Rasool to J&K's rescue again
At the start of the second day of the quarter-final in Baroda, Punjab employed four slips, a gully, and one man each at point and short leg. They had only scored 304 runs, but the attacking fields made it appear as if they were leading by 500. It was either a reflection of Punjab's belief in their seamers, or an assessment of Jammu & Kashmir's batting ability.
The ball was seaming, bouncing and flying past the bat. Adil Rishi had just top-edged a bouncer over the keeper's head after being hurried by the pace. Punjab were imposing themselves and for J&K, someone needed to stand up.
J&K's rise this season has been built around a potent pace attack, but they have also managed to get the necessary runs on the board. Parvez Rasool, who has brought the state's cricket to the limelight, has not shirked away from that responsibility.
On the last day of their last league game against Tripura, Rasool produced his best bowling figures of the season, and batted solidly to lead J&K past Goa into the knockouts. Today, he produced his best batting performance of the season.
Rasool started with a four through point, and reached his century with a couple more through the same region. In between, he expertly manoeuvred the ball at will and forced Punjab to spread the field. That helped his partners too as Rishi and Samiullah Beigh both thrived in his presence.
"Not everyone fires in every match," Rasool said. "It's always about two or three players scoring runs. Some of us could have played a little longer, like Adil was playing well, but got out just before lunch. Then Sami bhai was also playing well, but he too got out after being set. It could have been better."
By no means were these easy batting conditions as Punjab boast a formidable seam attack. A leaner MS Gony generated pace and bounce while VRV Singh bowled quick and got the ball to seam. Sandeep Sharma produced swing - both conventional and reverse. Rasool's plan, however, was to not let them control the game. He was unruffled, and with the ball coming onto the bat, kept the scoring rate high.
"One delivery from VRV Singh which I left thinking it was very wide outside off, but it came in sharply," he said. "It must have hit a crack. This pitch is good for fast bowlers, but it's also good for the batsmen as the ball comes on to the bat evenly."
Even as the ball grew soft and the conditions eased out, Rasool had an experienced spin combo to deal with. Harbhajan Singh and Yuvraj Singh's powers as bowlers may have waned, but at domestic level, they still remain a threat. However, a couple of drives pushed the fielders out to the boundary, and the spinners were not allowed to settle into a rhythm at all as Rasool easily worked the ball into the gaps.
Unlike Harbhajan's walloping assault on the first day, Rasool's was a measured dismantling job. Harbhajan was taken for 57 in 12 overs. Rasool eventually fell soon after reaching his century- possibly the best of his five first-class tons- but his fighting knock gave J&K the will to win. The team will need that in abundance if they are to cause an upset.
"I am very happy with my innings, especially because it came at a crucial moment for us," he said. "Unfortunately, I got out a little early. I wanted to make sure that we get the lead. But I hope our bowlers will do the job. They have started well by getting rid of the openers. The match will be decided more or less tomorrow, so we want our bowlers to rest well and come out strongly."
Devashish Fuloria is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo