Abdul Samad, 18, sat motionless in the dressing room. Staring right through his shell-shocked team-mates who were trying to console him. He had just been dismissed looking to slog sweep. The ease with which he was using his feet to step out and drive forced J Suchith to switch back to over the wicket. Karnataka's fielders were in a dilemma. Do they stop the boundaries or look to attack? Jammu & Kashmir were just 15 runs behind Karnataka's first-innings total with three wickers in hand, within touching distance of a lead. Yet Samad slogged.
For those who haven't watched him bat, Samad isn't an agricultural slogger. He has a stable base and excellent hand-eye coordination. He cuts well, loves to use his feet to spin and has a penchant to make big runs at a furious pace. Both his hundreds this Ranji Trophy season came at better than a run-a-ball. Could he play another defining knock in the quarter-final, against a heavily favoured Karnataka?
Samad doesn't care much about reputations. If the ball is in his zone, he gives it a whack. He had already stepped out to hit Suchith's left-arm spin into the river bank, way beyond the long-on boundary wall of the Gandhi Memorial Science College Ground in Jammu. A good 100-metre hit.
This was a classic one-on-one contest. One man, or boy - Samad - whose team depended on him to take them past Karnataka's 206. The other - Suchith - wanting to prove a point or two, after being brought in as a replacement for an out-of-form Shreyas Gopal.
To dismiss Samad, Suchith cleverly held his length back a touch, got the ball to dip and turn sharply from outside leg. Samad went for it, only managing to top edge it a mile. Suchith trembled for a brief second, ran back, took two steps forward. It went that high. There was so much time, and he was literally on his knees by the time the ball descended. But he held on to it superbly in the end. A collective cry of anguish from 1000 fans, who had cheered wildly for every run, every boundary, told a story.
The adrenaline was pumping right from the first ball. Not just for the set of 30 players and coaches, but for the fans too. The scorers, generally happy to share a chat while helping out travelling journalists with power sockets and WIFI passwords, suddenly went quiet and wanted as little distraction as possible. The catering staff lined up outside their tents to watch. The policemen on duty, often looking away, were trying to catch a glance every now and then. It was that kind of a morning.
"The scorers, generally happy to share a chat, went quiet. The catering staff lined up outside their tents to watch. The policemen on duty, often looking away, were trying to catch a glance every now and then. It was that kind of a morning."
Samad had walked in to replace his captain Parvez Rasool, who had just been out nicking to the slips for a duck early in the day. With the score reading 110 for 4, he took strike against a fired up Prasidh Krishna. Off his second ball, he nonchalantly whipped one on a length from outside off to the midwicket boundary. It was a shot reminiscent of VVS Laxman, with whom Samad is likely to spend some time in the summer at Sunrisers Hyderabad, and who had raised the paddle to acquire Samad at the auction for INR 20 lakh.
Prasidh worked him over with a series of outswingers. Samad played and missed twice, but didn't hold back a third time as he tonked a half-volley inside-out, one bounce to the extra cover fence. Then, Prasidh went short and Samad took him on with the pull. The message was clear: he was going to fight fire with fire.
This was his biggest moment as a first-class cricketer, and he was showing his full range of shots. Perhaps in his mind, keeping the scorecard ticking along gave J&K the best chance to pocket a lead. Five fours had come off his first 18 balls. Suddenly, the deficit stood at just 62.
This is when the game turned again. Shubham Khajuria, J&K's highest run-getter this season, threw his wicket away. For 154 deliveries, he had played with utmost discipline. Head right over the ball, leaving deliveries outside off, not lulled into a false sense of comfort. He didn't even raise his bat after getting to a half-century. The J&K dressing room have stopped applauding fifties, according to their coach. "We reserve it for when someone crosses 80." It told you the seriousness of the situation.
Yet, it was like Khajuria rammed into the median on an eight-lane expressway after expertly navigating through narrow terrains and hairpin bends. He was out nicking behind while attempting a flashy drive off Ronit More. J&K were five down, still trailing by 62, and the tension was palpable.
Having picked a wicket, Ronit then left his mark by tearing through the lower order in a fabulous spell of late reverse-swing bowling. Every ball, there was chatter from behind the stumps. Srinivas Sharath, Karnataka's wicketkeeper, was even reprimanded on one occasion for charging towards the umpires while appealing. Encouragement in Kannada soon gave way to Hindi words: they wanted the batsmen to know what they were saying.
It was a contest beyond just words. Aquib Nabi, J&K's No. 9, made a mark as an allrounder in Karnataka's club scene last year, making a century on debut for Chintamani Club in Division Two of the KSCA League. Here, even a small cameo would've sufficed.
He needed to just hang in and support Samad. While Nabi held his end of the bargain for a while, the temptation to play his shots in the face of words and attacking fields was too hard to resist. Nabi reverse swept Suchith from outside leg to behind point. As the runs narrowed however, the pressure told, and eventually Samad fell to leave J&K 192 for 8.
After Samad's ill-fated slog sweep, Prasidh returned and dished out some death overs bowling. He went full and straight, needing four balls to take the remaining two wickets. The second ball tailed in late to trap Nabi lbw, and a yorker two balls later finished off J&K's innings, to complete Karnataka's great escape. They had snatched a first-innings lead after being on the verge of conceding one, and averted a fate which might have put them out of the semi-final race.
Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo