Captain Pujara wins thriller for India A
India A 277 (Rohit Sharma 94, Saha 56, Carter 5-63) & 188 for 8 (Pujara 96*, Holder 5-55) beat West Indies A 252 (Permaul 66, Ahmed 3-43) & 210 (Simmons 53, Rohit Sharma 4-41) by two wickets
Cheteshwar Pujara took a huge step towards Test selection as he added 73 with No. 10 Shami Ahmed to take India A to a thrilling win in the first unofficial Test, at Kensington Oval. Pujara's unbeaten 96 was the highest score in all four innings of the match, and more than three times the next best effort by an Indian in the final innings. An equally impressive performer, the 6'7" tall Jason Holder, playing at his home ground, ended up on the losing side despite registering his third five-for in his 15th first-class match. His effort reduced India A to 115 for 8 in a chase of 186.
It might have been an unofficial Test, but the qualities that make Test cricket special were all on display. Two teams full of young men hoping to represent their Test sides went into the final day with all three results possible, and three rain interruptions brought a draw into the picture too. In fact when the players went off the third time, in the last hour of the day, with India A needing 20 runs, it seemed the sides would have to settle for a draw.
India A would have been glad they got a chance to come out to finish the game off, but not long before that they would have happily taken that draw when rain interrupted on the first two occasions. When the clouds opened up for the first time, during the lunch break, all three West Indies A quicks had taken a wicket each to add to their overnight effort of 22 for 3. And in a tense morning session, they had conceded just 55 runs.
India A had added only two runs on the final day when left-arm quick Delorn Johnson broke through Shikhar Dhawan's defence with a slower ball. Dhawan failed to add to his overnight 13. Rohit Sharma and Pujara then fought through a testing period. Rohit was dropped on two by substitute Kyle Corbin when India were 28 for 4. Even before he had reached double figures, Rohit had played two edgy shots: a mis-hit that just cleared extra cover, and another that just fell short. In the first hour only 20 runs came by. Johnson and Holder's figures on the final morning at one point read 6-2-9-1 and 6-2-9-0.
Rohit relieved a bit of pressure with a six over long-off and a four over mid-on. However, just when he had begun to show signs of having overcome a shaky start, Rohit followed and edged a wide delivery from Jonathan Carter, who already had a five-for to his name in the first innings. In the minutes before lunch, Holder bowled Manoj Tiwary with an inswinger to make the session West Indies A's.
Showers during the lunch break caused a 45-minute delay in resumption. Pujara, 26 at lunch, now counterattacked. He hit three fours in five deliveries to bring the target down to two figures, but Holder struck soon. It took a sharp low catch from Nkrumah Bonner to send Wriddhiman Saha back. That was the cue for Pujara to attack more, and he did so by hitting Johnson for back-to-back fours to reach his half-century. India A had reached 115 when Holder pegged back Bhuvneshwar Kumar's off stump, and West Indies were all but there.
Holder followed Bhuvneshwar's scalp up with a bouncer that hit Pujara on the right hand. Even as the physio made his way off the ground, rain made a second appearance, sending players in for an early tea break. Pujara and Ahmed had added only five runs by then, and you would have thought that a further delay might have given them some hope for a draw if they could hang in until the next rain interruption.
You had another thing coming: soon after tea Ahmed lofted Holder over long-on for a six. That seemed to be a momentum-shifting shot. The partnership now relied more on Pujara's risk-free shots. He now took such control of the situation that in the end Ahmed ended with just 27 of the 73-run stand. The drama was hardly over, though.
By the final drinks break of the match, the two had seen off the quicks, eased through a brief spell of spin from both ends, and were now bracing up for another burst from Holder and friends. They had added four after the drinks, which took the partnership past 50, when it began to pour down again. This interruption seemed to have a finality to it, but about 15 minutes later we were back on again.
Now India A needed 20, West Indies still needed two wickets, and the weather was around too. Serenely Pujara resumed with a four to fine leg. Streakily Ahmed swung at two wide deliveries and took seven. Holder put in one last effort, but an inside edge off Ahmed's bat evaded the stumps. He did manage another maiden to keep India A waiting, but Pujara at the other end finished it off with another boundary.
Pujara has had previous experience of batting well with the Saurashtra tail too, most notably when he saved one in the fog and fading light of Delhi in 2007-08. He'll be glad he went a step further this time.