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Jackson, Vasavada give wings to Saurashtra's Ranji dream

Duo's perfect combination of fire and ice puts team on the verge of another final

Shashank Kishore
Shashank Kishore
Arpit Vasavada and Sheldon Jackson added 232 for the fourth wicket to put Saurashtra within touching distance of an innings lead  •  PTI

Arpit Vasavada and Sheldon Jackson added 232 for the fourth wicket to put Saurashtra within touching distance of an innings lead  •  PTI

Sheldon Jackson is 36. But don't remind him of it. There's no reason to either, because he is showing no signs of slowing down.
A century in the final following a run-drought helped deliver Saurashtra the Vijay Hazare Trophy title in December. Now, a classic 160, his 20th first-class century, has Saurashtra knocking on the doors of the Ranji Trophy final, three years after they clinched a historic first, with Jackson playing a pivotal part.
Then there's Arpit Vasavada, the stone waller, a Shitanshu Kotak clone, someone who can bore bowlers into submission. For the longest time, Vasavada has been known as Saurashtra's crisis man, and he hasn't let that tag weigh him down.
If crease occupation is of essence, they look up to Vasavada. This isn't to say he can't score runs. He can, and do so quite effectively, like on Friday when he made 112 not out, his third hundred of the season and eleventh overall in first-class cricket. That Saurashtra can dare to dream is because of his 232-run fourth-wicket stand with Jackson to bring them within touching distance of a first-innings lead with two days remaining.
On Friday, it was this perfect combination of fire and ice that propelled Saurashtra. Jackson started in blazing fashion, nonchalantly flicking length balls from middle to the midwicket fence, cutting and pulling ferociously and sweeping the spinners off their lengths. Vasavada was the craftsman, carefully molding his sandcastle with precision, accumulating runs slowly, nudging and tapping deliveries, blunting the bowlers like that was his life mission.
Batting of that kind is second nature to him. Growing up at Railways Colony in Rajkot, Arvind, Pujara senior, who was also his first coach, would ingrain virtues of playing 'correct cricket' to his wards. Young Vasavada and Cheteshwar would religiously stick to those principles, and proudly accept the treats that were on offer should they achieve set milestones. Over time, Vasavada hasn't let the vagaries of T20 cricket come in the way of his batting style.
This season, Vasavada and Jackson have had different roles.
With Jaydev Unadkat away on national duty, Vasavada has also had to shoulder the captaincy responsibilities lately. He's had to rally the team together after back-to-back losses heading into the quarter-final threatened to derail all the momentum they had built up.
In the quarter-final, Vasavada was among a group of players that led a stirring fightback, after Saurashtra were on the mat against Punjab. Having conceded a 128-run lead, Vasavada made a grinding 77 in the second innings to help close in on the deficit, before the lower order helped them surge ahead. On the final day, his bowling chances and field placements were spot on. His calm marshalling of his bowlers even as Mandeep Singh, the Punjab captain, threatened to snatch a draw, was commendable.
It's this calmness and assuredness that Vasavada brought to the fore in the semi-final too, against Karnataka at the M Chinnaswamy Stadium. He walked in to bat early on the third day with Saurashtra on 92 for 3. Karnataka's seamers were accurate and meant business. Vasavada took 24 balls to get off the mark, but showed no signs of being edgy.
In this period, he also copped a blow on his helmet when he was late on a pull off Vidwath Kaverappa. Shaken, but not stirred, Vasavada took his time to ease himself back in and focused on strike rotation. It helped that Jackson was alert to the possibilities of pinching singles at the other end, much to Karnataka's annoyance. Over three overs, they picked up eleven singles to ensure the bowlers had to keep altering their lengths to the right-left pair.
As his innings progressed, Vasavada showed excellent smarts in ensuring he was getting well outside the line of the stumps to defend K Gowtham's offspin, while also quickly pulling back to dispatch Shreyas Gopal's half-tracks. It's perhaps why Gopal wasn't introduced until the 21st over the morning; while his legbreaks can be deceptive, he's often struggled for consistency, and both batters took full toll.
Vasavada's refreshing clarity against spin and sound judgment of his off stump all contributed to his innings, one of immense concentration and fight on the face of some serious heat from Karnataka. When he brought up his hundred, off a thick edge that flew between the wicketkeeper and slip, Vasavada finally let out his pent-up emotions. But that he fought through to stumps told you a story of grit and not wanting to leave it to the others to get the job done.
At the other end, Jackson was doing what he's done for most of his career: being in a constant dogfight. Against himself, because he comes from small-town Bhavnagar, and not a traditional cricket centre. It meant if someone made 100, he needed a double, perhaps a triple ton, to get noticed.
He's had to ward off stifling competition despite coming from a relatively small state, geographically speaking, like Saurashtra, because he was in a queue for the senior team for four straight seasons before breaking through in 2011-12.
When he finally got his chance, he had to make up for lost time. Over the next decade, Jackson has been a towering presence in a Saurashtra line-up that has evolved from being the outliers to Ranji Trophy champions three years ago. Yet, he's had to contend with the disappointment of not making the next step up despite being a prolific performer. He's on a mission to prove why those on the wrong side of 30 must not be viewed, in his own words, as "fossil".
In the Ranji season Saurashtra won in 2019-20, he had finished that season with 809 runs in 18 innings at an average of 50.56 and was the third-highest run-getter among batters in the non-Plate category. A season earlier, he amassed Ranji Trophy with 854 runs at an average of 47.44. But no Saurashtra player made the India A cut even though they finished runners-up. A furious Jackson let his feelings know.
Compared to those seasons, this one threatened to run dry. He hadn't made a single hundred. Like at the Vijay Hazare Trophy, where he went into the knockout with a prolonged lean patch, Jackson had felt the jitters here too. However, come the big match, with his team needing him to dig deep, Jackson stood tall.
He imperiously cover drove Kaverappa for a boundary off the third ball of the morning to lay down a marker. Two balls later, he picked length in a jiffy to wallop a pull behind square. Jackson wasn't going to just defend. He was going to thrill, especially if the ball was there to be hit.
When Gopal was introduced belatedly, he didn't take time to step out and loft him inside-but over extra cover. In trying to score quickly, the counterpunch seemed to frustrate Karnataka to such an extent that Manish Pandey even began to sledge Jackson. What ensured was some banter for a better part of the next hour. At one point things got so heated that Pandey even claimed a bump catch and celebrated wildly, much to Jackson's annoyance as he stood his ground.
But it was clear he wasn't going to let such distraction come in the way of his concentration. Jackson's marathon knock was also another example of how Saurashtra have often given their seniors clarity. X-factor players who bring something to the table have been given a long rope in the hope of there being a big performance along the way. For Jackson, this was as big an effort as he's come up with in his career so far.
He literally had to be dragged off the field after being given out lbw to a grubber on 160, but by then Saurashtra were within touching distance of a lead. Vasavada stood there applauding, as did the very players who were sledging him not long ago.
In defying Karnataka's bowlers the way they did, Vasavada and Jackson had sowed seeds of another dream in the making for Saurashtra.

Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo