'Every chance of this being an outright game' - Rathod
Think of Saurashtra's bowling and Ravindra Jadeja comes to mind immediately. Scratch the surface, and then there's Jaydev Unadkat. Eye-catching moments with the ball have been far and few if you look beyond these two. But on Thursday, there was a ray of hope in the form of Hardik Rathod.
The 27-year-old isn't a tearaway quick, but his ability to swing the ball can be mighty effective when he lands them in the right spot. While he was anything but consistent when Shreyas Iyer was at the crease, he found his rhythm towards the end of the day; his three late wickets of Abhishek Nayar, Dhawal Kulkarni and Shardul Thakur gave Saurashtra hope after they were sent on a leather hunt in the afternoon.
Rathod's career, although in its nascent stages, hasn't panned out the way he would have liked. His last first-class appearance before the quarter-final was in December 2013 against Uttar Pradesh in Lucknow. Modest returns - 21 wickets in 11 matches - didn't inspire confidence within the team management. But an injury to Shaurya Sanandia, that drew curtains on his season, proved to be a blessing in disguise for Rathod. He justified the call-up by picking up six wickets in the semi-final and complementing Jaydev Unadkat who finished with a 11-wicket haul, as Assam were handed a ten-wicket thrashing.
A repeat of that show didn't seem coming when Iyer and Suryakumar Yadav combined to flatten Saurashtra's bowlers in the second session. "In the first spell, when Iyer was batting, he was going for his strokes and we were trying for wickets," he explained. "The aim was that we should get him out as quickly as possible. In trying to try too hard, we either bowled too short or too full, and gave away a lot of runs. But in the evening, after tea, the plan was to limit the runs and create pressure. As runs dry up the pressure will tell.
"When Suryakumar and Iyer were playing, we couldn't execute our plans. Suryakumar was taking singles and Iyer was playing his strokes. So we had to keep changing the fields and our bowling strategies often, as a result of which our consistency went for a toss."
The tea break came to Saurashtra's rescue. They had just taken the wicket of Iyer, and were two wickets away from breaking into the lower order. Cheteshwar Pujara, who briefly led the side in Jaydev Shah's absence, brought the team together and gave them a pep talk. The bowlers, particularly, were all ears. The plan, according to Rathod, was as simple as it could get.
"Both the captain (Jaydev Shah) and Cheteshwar Pujara told us not to try too many things, to bowl one line and length. 'Force the batsmen to make mistakes and don't vary too much from your disciplines. Let them play their shots, you just remain consistent', that was the message they gave us," Rathod said. "It worked for us towards the end."
On another day, it may have come a little too late, but in slicing through the lower order, Saurashtra have given themselves an opening. "On the first day there was moisture but today, second day, it played well, both for batting and, if you put in some effort, for the bowlers as well," Rathod said. "You have to try harder on day three with the ball than on day one. The match is wide open. Tomorrow, we will look to get them out as quickly as possible. The less the lead, the better because there is every chance of this being an outright game. Get the two wickets early and bat well, that is the plan for tomorrow."
One man the team can take a cue from is Prerak Mankad, the debutant, who was fast-tracked into the team after consistent returns for Saurashtra Under-23s. He battled hard to make a composed 66, after walking in to bat at 108 for 7. It helped Saurashtra get past the 200-mark on a surface where batsmen needed to graft.
"Ever since we got here, I had feelers from the coach that I would play, because this is a seaming wicket," Mankad said. "The plan was to bat normally, but I hadn't faced an attack of this quality before. Maybe in an Under-25 game against Rajasthan, we played on a similar surface, but not this kind of attack. The plan was to play close to the body and leave balls that are outside off stump, that was the plan.
"From the morning, when I was included in the XI, the team motivated me. The environment was good, everyone was pushing me and my self-belief was good. When I walked out, Arpit Vasavada was already batting. That was very important for me because he is my captain in inter-district cricket, I have been playing with him for a long time. He kept giving me advice and I followed that."
Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo