Central Zone 48 for 0 and 133 trail East Zone 370 (Saha 170, Majumdar 52) by 189 runs
Wriddhiman Saha showed how much confidence a decent performance in a demanding situation generates in a player. A couple of weeks after resisting the might of the Australian fast bowlers in Adelaide, Saha plundered a defensive Central Zone for 26 boundaries, and made East Zone favourites to win their maiden Duleep Trophy title.
Saha is arguably the finest wicketkeeper in the country at present, and is also known to be a plucky batsman. Less than a week ago, he had made 124 against North Zone in Delhi. Today, he displayed a different dimension of his game, playing stroke after aggressive stroke with freedom. He drove with poise, clipped with balance, lofted with control and pulled with power. Central Zone were left clueless; Piyush Chawla, the captain, had no answers and allowed the game to drift away from his side.
The Holkar Stadium pitch lost much of its zip after the first day. There was some bite during the first hour, but Central Zone were luckless as their fast bowlers beat the outside edge several times but could not produce the edge. After surviving the initial burst from Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Rituraj Singh, Anustup Majumdar threw it away on 52, mistiming a pull off TP Sudhindra to mid-on.
The match was open at 107 for 4 but East Zone pulled ahead through two productive partnerships. Saha put on 109 with his captain Natraj Behera and 87 with Biplab Samantray. Central Zone hardly looked like breaking though during both partnerships and it was another rash stroke that brought them a wicket. Behera, on 46, backed away to cut a Chawla googly and was bowled off the last ball before lunch.
Already 83 runs behind, Central Zone were content to wait for the second new ball. The old Kookaburra helped neither the spinners nor the fast bowlers and the fields for the spinners revealed Central Zone's defensive mindset.
Jalaj Saxena, who bowls quick offbreaks, deployed a seven-two leg-side field after a long discussion with his captain Chawla. Having a long-on, deep midwicket and deep square leg is an admission that the fielding side is waiting for a mistake from the batsmen. Bowling long hops to that field considerably reduces the chance of that mistake happening. East Zone were in no mood to help Central Zone; they kept pulling for fours on the leg side despite the skewed field.
Chawla had needed the cushion of a sweeper cover when East Zone were three down for not many on day one; it was no surprise that he kept the man on the boundary whenever he bowled today. Singles were granted by default. With Saha on 94, Chawla offered him another long hop. Saha hammered it over deep midwicket to bring up his seventh first-class hundred with a six.
Central Zone took the second new ball as soon as it was available but had to wait until the 96th over for a wicket, when Bhuvneshwar trapped Samantray lbw from around the stumps. East Zone soon slipped from 303 for 5 to 325 for 9 but Central Zone were in store for more punishment.
Chawla still allowed Saha easy singles off the fifth and sixth deliveries of overs. Ashok Dinda walked out to cheers from the handful of spectators and hit his first ball for four through point. He proceeded to slog a quick 24 and almost broke the glass screen of the old media box with a massive six. The last-wicket partnership was worth 45 before Saha was stumped off Chawla, bowling outside leg from around the stumps.
The lead was now worth 237, and Central Zone had no choice but to take the initiative if they were to make a comeback. They promoted Jalaj to partner Naman Ojha ahead of the dour Vineet Saxena. Central Zone motored to 48 in 11 overs by stumps, but with the pitch having eased out, the odds were against the hosts.
Abhishek Purohit is an editorial assistant at ESPNcricinfo