Puneet ton frustrates Maharashtra
Rajasthan 249 for 7 (Puneet 113*, Singhvi 43) v Maharashtra
At 117 for 6 in 50 overs, Rajasthan had dug themselves into a hole. Maharashtra, without an outright fast bowler, had threatened only sporadically. The pitch in Pune had promised pace and movement, but there were not many instances of ball beating the bat. Yet, the visiting batsmen found ways of getting out to hand Maharashtra the early advantage.
However, a fighting century from Puneet Yadav, in only his second match this season, and an equally gritty 43 off 120 balls from Aristh Singhvi contributed to a 131-run partnership to avoid immediate embarrassment. In their last game - a morale-boosting win over Punjab - Rajasthan's batting had come together as a unit to post 433 in the first innings. Then Yadav had come to the crease with a 255 already on the board. Here, Rajasthan had lost four wickets by lunch.
In relatively easier circumstances, Yadav had missed out on a hundred by 10 runs. But he was not prepared to yield in Pune. He survived a bouncer barrage from Domnic Joseph early in his innings, took a hit on the helmet, appeared uncomfortable playing the hook throughout his stay, but when loose balls were delivered, he did not hold back either.
Anupam Sanklecha had Azeem Akhtar caught at gully in the 50th over, but in his next over he was firmly driven through wide mid-on and slashed over the cordon off consecutive deliveries by Yadav, signalling that the batsman was not going to be deterred by the situation. More fluent on the leg side, Yadav continued to collect runs smoothly and reached his half-century in 86 balls.
With the seamers tiring out, runs came quicker in the second half of his innings as he took just 71 balls to reach his century - his second in first-class cricket - with a powerful cover drive off Sanklecha. As if to affirm his authority, he then punched a length delivery through covers in the closing stages of the day, earning rousing applause from the handful of spectators who had waited for a wicket for almost three hours.
"I was a bit nervous when I came into the nineties," Yadav said. "I did not want to miss this time. The ball was doing a bit in the early stages and once I had passed that, I thought today I would stick on for as long as possible."
While Yadav made the most of his form, Singhvi too played his part in blocking out one end. Brought into the XI for this game, Singhvi, the left-arm spinner, would not have been expected to do much had Rajasthan bowled first, but he maximised his value to the team with the bat. There was everything in his innings a No. 8 should have: solid defence, good awareness of singles and twos, and a skill in edging the ball away from the fielders. He was out caught behind two overs before the close of play.
Despite the late strike, it was a frustrating second half for Maharashtra after getting first use of the fresh pitch. Motwani had shown no hesitation on the eve of the game in expressing his preference if he won the toss.
That Maharashtra went with a four-man pace attack and left out the spinner Akshay Darekar, who took 10 wickets in the previous game, seemed excessive but Motwani was clear he wanted "horses for courses". Rajasthan, on the other hand, went with one seamer less from their last outing in Jaipur.
The first 10 overs passed incident free before the horse that had come in for this course vindicated his captain's decision first ball. The tall and long-limbed Joseph veered one in from round the stumps and hit the target as Pranay looked to leave. Joseph, jogging in and bowling off a short run up, can be deceptive and it was as much the angle as the pace that surprised the batsman as the ball skidded on.
With the pitch not helping as much as it promised, Maharashtra stayed patient and were rewarded as Sanklecha managed to swing one past Saxena's solid defence to strike the off bail. Ashok Menaria was dropped once at slip before he sliced Samad Fallah tamely to point and Robin Bist, who had looked assertive, top-edged a pull to deep midwicket. Rajesh Bishnoi then top-edged an imprudent slog in offspinner Chirag Khurana's first over to leave Rajasthan on 102 for 5, with Maharashtra bowlers not having to do much. But as the batsmen tightened, the opportunities dried up.
Devashish Fuloria is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo