Daya is sub-editor with ESPNcricinfo Hindi and Rajan is associate sub-editor
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Among the four Ranji Trophy quarter-finals that began on Monday, it was apparent that the Punjab-Madhya Pradesh clash would get the lowest billing. This was apparent also because there were a grand total of three journalists at this game. Even the spectators had gravitated towards the Karnataka-Uttar Pradesh and Mumbai-Uttarakhand matches happening on the adjacent grounds, with those in the vicinity of this match also seated along the boundary walls, with their attention turned to those games.
The KSCA ground at Alur hosting this game is actually the lowest-lying of the three, and that meant overnight rain forced the latest start here, with the first ball bowled at 11:30 am. Despite the wet outfield, the pitch bore a barren, run-friendly look and it was no surprise Punjab captain Abhishek Sharma opted to bat.
Madhya Pradesh were quick to read the conditions. With virtually no swing on offer, they drew their lengths back and only used fuller deliveries as a way to break the pattern of short or back-of-a-length deliveries.
Shubman Gill, fresh off his IPL win with Gujarat Titans and looking to get some match practice ahead of the Birmingham Test, began imperiously with a straight drive and a wristy flick through fine leg. However, he failed to read both the line and length - perhaps more of the latter - of the first ball of the fifth over of the day, delivered by Puneet Datey. Gill shouldered arms to a delivery that dipped in sharply and took his off-stump. A dream ball and a dream wicket for someone playing his first first-class match in two years.
Abhishek appeared to be carrying his IPL form into his innings of 47, studded with five fours and two massive sixes. Datey set up his wicket beautifully, through the 24th over of the innings. He softened him up with short balls, and slipped in a sharp bouncer off the penultimate ball. The last ball of the over was fuller and a touch wider, inviting the drive, and Rajat Patidar at first slip gleefully accepted the catch as it flew off the Punjab captain's blade. The IPL star Patidar actually had an ordinary day in the field, fluffing two chances at slip. In fact, he dropped both Abhishek and Gurkeerat Singh Mann. The latter was dropped off the bowling of Kumar Kartikeya, himself an IPL star after his debut season with Mumbai Indians. The "left-arm everything" bowler was the unluckiest in his team, with two of the four catches dropped by his team on the day coming off his bowling alone.
File photo - Shubman Gill was out early, bowled while shouldering arms to Puneet Datey•Tertius Pickard/Getty Images
Much like he did with Abhishek, Datey used the short-short-full formula to snare another experienced batter in Anmolpreet Singh. Having pinned him back with short and back-of-a-length balls, he lured him into an indiscreet drive with a change in length, only for mid-off to complete the catch. It was more the bowler's victory than any major lapse from the batter, and for the third time in the day. Just like that, Datey had blown away the Punjab top order with all three wickets against his name.
If the first session belonged to Datey, his new-ball partner Anubhav Agarwal took the honours over the next two. Agarwal had been a bit ill-disciplined in his first spell and been taken for runs by the Punjab batters, before being taken off after just three overs. However, as the ball got softer and the pitch eased up, he took advantage of the slightly two-paced nature that crept into the surface with the sun baking down. Mandeep Singh fell to a length ball, and Sanvir Singh edged to slip after a fighting 41. Agarwal also took the last wicket of the innings, Baltej Singh caught behind, to restrict Punjab to 219.
Madhya Pradesh's most experienced seamer, Gaurav Yadav, took just one wicket, but his contribution went beyond mere numbers. In the same over when Abhishek was dropped at slip, he had repeatedly beaten and found both edges of the bat of both Sharma and Anmolpreet with controlled swing bowling. Gaurav had to wait until the fag end of the day for his only reward, bowling Mayank Markande after he had put on a spirited 33-run stand for the seventh wicket with Sanvir and occupied the crease for 14 overs.
Between innings, Gaurav suggested that the pitch was a flat one and there wasn't much assistance for the bowlers, who needed to try different things to pick up wickets. Madhya Pradesh captain Aditya Shrivastava played a commendable role in this with his clever usage of the fast bowlers, giving them short spells to keep them fresh on a sticky June afternoon. His bowlers responded magnificently, mixing their lengths and bowling tight lines to give the Punjab batters nothing to work with. If Madhya Pradesh can go on to win a place in the semi-finals, much credit should go to their seam attack, who more than made up for the injury-enforced absence of the experienced Ishwar Pandey, and the IPL's latest sensation Kuldeep Sen.