Stumps Saurashtra 317 for 5 (Vasavada 81*, Jackson 59, Jani 57*, Ishan Porel 2-72) lead Bengal 174 (Shahbaz 69, A Porel 50, Sakariya 3-33, Unadkat 3-44) by 143 runs
Bengal's Ranji Trophy aspirations have taken a massive jolt with Saurashtra pulling away from their clutches slowly but surely on a leaden second day of the final at Eden Gardens.
The match appeared to be on an even keel when Bengal, having been bowled out for a paltry 174, had Saurashtra fighting for survival at 109 for 4. Then they ran into Sheldon Jackson
and Arpit Vasavada
, who put together 95 to steady the innings.
After Jackson fell for 59, letting aggression get the better of him in mistiming a pull to deep square leg, Vasavada flicked a switch and focused on crease occupation to blunt the bowling on a deck that had generous swing and seam movement on offer all day.
Unlike Saurashtra, Bengal's fast bowlers struggled for consistency and paid the price. This played into the hands of Chirag Jani
, who used every opportunity to put the loose ball away to quickly race away to a half-century, before slowing down in the last half hour, in a bid to try and return undefeated on Saturday.
Jani's unbroken stand with Vasavada was worth 113, and as Bengal trudged off at the end of a long day, dejected and left to rue what could've been had they been more consistent.
The morning began with a lot of promise for Bengal as Mukesh Kumar and Akash Deep repeatedly troubled nightwatchman Chetan Sakariya in the air and off the pitch. In the first half hour alone, Sakariya was beaten thrice on the inside edge, hit on the box, roughed up by a bouncer and survived a close chance.
, though, was solid and brought up his half-century with a neat little flick. However, he didn't last long and was superbly removed by Mukesh. After subjecting him to a succession of away-going deliveries, Mukesh had him lbw with a nip-backer with Harvik playing all around it.
Five overs later, Ishan Porel got into the act as he struck in his very first over. After troubling Sakariya with two rib-ticklers, he had him rooted to the crease and playing inside the line of a delivery that hit the seam and nipped away to hit top of off. Bengal were now a boisterous bunch and smelt a real opportunity.
Like he did in the semi-final against Karnataka, Jackson, coming off a match-winning 160, kept Bengal interested as he played some stylish drives on the up from time to time. In trying to stick with his attacking mantra, Jackson also ensured Saurashtra kept chugging along at a fair clip to eat into the deficit.
Bengal were unlucky not have Jackson on 19 when a mistimed pull off Akash Deep landed short of deep square. Saurashtra were 134 for 4 at that point. But that was the only little blot in Jackson's counterattack.
After lunch, Bengal returned to try and rough him up with short balls but couldn't sustain it long enough for them to build any kind of pressure. By the time they dismissed Jackson, Bengal's mood was more of relief than ecstasy at having broken a key partnership.
Vasavada grounded the bowlers and negated any threat they may have posed by playing copy book cricket, seemingly intent on playing late, leaving deliveries and eliminating any little risk he may have taken while he was batting with Jackson.
Where Bengal lost wickets in clumps, Saurashtra were far more cautious and solid. As their pace trio of Mukesh, Akash and Porel grew tired, Saurashtra feasted on the more-friendly medium pacer Akash Ghatak and left-arm spinner Shahbaz Ahmed, who failed to get any purchase off the pitch.
Jani brought in the confidence of making a backs-to-the-wall 72 and 77 in the two knockout games coming into the final, and showed he was every bit effective as a regular batter would be. His two big wickets of Anustup Majumdar and Abishek Porel had helped Saurashtra crack make key breakthroughs with the ball. Now his innings had a deflating effect on Bengal, who know they have possibly one roll of the dice left to make some sort of a comeback in this match.
A second title in three seasons can't seem closer. If and when the moment arrives, it could yet be a fitting prize for both Saurashtra and one of their favourite sons, Cheteshwar Pujara, who is celebrating a special century of his own in faraway New Delhi.
Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo