Yuvraj hundred puts Punjab on top
Punjab 370 for 8 (Yuvraj 136, Jiwanjot 68, Gurkeerat 57,Sanklecha 3-75) lead Maharashtra 210 by 160 runs
Yuvraj Singh's scintillating knock of 136 runs, and his two century partnerships with Jiwanjot Singh and Gurkeerat Singh for the fourth and fifth wicket, respectively, put Punjab on course of for taking away maximum points against Maharashtra. At the end of the second day's play, Punjab had cruised to 370 for 8, with a lead of 160 runs, at the Maharashtra Cricket Association stadium in Gahunje.
Soon after being excluded from India's World Cup probables a fortnight ago, Yuvraj had scored a match-winning century against Haryana, before pulling out of last week's game in Vidarbha. The break, however, did not hamper his touch as he played one of his trademark fluent knocks to first rescue Punjab and then put them on top.
He came in to bat with Punjab in some trouble. The side had lost Amitoze Singh and Mandeep Singh to some spirited bowling by Maharashtra pacers in favourable conditions and at 57 for 3 were still 153 runs behind the hosts' first-innings total. Yuvraj adopted a safety-first approach, scoring just a single off the first 18 balls he faced. Though the Maharashtra bowlers tied him down with full-pitched balls on a grassy turf, they did not try any short-pitched stuff.
Then came the first of numerous cover drives. Anupam Sanklecha bowled a fuller ball wide of off-stump and Yuvraj drew his front foot to the pitch of the ball, which raced to the boundary. He followed it up with another stylish boundary in the same over. That set the tone for the rest of the morning session and lunch, Yuvraj was well-set. His 40 runs had eight scintillating boundaries, six of which were scored through the covers.
Jiwanjot Singh, who has emerged as a reliable anchor for Punjab, also grew in confidence and played a perfect straight-drive off Anupam Sanklecha just before lunch. At the break, Punjab had moved to 116 for 3.
Three balls into the second session, Jiwanjot celebrated his fifty and three overs later, Yuvraj got to his half-century by pulling a waist-high delivery by Shrikant Mundhe through square-leg for his tenth four. His first fifty came off 74 balls and the second was even quicker as Yuvraj cut loose in the second session.
Despite losing Jiwanjot, who missed a straight one from Sanklecha after the duo had added 112 runs, Yuvraj kept on taking a toll on Maharashtra's bowlers. Samad Fallah was overused by skipper Rohit Motwani in the first two sessions, while Akshay Darekar, their lead spinner, was introduced into the attack only in the 51st over.
Soon after hitting offspinner Chirag Khurana into the stands over long-on, Yuvraj entered the nineties with a single that also gave Punjab the lead. With Gurkeerat matching him stroke for stroke, Yuvraj crossed his second successive, and 22nd first-class hundred, with a sweep off Darekar between the deep square leg and deep midwicket. The second fifty came in just 54 balls, and included eight fours and a six.
With Gurkeerat and Yuvraj scoring at over five runs an over, Maharashtra were in danger of being batted out of the game. Gurkeerat completed his fifty off the last ball before tea with a boundary off Rahul Tripathi, third of the over. But Kedar Jadhav latched on to a sharp chance off Mundhe's bowling soon after tea to end another 112-run association.
Yuvraj continued to be aggressive after tea, but appeared to slow as the session wore, a likely after-effect of a throat infection and fever. It resulted in a tired cover drive off Darekar which went straight into Vijay Zol's hands at covers.
The Punjab lower order then continued to score freely, even though Maharashtra seamers picked three wickets with the new ball. Yuvraj was happy to rescue his team for the second time in three weeks and also help them get an upper hand.
"When I went in, we were under pressure and we needed a partnership. I was lucky to get through that tough phase," Yuvraj said, referring to his cautious approach early on. "On days when you get this kind of track and when you are batting well, you are happy when you don't nick them."
He stated that the two hundreds in the tournament so far had come in contrasting conditions. "That [Patiala] was a turning track and here it was helping seamers a lot, so I am glad that I could score a hundred and put our team on top."
Amol Karhadkar is a correspondent at ESPNcricinfo