Heavyweight Cheteshwar Pujara turned up with fever as Bengal nosed ahead against a scratchy Saurashtra in what was was an attritional opening day’s play in the Ranji Trophy final at Rajkot.
Avi Barot (54 off 142) and Vishvaraj Jadeja (54 off 92) struck gritty half-centuries before Bengal pacer Akash Deep struck late in the final session to leave Saurashtra at 206 for five at stumps on Monday.
Pacer Akash Deep, who was Bengal’s standout bowler with three wickets, had Chetan Sakariya caught behind, bringing the end of day’s play. With the pacers doing the bulk of the job, only 80.5 overs could be bowled.
An unwell Pujara walking off the field after scoring five off 24 balls put the home team in a spot of bother after Barot (54 off 142) and Jadeja (54 off 92) had played themselves in.
The India player, who returned from New Zealand only a couple of days ago, had fever due to throat infection but will bat on the second day, said skipper Jaydev Unadkat.
Bengal may have the edge after day one but Saurashtra batsman Vishvaraj said another 100 runs on the slow and low surface will be of immense value.
“The surface used for the semi-final had a lot more bounce but this one is low and slow. Another 100-150 runs will be really good for us. It is not a typical Rajkot wicket. Having said that, we lost one wicket too many,” he said.
Saurashtra, playing their first final at home, opted to bat in friendly conditions.
The Bengal pace attack has delivered all season and the team relied on them to get the early breakthroughs.
Ishan Porel and Mukesh Kumar tested Harvik Desai (38) and Barot in their opening spell but the openers did well to take Saurashtra to 77 for no loss in 35 overs at lunch. Luck also smiled on the home team with Bengal grassing three difficult catches in the session. Desai was dropped twice while Barot got one life.
Bengal got their first wicket in the third over after lunch when Desai, surprised by the extra bounce generated by left-arm spinner Shahbaz Ahmed, pushed it straight into the hands of the silly-point fielder to leave his team at 82 for one in the 38th over.
Though there was assistance on offer for spinners, Ahmed was content to bowl the containing line and bowled as many as 20 overs in his first spell, majority of them from over the wicket, with pacers operating from the other end.
Vishvaraj then got together with Barot and opted for an aggressive approach against Ahmed, hitting the spinner for three consecutive boundaries.
Medium pacer Akash Deep provided the second wicket to Bengal when he removed a well-set Barot with a ball that pitched around off stump and straightened, taking a faint edge to Wriddhiman Saha.
Vishvaraj and centurion of the semi-final against Gujarat, Arpit Vasavada (29 not out), took Saurashtra to 155 for two in 61 overs. It was a surprise that Pujara did not come out to bat at number four, his usual position for the state team. He bats at number three for India in Test cricket.
Bengal pacers lifted their game in the final session with Akash Deep castling Jadeja with a sharp incoming ball soon after the batsman completed his second half century of the season.
Two overs later, Porel trapped Saurashtra’s leading run-getter Sheldon Jackson who had got going with two cover drives off Kumar’s tempting half-volleys. Hero of the semi-final against Karnataka, Kumar was guilty of offering too many freebies to the opposition.
Jackson’s fall finally brought Pujara in the middle but he walked off the field looking unwell.
The ball often kept low in the final session, signs that the batsmen’s job is only going to get tougher.