Another frenetic day sets up compelling finish
Haryana 97 (Rituraj Singh 7-45) and 15 for 2 trail Rajasthan 89 and 192 (Saxena 58, Rana 4-26) by 170 runs
Haryana and Rajasthan's Ranji Trophy semi-final has played itself out like the traffic on the state highway running alongside the Bansi Lal stadium. Over the course of two days, the game has moved speedily and headlong in opposite directions with frequent bursts of hooting, tooting and clamour.
Three innings have been completed and 32 wickets have fallen in two days. The second day was as frenetic as the first: Haryana's second innings ended on 97; Rajasthan scored 192 in 68.5 overs in their second innings and set Haryana 185 to win; by stumps, Haryana were 15 for 2. At the end of it, both sides were left with a shot at earning a place in the Ranji final. Haryana need 170 more runs to get to their first final in over two decades. Defending champions Rajasthan need eight more wickets to reach their second-straight final and shake the rafters of the first-class game yet again.
Harshal Patel must have felt a sense of déjà vu when he walked in as nightwatchman towards the end of the day, in Haryana's second innings. Just like he had done at the start of the day's play, he found himself facing a fired-up Pankaj Singh. A beastly hit on his bare forearm from a Pankaj bouncer reminded him of the changed state of the game. At stumps he was sent off for a precautionary X-ray.
A humdinger of a cricket match like this should come with a statutory warning against predictions. All through the first two sessions on Wednesday, the drama of the first day, on which 18 wickets fell, had ebbed a little. Order and sanity resumed as Rajasthan nipped out the last two Haryana wickets in the first seven overs of the morning and then made a solid start to their second innings.
There was wild cheering from a sprinkling of spectators when the home team passed Rajasthan's first-innings total of 89 with two scampered singles more suited to a last-over finish in a Twenty20 game. The only way the first-innings lead will be the deciding factor in this game is if Rohtak witnesses its first snowstorm since the ice age.
When the Haryana innings ended, it was Rajasthan's match to win. At stumps, though, it was Haryana's to lose. All because more than half of Rajasthan's batsmen decided that logic and method were not the way to go about this game.
Just before tea on Wednesday, it was all going well for Rajasthan. The pitch had settled as much as it could, and while batting still felt like wire-walking, some footholds had been found. The Rajasthan openers had spent an hour at the crease. The loss of captain Hrishikesh Kanitkar's wicket in the first over after lunch was followed by a sizeable third-wicket partnership between Vineet Saxena and Robin Bist. It was, finally, looking like a normal game of cricket.
The first sight of spin came halfway through the second session. Amit Mishra, the Haryana captain, brought himself on in the 122nd over of the game and the 38th of Rajasthan's second innings. It took him 13 overs to get a wicket, but his first delivery saw Haryana get the breakthrough they needed. A yes-no-sorry call from Bist, after a firm drive to cover, left Saxena stranded. Saxena, who had worked hard for two hours and 48 minutes for his 58 off 119 balls, departed with a withering glare at his partner.
Bist, an attacking, attractive, pocket-sized batsman, and the leading run-getter in the Ranji Trophy this season, sought to make amends with a 46-run partnership with Rashmi Parida. Mishra then brought on Harshal Patel for a new spell; Bist tried to drive Harshal's first ball on the up, and edged to Sacin Rana at second slip.
After the tea break, came the bedlam. Parida and Puneet Yadav strung 30 runs together before Yadav became the second of Sachin Rana's four victims. That dismissal sent the innings into free-fall, and six wickets fell for 18 runs. Parida's 97-minute innings ended when Mishra trapped him lbw with a straight ball, Rana picked up two more, and wicketkeeper Dishant Yagnik, who had scored a vital century in the quarter-finals, went for a massive swipe off Mishra but sent the ball straight up in the air.
Saxena, the only batsman to score a half-century, said later: "We could have got to 250; the pitch was not easy to bat on but all of us got starts, got into the 20s and spent time at the crease." Saxena served the Haryana batsmen a reminder of the difficulty of the pitch. "You never feel you are really set," he said. "You can get out to any ball."
The batsmen have proved that in the first two days. With sideways movement on offer for the bowlers, lack of decisive footwork cost batsmen heavily on the second day.
There were two more examples of that in Haryana's second innings. Rajasthan's Rituraj Singh, whose 7 for 45 in the first innings was somewhat forgotten after his team's subsequent batting collapse, struck with his second ball, when Rahul Dewan left his bat out to dry. Sunny Singh did something similar in the next over to give Pankaj Singh a wicket. The two wickets hurt Haryana and left the match in the balance going into the third day.
Saxena said he expected the match to "go down to the wire." He said Haryana "had a lot to play for and there was a lot at stake for them." By the end of the second day, the track was showing signs of variable bounce, and, with balls keeping low, the lbw appeals will become more frequent and louder going into the third day.
Haryana will have to see off the new ball on Thursday morning, which Saxena said "was doing a bit and cutting off the wicket." The first session will, perhaps, reveal which side has it in them to make it to the Ranji final.
Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo