Rajasthan had played Punjab six times in the Ranji Trophy before this round. Punjab won thrice, with the rest of the matches ending in draws. On Thursday, Rajasthan secured their first ever victory against Punjab, a comfortable nine-wicket win. It was Rajasthan's first victory of the season, coming in their fifth match. More importantly, the victory erased all fears of relegation for the team.
It is then no surprise to hear Pankaj Singh, the Rajasthan captain, hail the victory as a special one. "This is a big, big victory for Rajasthan. In my career I have never seen Rajasthan beat Punjab. So it is a big achievement," Pankaj told ESPNcricinfo. "This also brightens our chances of qualifying for the knockouts now if we continue to play this kind of positive cricket."
It was a must-win match for Rajasthan, who had suffered an innings defeat against Delhi at home while securing draws in the remaining three matches against Gujarat, Saurashtra and Vidarbha. They had conceded the lead against Gujarat and Vidarbha, and were on just five points going into the Punjab game.
Rajasthan have won the Ranji Trophy twice, in successive seasons. Punjab won it once, back in the 1992-93 season. Yet, going into the match, Punjab were the favourites: they had more experience, better stroke players and then there was Yuvraj Singh, a proven match-winner who was coming into the game with three centuries from his last three matches.
The big question, after being asked to bat, was whether Rajsthan could raise a big score. Although the senior trio of Vineet Saxena, Robin Bist and Ashok Menaria had hit a century apiece, they had not been consistent. The team management decided to make some changes and brought in Pranay Sharma and Puneet Yadav, two batsmen who had not played first-class cricket for a while. Pranay last played in 2010, while Yadav last played two years ago. Still, both men provided the impetus, as Pranay ended up making 140 while Yadav missed a century by 10 runs. Rajasthan raised 433.
"Our batting was not going well. We were collapsing easily," Pankaj said. "The moment we scored 400-plus runs we know that we were going to get a first-innings lead at least or create problems for the opposition. We are going to have an edge because our bowling department is good."
Pankaj admitted Yuvraj was the catalyst, and getting his wicket would make the difference. He got Yuvraj in the first innings for just three runs. That proved to be a turning point. "Getting Yuvraj Singh out was very important for us. We knew that if he stood there even for a little time it would not be possible to stop him," he said.
What also helped was that Rajasthan asked for a ball change as early as the seventh over. The changed ball was slightly older, and not hard. It began to reverse immediately and further facilitated Pankaj's plans, who went around the wicket against Yuvraj.
"That time the ball was reversing. My plan was to keep bowling away, away from him and then pitch it a little bit up to tempt him go for the drive. I had also intentionally removed the cover fielder as part of that plan. And it worked as he edged."
With victory on mind, Pankaj straightaway asked Punjab, who were bowled out for 274, to follow-on. He immediately removed the opening pair of Jiwanjot Singh and Amitoze Singh. At the other end, Aniket Choudhary, the left-arm fast bowler, got the better of Punjab skipper Mandeep Singh. "We once again regained the momentum," Pankaj said.
Yuvraj was turning out to be the dangerman Rajasthan feared as he stroked his way to 35. But going for a pull to a short delivery against Chahar, Yuvraj mistimed and was caught in the slips. Rajasthan knew they had to take the decisive step now. "Yuvraj was the biggest danger. We did not want them to score lot of runs. Their tail batted for long but we had limited time to get the target."
Rajasthan had 36 overs to get 89 runs. They achieved it in 25.4 overs, losing only Pranay.
This is the second time this season a weaker team has upset an established favourite. Jammu & Kashmir's shock defeat of Mumbai at the Wankhede stadium in December was clearly a massive achievement considering Parvez Rasool's team had entered the tournament having barely recovered from the ravaging floods that had disrupted life in the valley last August.
The challenge for Rajasthan was equally daunting, albeit of a different kind. With the BCCI refusing to recognise Lalit Modi being elected as the Rajasthan Cricket Association president, Rajasthan's participation in the domestic tournaments was in jeopardy. Players sat nervously on the edge, staring at uncertain futures. But a last-minute solution stitched together by the Rajasthan High Court resuscitated them barely weeks before the season started.
"When we started this season, after all that happened and with so much difficulty we were able to enter the domestic season, we felt we should at least try and qualify for the knockouts," Pankaj, who was adjudged the Man of the Match for his seven-wicket haul, said.
"But the way we did not perform in the first four matches and the way Punjab was performing well, the way Yuvraj was scoring runs, our aim was to make sure we at least get some points from the match. That pressure was there. We did not want to wait till the match to see if we were going to be relegated. The fear has now gone totally."
Still, the fact that Rajasthan are playing in the tournament is a victory in itself. Pankaj, who is the highest wicket-taker in the tournament with 24 wickets, agreed.
"I know that after a lot of issues we had a chance to play. We did not perform well in the one-dayers at the start of the season. There were also no professional players anymore this time for the Ranji season. But now things are settled. The simple thing is we have to perform. The thing that we have got the opportunity to play is a big thing in itself."