Nemat, Jaggi keep Punjab at bay

Jharkhand 195 for 3 (Nemat 97*, Jaggi 50*) v Punjab

Chilly weather combined with a flat track often makes for slow, and sometimes dull, cricket. It was evident at the Keenan Stadium as Jharkhand cruised to 195 for three on the opening day of their Ranji Trophy quarter-final against the favourites Punjab.

It wasn't the most ideal surface for a knockout game, but you might want to give the ground staff some allowance for adverse weather conditions affecting preparation of the pitch. However, it was a no-brainer that the team winning the toss would opt to bat and try to put up a big score on board, especially with the match being a five-day affair. Despite poor visibility delaying the start of the match by half an hour, Jharkhand had no doubts whatsoever in choosing to bat.

The slowish and dry nature of the pitch had forced Punjab, who have preferred to go in with three seam bowlers, to play two specialist spinners at the cost of a pace bowler. And they preferred to bench Sandeep Sharma, their leading wicket-taker of the season. Sandeep was not only nursing a niggle on his shoulder, but also was recovering from a twisted ankle. Even if he was fully fit, he might have still made way for legspinner Sarabjit Ladda, as Punjab coach Arun Sharma admitted.

The legspinner outperformed his captain Harbhajan Singh by a distance. Had Ladda not got carried away after picking two wickets in quick succession after lunch, Punjab would have snatched the advantage from the home team. Instead, opener Rameez Nemat and the talented Ishank Jaggi managed to rescue Jharkhand from 97 for 3 and end the day with their noses slightly ahead. Only 74 overs were bowled as bad light stopped play early.

Nemat, who starred in Jharkhand's victory against Services last week that secured them a place in the quarters, was solid in defence. Though he is not technically as sound as an opener should be, he curbed his naturally aggressive instincts and respected good balls. It resulted in his being on the verge of a maiden first-class century. And had bad light not played its part, Nemat would have been celebrating the milestone instead of the prospects of sleepless night.

While Nemat focused on rotating the strike, Jaggi showcased enterprise. While he cut both the spinners at will, his standout stroke was a back-foot flick against the spin of Ladda, which raced to the midwicket boundary. Jaggi, who was part of Jharkhand's victorious campaign in the Vijay Hazare Trophy - domestic one-day competition - two years ago, put Nemat at ease after Manish Vardhan and mainstay Saurabh Tiwary had perished in quick succession.

Earlier in the morning, Siddarth Kaul struck early for Punjab as he trapped Akash Verma plumb in front of the wicket off the last ball of the fourth over. After, Nemat, who moved to Jharkhand after representing Delhi in under-14 cricket, and Vardhan kept the Punjab bowlers at bay till lunch. While a decent Jamshedpur crowd had turned up to primarily watch Harbhajan, they were entertained by the batting duo's occasional stroke-making.

The day didn't bring Harbhajan much joy. Punjab coach, Arun Sharma, said: "We let them off the hook after those two wickets post lunch. We should have at least picked five wickets and shouldn't have let them score almost 200 runs. Even though Jaggi and Nemat batted well, we didn't help our cause by being undisciplined early on during their partnership. It offered them a lot of scoring opportunities and they made use of it."

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