Maharashtra 312 for 6 (Gugale 174, Khurana 55, Narwal 1-30) v Delhi
Swapnil Gugale stole the limelight with a sterling 174 on the opening day of Maharashtra's crucial Ranji Trophy Group B tie against Delhi, keeping the team on course for a big first-innings total at the Maharashtra Cricket Association stadium.
Thanks to Gugale's chanceless innings and his 106-run partnership for the sixth wicket with the in-form Chirag Khurana, Maharashtra ended the day at 312 for 6. Had it not been for Gugale's heroics, the hara-kiri committed by the rest of the Maharashtra's top-order batsmen would have ended up justifying Delhi's decision to field first.
Looking at the flat deck, most teams winning the toss would have opted to bat first and put on a gargantuan total on the board. But Gautam Gambhir sprung the first surprise of the day by inserting Maharashtra.
Though the ball was bouncing nicely, the wicket did not challenge the batsmen. Gugale, playing his fourth first-class match, got off the blocks with a sweetly timed drive off Parvinder Awana. Sumit Narwal got one to rise in the seventh over to manage an edge off Harshad Khadiwale's willow that rested into Unmukt Chand's safe palms at second slip.
Gugale, however, was undeterred at the other end and unleashed drives and cuts at will. His nimble footwork was equally impressive against both the seamers, as well as the left-arm spin duo of Manan Sharma and Varun Sood.
Just as Rohit Motwani appeared to be set for a big knock, he missed a straight one from Rajat Bhatia. While the bowler and close-in fielders appealed for lbw, the batsman took off for a single assuming the ball had passed wicketkeeper Rahul Yadav. The ball had only lobbed close to the keeper and Yadav showed presence of mind to whip the bails off and find Motwani short of the crease.
In a surprising move, Maharashtra sent in Ankit Bawne ahead of their star batsman Kedar Jadhav, who was padded up. Bawne adopted an aggressive approach and went after Bhatia. He struck a couple of boundaries off him on the off-side and followed it up with a towering six over long-on. Bhatia, though, had the last laugh when he eventually trapped the batsman leg before for 18.
Soon after lunch, Rahul Tripathi gave Yadav catching practice off Vikas Tokas just after he had got his eye in. At 139 for 4, in walked Jadhav. Despite Gugale having raced into his eighties, he required support at the other end. The Delhi bowlers noticed this and stifled Jadhav's flow of runs and allowed him only two singles off the first 14 balls he faced.
While Jadhav was stuck at one end, Gugale eventually celebrated his maiden first-class century with a splendid cover drive. Even before the ball had crossed the boundary for his 15th four, Gugale jumped in the air and pumped his fists to acknowledge loud applause from a decent crowd that had primarily turned up to get a glimpse of Virender Sehwag. The fact that Maharashtra's total was 164 when Gugale crossed the milestone showed how much Gugale had dominated the bowlers.
Soon after, Jadhav managed a boundary off Manan Sharma to break the shackles but two balls later, he attempted a pull off a full delivery, missed it and was plumb in front of the wickets. Maharashtra, for the third time in succession, had to fall back on Khurana for avoiding a collapse.
With Khurana playing a perfect second fiddle, Gugale continued his assault. He went after Manan, hitting him for two sixes and a flurry of boundaries that tarnished the bowler's figures. Gugale was set to pile on the misery on the Delhi bowlers by converting his century into a double and carrying his bat into the second day, but then came the last surprise.
A tired lofted drive off Manan to Mithun Manhas at covers nine deliveries before the new ball was due brought curtains on Gugale's innings. Khurana and Shrikant Mundhe then dealt with the red cherry, which was taken with seven overs remaining, with little trouble, as Khuranna completed his third successive fifty.
In the midst of the surprising strategy by the Delhi camp, amateurish shot selection by the Maharashtra batsmen and sensational strokeplay by Gugale, there was some light-hearted banter in the Delhi camp. Sehwag was heard taunting the bowling coach Amit Bhandari during tea break for having suggested to field first. If Mundhe and Khurana pile on another big partnership, then even the fancied Delhi batting line-up would be put under pressure.
Amol Karhadkar is a correspondent at ESPNcricinfo