Haryana 82 for 8 (Rituraj Singh 5-36) trail Rajasthan 89 (Saxena 32, Harshal 8-34) by seven runs Scorecard
Eighteen wickets for a measly 171 runs in a single day's cricket could easily suggest that the track on which this panned out had threatened life and limb. All that the Bansi Lal Stadium surface did on the first day of the Ranji Trophy semi-final was to be itself on a biting winter day and with it test batting skills.
Haryana and Rajasthan find themselves locked in a struggle of nerve and application, with only two wickets needed on the second morning to complete the first two innings.
Harshal Patel, the former India Under-19 bowler and current flavour of the season, again produced the best Ranji figures this year - 8 for 34 - as Rajasthan unraveled to 89 all out. Then came Rajasthan's bustling Rituraj Singh taking 5 for 36 and coming close to completely dismantling Haryana's batting, reducing them to 40 for 7. By stumps, they had inched their way 82 for 8, an obdurate 33-run eighth wicket partnership bringing some voice back to local throats and colour back to Haryana's cheeks.
Harshal was in the centre of things yet again, as one half of that partnership with Mohit Sharma. His lone scoring stroke in 20 minutes of batting sent out its own message to his top order. Two steps out to medium-pacer Rituraj and a whip past square leg for four. When Harshal walked back to the dressing room with Mohit, who had spent close to two hours for 16, the applause from their team-mates sounded more fervent than it had for their bowling efforts in the morning.
It was a day when the bowlers on both sides could say they had done all the work. Rajasthan too had come apart at the seams reaching 66 for 9 just after lunch. Gajendra Singh and Sumit Mathur then put up 23 and helped the defending champions reach what only on such an absurd day's cricket could be called a "respectable" total.
Haryana's decision to field may have appeared sagely and bold but turned out to be simple common sense. The dreaded fog was absent and the sun shone. Underneath all the brightness though were conditions made for seam bowling. The gossamer haze of the morning carried with it moisture and the breeze blowing over the ground, some bites of swing. The Bansi Lal Stadium square is built on a rich water table where it doesn't take long to find water nor does it dry out enough in the winter to make life easy for batsmen.
The ball moved laterally off the wicket and swung in the air. It stopped before coming on to the bat, making batting difficult and run scoring demanding. Harshal for his part made sure it wasn't going to be easy for Rajasthan. He scythed through the top order, producing a spell that is simple to describe in clichés about good areas and line and length.
When witnessed though, it was an impressive demonstration of discipline and lung power. He sent down 15 overs of a probing length and let the winter and his familiarity with Lahli do the rest. He said he had needed two overs to warm up and get started, "the ball was not coming out of my hand but I know what Lahli is like. The wicket's always like this in the morning, it helps the seamers, when the dew is gone and the sunlight hits the wicket."
Sunlight and dew may make for poetry on paper but to Rajasthan's most experienced batsmen, Aakash Chopra and Hrishikesh Kanitkar, it spelt a half-hour struggle before they nicked one to the wicketkeeper. Vineet Saxena was the lone frontline batsman for Rajasthan who survived the first session. He had scratched out 32 runs, the day's highest score, but in the second over after lunch he flicked one to square leg.
Until then it had been Haryana's day driven by Harshal, whose 8-40 versus Karnataka in Bangalore had set them up in the quarter-final. They were going to be batting in the second session, when the wicket had at least dried out from the morning. They did not take into account the damage that the new ball could do.
Haryana's top order was trapped somewhere in no man's land: unable to find the defence mechanisms needed to wear off the shine of the new ball or brazenly attempt an all-out attack to challenge the bowlers. Five were gone within eight overs of Rituraj and Pankaj Singh bowling at a good clip and with venom; captain Amit Mishra and Priyank Tehlan's attempts to stitch a stand together fell apart in two overs around tea. Mishra's leading edge off an expansive on-drive found Robin Bisht at point and Tehlan didn't reach the pitch of the ball and looped one to mid-on Pankaj Singh's hands. From 40 for 7, again the bowlers started giving Haryana a chance.
Day one of the Ranji semi-final was very much a bowlers' day. Mohit Sharma had bowled an uninterrupted spell of 15 overs in the Rajasthan innings, Harshal bowled 12 overs on the go. At stumps, Harshal said quite succinctly, "It's not about the wicket settling, it's more about the team settling on the wicket."
In conditions such as these, it would take batsmen of exceptional quality to play the match-defining innings. With three days to spare, that is still awaited.