to field. Considering they were out of contention the selectors had made four changes to the squad and Rajasthan fielded three debutants: Suryaprakash Suwalka (batsman), Azim Akhtar (wicketkeeper) and Naman Kataria (fast bowler). But all eyes were on Pankaj. Rajasthan needed a good start, Baroda a good beginning.
In the third over of the morning, Pankaj struck a double blow. The third ball of the second over he moved in to trap opener Dhiren Mistry lbw. The final delivery was pitched marginally outside the off stump. Abhimanyu Chouhan decided to leave the ball and was astonished to see his off stump sent cartwheeling. Pankaj's roaring celebration echoed around the empty Sawai Mansingh Stadium.
The plight of a domestic cricketer is well-known: his performances are watched by a handful and remain under-appreciated. Pankaj has endured this for long, but has continued to motivate himself. Despite consistent performances over the years he has wondered why the national selectors have not bothered to consider him even once in the last few years, even for an A tour. But instead of brooding too much and for too long, he has converted his frustration into more wickets, and taken them by the bagful.
Bowling at around 135kph, Pankaj hit the deck hard, surprising the batsmen with not just movement but also bounce and pace. Irfan Pathan, playing primarily as a middle-order batsman, was squared up by a rising delivery that pitched back of a length, moved away a little and climbed over the Baroda left-hander's head. A young fan sitting at the North Stand end (behind the third man boundary) screamed "chakka maar, Irfan (hit a six)". Irfan pushed the next ball solidly to cover and ran two, and bottom-edged the one after that, playing with hard hands, to long leg for a single.
Pankaj was putting pressure on the batsmen with his relentless approach. Saurabh Wakaskar failed to read the line of a fast incoming delivery and was hit on the back pad, becoming Pankaj's third victim of the morning.
Having coming in to the match on the back of consecutive outright victories, Baroda would have fancied a much more solid batting performance. After the top-order collapse the onus was on the Pathan brothers. On Sunday, Yusuf, the captain, had indicated how his younger sibling had the responsibility of motivating the pack as well playing the anchor role.
But Irfan only made 8 before offering a simple catch to the cover fielder off left-arm fast bowler Aniket Choudhary. Disappointingly for Baroda, Yusuf also failed and gave Pankaj a catch at mid-off off the leading edge while trying to push a delivery from Deepak Chahar to the on-side.
Only Aditya Waghmode stood resolute and made his second fifty in consecutive matches. Playing as late as possible and without trying to force the issue, Waghmode made use of the bad balls or lengths offered by the Rajasthan bowlers and led Baroda's fightback. His 74-run partnership with Pinal Shah for sixth wicket saved the visitors more embarrassment.
Pankaj, unsurprisingly, was the man who broke their alliance, Shah falling prey to a set-up. Immediately after lunch Pankaj moved five balls in a row away from Shah before slipping in an incutter that trapped the right-hander plumb. Pankaj finished the day the way he had started it. He sensed the Baroda top order would be tentative in playing their strokes against his outswingers early on, and used the incoming delivery cleverly to surprise them and upset their sense of comfort.
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo