Pujara powers Saurashtra to splendid win
Saurashtra 189 (RA Jadeja 38, Raghu 2-8) and 327 for 5 (Pujara 112*, Kotak 87, Shah 55*, RA Jadeja 55, Vinay 3-84) beat Karnataka 305 (Uthappa 139, RA Jadeja 5-82, Odedra 3-68) and 208 (Akhil 56, Dravid 52, Jobanputra 5-54, R Jadeja 4-58) by five wickets
Saurashtra joined in the season of improbable chases by reaching the target of 325 set by Karnataka with considerable ease to enter their second successive Ranji Trophy semi-final. Cheteshwar Pujara scored a match-winning century under pressure and was helped by contributions from Shitanshu Kotak, Ravindra Jadeja and captain Jaydev Shah.
The backbone of the chase was the 163-run fourth-wicket partnership between Pujara and Kotak that dimmed and then ended Karnataka's hopes of victory. Those hopes had flared on a spectacular catch by B Akhil, who threw himself to the right to grab Bhushan Chauhan's outside edge off Vinay Kumar, and ebbed quietly as the Kotak-Pujara combine took centrestage.
Both batsmen played enterprisingly, taking their chances rather than grafting around and waiting for the bad deliveries. Kotak prodded one past point and ran three off his first ball in the morning off Vinay and later got away with two edges that whistled past the slips and gully. Pujara took 22 balls for his first run but was soon into the groove, his first three scoring shots being fours. The first was a punch straight down the ground off Vinay, followed by a square-drive on the back foot in the bowler's next over. He then cut NC Aiyappa, who had already been clipped past midwicket by Kotak in the same over, when the bowler pitched short and wide.
Pujara, who began the season with big knocks but failed to reach a half-century in his last seven innings, brought the 50-run partnership with a handsome cover drive off Sunil Joshi - it beat the diving fielders at cover and mid-off. At the other end, Kotak brought up his fifty in style, moving quickly outside the line of a delivery from Vinay to push it to the boundary at long-on.
Pujara pulled Joshi immediately in the first over post lunch to get to his half-century. Kotak, the more experienced of the two, realised the session was vital and tried to face most of the deliveries. Vinay got the ball to reverse, and Kotak patiently waited for the bowler to commit an error. When Vinay bowled full on his leg, Kotak found the boundary at square-leg. He even stepped out to hit Joshi over mid-on for a one-bounce four.
With none of their bowlers able to impose themselves, Karnataka were clutching at straws. As the pressure mounted, Robin Uthappa, the Karnataka captain, let the experienced Rahul Dravid take charge in the field, but even he could not do much apart from shining the ball, patting the bowlers and clapping. Karnataka's best chance arrived when Pujara, on 58, chased an away-going delivery in Akhil's second over but C Raghu, standing wide at first slip, fumbled an easy catch. The score was 148 and it proved to be a turning point as Pujara proceeded to seal Saurashtra's victory.
Kotak, who has built his reputation as a stonewaller by picking his runs in the brick-by-brick fashion, took the initiative in this innings, not hesitating to hook the fast bowlers. By the time Kotak departed, caught-and-bowled by C Raghu half an hour before tea, Saurashtra's man Friday had virtually robbed Karnataka's chances of winning.
In walked Ravindra Jadeja - arms swinging, chest high, eager to finish the job. He pulled Aiyappa on arrival, and put the pressure back on the bowlers by pulling and sweeping Raghu for consecutive fours a couple of overs later. When Joshi returned for his second spell in the afternoon, Jadeja stepped out to club the veteran left-arm spinner over mid-off for another four, and later for a straight hit down the ground.
Saurashtra went to tea requiring 105 runs in the remaining 32 overs. Pujara, who was subdued in the second session, returned with renewed vigour and Karnataka were fast receding against the agility of the 20-year-olds. Having pulled Vinay for another boundary to bring the target below the 100-mark, Jadeja cut Joshi for a four and then walked a single to long-on to complete a swift half-century. He was caught at point trying to slog-sweep Raghu, but Jaydev Shah carried forward the assault with a ruthless half-century of his own that included nine hits past the boundary and a six over widish long-on.
Saurashtra will face Mumbai in the semi-final in Chennai, starting January 4.
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at Cricinfo