Atitkar ton leaves Bengal needing miracle
Bengal 114 and 16 for 1 trail Maharashtra 455 (Atitkar 168, Bawne 89, Sanklecha 52, Shukla 3-76, Dinda 3-114) by 325 runs
Koushik Ghosh could have done nothing about the ball from Samad Fallah that brought about his first dismissal in first-class cricket, in Bengal's first innings, on Saturday. When he walked out to begin Bengal's second innings, on Sunday, he might have assumed conditions were now much easier to bat in.
Maharashtra had scored 455 and taken a 341-run lead. Sangram Atitkar, their top-scorer, had scored 168 at a 70-plus strike rate, with 116 of his runs coming in boundaries. Their No. 9, Anupam Sanklecha, had tonked four sixes in scoring 52. Surely, the Holkar Stadium pitch was now a beauty to bat on.
Two imperious drives for four through cover point, off Sanklecha, might have sealed that notion for the left-handed Ghosh. But facing up to what was supposed to be the penultimate ball of the day, a nasty surprise awaited him. Fallah, angling the ball into Ghosh's body from left-arm over, dug it in just back of a length. Ghosh opened up, and shaped to play the ball to mid-on. Most left-hand batsmen, in his situation, would have offered the same response.
The ball straightened and took his outside edge. At second slip, Chirag Khurana turned towards his dressing room and raised the ball aloft. Maharashtra could do no wrong. Two days into their first Ranji Trophy semi-final in 17 years, they were further ahead of Bengal than they would have thought it decent to dream.
Maharashtra had started the day in front, but not by that much. A clump of wickets could have brought Bengal back into contention. They must have known there would be life in the pitch initially, and Ashok Dinda and Laxmi Shukla confirmed this over the course of disciplined morning spells. When Shukla bent one in to strike the left-handed Rohit Motwani's pads in front of the stumps, Maharashtra hadn't added a run to their overnight total, despite having faced 15 balls.
In walked Atitkar, to join Ankit Bawne, who was on 37 at that point. Of all the Maharashtra batsmen, Bawne had looked the least troubled. He had left well outside off stump, and his front-foot stride had narrowed the angle of the movement that Bengal's seamers were still extracting off the pitch. Whenever they bowled too straight, he had leaned over the ball and turned his wrists to find the boundary wide of mid-on. He continued batting in this manner, and soon brought up 50 with a single pushed to cover.
Atitkar, at the other end, seemed just as conscious of the need for a big front-foot stride, but did not look quite as comfortable executing it. He was much more certain on the back-foot, though, cutting and slashing whenever he had the chance. Dinda dug one in soon after he had come in to bat; it rose head-high, but Atitkar hooked it comfortably for four.
Having looked at the pitch before the match, Bengal had replaced Writtick Chatterjee, a specialist batsman, with Sandipan Das, a seam-bowling allrounder. It took them till the 68th over of Maharashtra's innings to give him the ball. Bawne, who had batted unhurriedly till that point, ran down the pitch to his first delivery and creamed it back past the bowler for four. Next ball, he went down on one knee and swatted a six into the second tier of the stands behind deep midwicket. The umpires called for a replacement ball.
In the next over, Bawne punched Sourav Sarkar in front of point for four; he sent the ball racing in the same direction in Sandipan's next over, this time with a horizontal bat. Bawne was showing the full range of his strokeplay. Just when he looked set for a century, though, he poked outside off stump for the first time in his innings, and edged Dinda to second slip.
It was now left to Atitkar to bat with the lower order. There was an immediate change of gear. A punishing drive down the ground off Sarkar brought up his century. A flat-batted cover drive a few overs later - after the fall of Akshay Darekar's wicket with Maharashtra 214 ahead - brought up the same milestone for Sarkar.
Post-tea, the left-handed Sanklecha joined in the fun, clouting offspinner Saurasish Lahiri and legspinner Abhimanyu Easwaran merrily over long-on. Atitkar then drilled Lahiri to reach 150.
Dinda now went around the wicket, and set his field elaborately: a squarish fine leg on the boundary, a deepish midwicket, a deepish square leg. He bowled two bouncers over the course of this over; Atitkar pulled both for four.
Atitkar was out soon after, though, bowled by Shib Paul. By that time, he had reached 628 runs for the season. It put him in 15th place among the season's highest run-getters. It meant that one-fifth of the top 15 - in a 27-team tournament - were Maharashtra batsmen. It meant that five Maharashtra batsmen had crossed the 500 mark. Those numbers have put their team on the cusp of something truly remarkable.
Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo