Ranji Trophy fourth round: Sarfaraz's hunger, Agarwal's drought-ending ton
Unadkat, Abhimanyu, Jadhav also shone in a round where nine of the 19 games ended in a draw
Madhya Pradesh, the defending champions, are on a joyride having won four in four. Mumbai were thwarted by Tamil Nadu and had to settle for first-innings points, while Karnataka and Saurashtra posted massive wins to top their groups respectively. Here are the major talking points from the fourth round of Ranji Trophy matches.
Agarwal breaks century drought
Since his previous first-class century, a match-winning 150 in the second Test against New Zealand in December 2021, Mayank Agarwal had gone 24 innings without another ton. That drought was broken in some style in Bengaluru against Chhattisgarh. Agarwal's 117, his 13th in first-class cricket, helped Karnataka pick up a slender first-innings lead before their bowlers capitalised to skittle Chhattisgarh for 177. Needing 123 in 32 overs for a victory, Karnataka cruised home by seven wickets to post their second win of the competition.
Agarwal was helped along the way by fellow opener R Samarth, who fell 18 short of making his fourth consecutive first-class century. Karnataka are now toppers of Elite Group C, with Rajasthan, who shot out Jharkhand for 92 to walk away with first-innings honours, placed second.
Abhimanyu piles on the runs
Elsewhere in Dehradun, playing on a ground built by his father and one he shares his name with, Bengal's Abhimanyu Easwaran brought up his fourth successive first-class ton to give Bengal a strong 387 that helped take the first-innings honours. He could have even scored a fifth straight century but had to settle for 82 not out in the second innings with Bengal looking to force a declaration to try and bowl Uttarakhand out in 1.5 sessions. The game ended in a draw with the captains shaking hands at the start of the final hour.
Unadkat's special hat-trick
Jaydev Unadkat ended 2022 with a memorable Test comeback after 12 years and began 2023 with the first opening-over hat-trick in Ranji history, against Delhi at Rajkot. He ended with career-best figures of 8 for 39 in the first innings to set up a massive bonus-point win. Delhi's loss in a little over two days led to an off-field controversy leading to their selection committee being sacked. Delhi have now lost two and have conceded two first-innings leads which means their Ranji knockout hopes are all but over. Saurashtra are currently on top of Group B with two wins in four games, followed by Maharashtra and last season's runners-up Mumbai.
Bharat hits form as Andhra win
Srikar Bharat may be feeling a bit like what Wriddhiman Saha did when MS Dhoni was India's wicketkeeper and captain across formats for a better part of a decade. He's toiled for 85 first-class matches so far; the closest he's come to playing for India was in November 2021, when he filled in for Saha as a concussion wicketkeeper sub and impressed immediately with his nifty glove work. Now, with Rishabh Pant all but out of the upcoming Australia series at home as he recuperates from surgery following a car crash, Bharat will be that much more in focus. Having been in the mix as a reserve 'keeper for the past couple of years, Nagpur is where he could potentially debut, just like Saha did many years ago, against South Africa.
In the fourth round of matches, Bharat made a terrific second-innings 89 to help Andhra overturn a first innings lead to beat Hyderabad by 154 runs. Bharat's knock, though, was overshadowed by centuries from Ricky Bhui and Karan Shinde.
Run-hungry Sarfaraz continues the good habit
At 161 for 6 in response to Tamil Nadu's 144, Mumbai were in danger of squandering the advantage. Enter Sarfaraz Khan. Batting with the lower order, he made a typically gritty 162, his 12th first-class century, to extend Mumbai's lead. His 167-run eighth-wicket stand with Tanush Kotian, who made 71, helped Mumbai post 481.
It should've been enough most times to secure victory, but Tamil Nadu had other ideas. Centuries from captain B Indrajith, Pradosh Ranjan Paul and Vijay Shankar helped the visitors bat out a draw to salvage one point. Mumbai tried to make a fist of their 212-run target in 32 overs, but ran out of time. They were 137 for 3 when play ended. Sarfaraz, who topped the run charts in the previous season with 982 runs, currently has 409 runs in six innings this season, at an average of 100.75.
Jadhav's dream Ranji return
At 37, Kedar Jadhav is unlikely to make an India comeback. It's been over two years since he played in the IPL. But in his first Ranji game since 2019, he brought back memories of the vintage Jadhav who broke the doors open to pave the way for Maharashtra players to make it into the big league over a decade ago. Jadhav made a run-a-ball 283 at No. 4 to help Maharashtra open up a massive first-innings lead that they held on to as their clash against Assam ended in a draw.
Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo