Khurana, Mundhe revive Maharashtra on gripping day
Maharashtra 274 for 9 (Khurana 82*, Mundhe 60) lead Rajasthan 270 (Puneet 127, Fallah 4-49) by four runs
A counter-attacking partnership for the seventh wicket between Chirag Khurana and Shrikant Mundhe brought more grief for Rajasthan than any of the numerous close chances did. The two Maharashtra batsmen rode their luck during a cavalier, and at times purposeful, 130-run stand that lifted the home team from a position of uncertainty to one of parity after a gripping day.
When Mundhe finally played a false shot into the hands of the fielder, his partnership with Khurana was similar in size and significance as the one between Puneet Yadav and Aristh Singhvi a day before. Mundhe's wicket brought another one immediately, turning the last few overs into a mad scramble for the first-innings lead. Khurana converted singles to doubles, farmed strike, Pankaj Singh gave his fielders extended stares, there was a run-out, and tempers flared as Khurana complained Pankaj had blocked him.
Six runs short of Rajasthan's total and in the company of No. 11, Khurana came down the pitch to Pankaj and smashed it over long-off, sparking off celebrations akin to a narrow win in a limited-overs game. They only grew louder the next ball as Khurana drove Pankaj through covers to take the home side ahead.
It hadn't seemed likely when Maharashtra had stumbled to 124 for 6 in the 38th over. Mundhe, averaging over 28 in first-class cricket and with a century to his name, came out with a positive frame of mind. The other option - to bat cautiously - would have only allowed Rajasthan a free pass through the lower order as they were producing magic balls from both ends. So out came an upper cut off Pankaj early in his innings. That got Mundhe going. He drove the bowler through covers next ball. That gave him belief that runs were to be had.
His partner, Khurana, was relatively more compact but equally insecure when the ball kicked up. However, with Mundhe playing with a free mind, Khurana too drew inspiration. Both batsmen got squared up numerous times, edged even more, but also threw their bat at opportunities; Mundhe stepped out against Singhvi, the left-arm spinner, just before lunch to collect six over long-on. By tea, the two batsmen had added 50 in 10.4 overs.
Mundhe and Khurana continued taking risks, pushing the field back and taking their singles in the third session to keep the scoreboard rolling at a brisk pace. When Mundhe tapped Singhvi to gully for a single in the 59th over, he not only brought up his fifth first-class fifty, off 62 balls, he also completed the hundred of the partnership in 126. Khurana registered his own half-century two overs later, reaching it off 86 balls, and was unbeaten on 82 at the end of play. Pankaj had his hands on his head as the teams walked back, a reaction very different from how it would have been at the halfway stage when the fast bowler had turned it on.
Till lunch, Pankaj had bowled within himself, giving away 21 runs in eight overs. He would charge in, shaking the ground with his burly frame, get the ball to swing at a lively pace, beat the batsmen, and without showing any emotion, turn back, take slow steps back to his mark, keeping his gaze firmly affixed to the screen as if an engaging detective movie was just about to reveal the real murderer. It might just have been a meditational routine for a bowler who has seen it all or maybe he was just warming up for a bigger spell.
That spell came after lunch. He changed to the pavilion end and found better rhythm, repeatedly getting the ball to zip past the bat. Though Kedar Jadhav was confidently getting behind the line, there were a few deliveries which were pacier, bounced extra and had the batsman in trouble. Jadhav was irked. He walked up to the umpire and complained about the height of the sight screen. Not much could have been done about that though: the screen was tied on to fixed bamboo scaffolding.
Jadhav probably lost some concentration during the minor break. After solidly coming forward to Pankaj's first ball in his third over after lunch, he got stuck in the crease to a length delivery which grazed his pads and not only smashed the stumps but also ending the bowler's reticence. Pankaj roared once, twice, thrice, his team joining him in the cacophony. Pankaj had woken up. He charged in with more purpose, let out a sigh every time he beat the bat, and walked back gesturing, exhorting himself to bowl those lines again.
In his next over, Pankaj bowled one a bit fuller and caught Ankit Bawne, the man in form, plumb in front, the umpire raising the finger even before the bowler had turned. Two balls later, Rahul Tripathi poked limply at one outside off only to see the wicketkeeper dive low to his right to complete a smart catch. Pankaj came close to picking up a few more, but had to settle for a spell that read 7-3-9-3. From a comfortable 95 for 2, Maharashtra had stumbled to 103 for 5.
The bounce was Rajasthan's ally all day. With Pankaj and Aniket Choudhary standing almost half a foot taller than their Maharashtra counterparts, and Deepak Chahar bowling as quick as Anupam Sanklecha, Maharashtra's quickest, the Pune pitch was being gracious to the visitors. Maharashtra's bowlers had benefitted from Rajasthan's poor choice of strokes, but on the second day, the bowlers created their own chances, with constant appeals and regular sighs being a feature.
There wasn't much any of those batsmen could have done once a delivery came with their number written on it. Chahar had produced a steepler on off to catch the edge of Swapnil Gugale's bat in the eighth over, while Choudhary skidded one through Harshad Khadiwale's defence after the batsman had looked in fine touch and later in the day, dismissed another set batsman, Rohit Motwani, with one that reared up from a length.
Maharashtra's batsmen resisted the temptation to sit back and let the pressure build. They countered the moment anyone erred and the brisk pace of scoring was in contrast with the slow progress Rajasthan had made while batting. The urgency had set the game up nicely for the last two days.
Devashish Fuloria is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo