Ishank Jaggi's 129 gave Jharkhand the innings lead against Gujarat. © Ishank Jaggi

Ishank Jaggi’s 129 gave Jharkhand the innings lead against Gujarat. © Ishank Jaggi

When Ishank Jaggi had walked off at the end of the second day’s play in the Ranji Trophy 2016-17 semifinal, Jharkhand were 214 for 5, still a considerable 176 runs away from Gujarat’s 390. There was a pensive calm writ large on Jaggi’s face. As the only man in the top six standing, he knew how important he would be to Jharkhand’s fortunes on the third day.

Jaggi shed the pensiveness but retained the calm, along with impossibly dextrous wrists, when he strode out on Tuesday (January 3) to shoulder the burden of steering Jharkhand’s innings. By the time he was dismissed, he had batted for more than three hours on the day (11 minutes short of five hours in total), got 129 to his name, broken a few state records, and most crucial of all, given Jharkhand the first-innings lead.

Once Jaggi was dismissed – RP Singh getting him to nick to second slip on the way to figures of 6 for 90 – Gujarat wrapped things up quickly to keep Jharkhand’s total to 408, and the lead to 18. By the time stumps were drawn at Vidarbha Cricket Association Stadium, though, Shahbaz Nadeem had prised out three wickets on his own to reduce Gujarat to 100 for 4, the lead standing at 82. Manprit Juneja was batting on two, with Hardik Patel yet to open his account. But with Nadeem going through Priyank Panchal, the season’s leading run-getter, Parthiv Patel, the captain, and Samit Gohel, the man who had 359 not out in the quarterfinal, in the last half hour, the aces were all with Jharkhand.

While there was not much on offer for the bowlers for the most part of the day, towards the close the ball did dart and spin a tad, which could still make a fourth-innings chase a very interesting prospect.

Even so, Gujarat would have hoped for a far more robust response given Jaggi’s masterclass. He began the day with 40 already to his name, but had lost the established batsmen. Rahul Shukla, though, did the night watchman’s job with dedication to stretch Jharkhand’s sixth-wicket stand to 70 runs. Getting behind the line of the ball and leaving it well, Shukla made 27. Crucially, his soundness even in the face of a sustained short-pitched attack by Gujarat’s pacers, allowed Jaggi the freedom to bat normally, without having to worry about farming the strike.

Also read: One spot, many variations – Nadeem continues to pitch it right

When Shukla was out, lbw to Hardik Patel who had some cheer after taking a lot of stick, Kaushal Singh proved to be an even more able ally. Kaushal, 20, who began the tournament with his maiden first-class century against Maharashtra in New Delhi, showed excellent batting chops in a 97-run stand during which he contributed 53. Kaushal was out soon after reaching his eighth first-class fifty, with Jasprit Bumrah snaking past him to rearrange the stumps. Jharkhand were 380 for 7 then, with the lead still ten runs away.

But with Jaggi still there, Jharkhand need not have feared. All through his innings, Jaggi had batted like a Shaolin Monk, imperturbable but innovative. He whipped balls through midwicket with VVS Laxman-like ease, the result the same whether the ball was on the pads or pitched on the fifth stump. He drove with authority, his placement as much a feature as his timing. And all through, he radiated a calm that made Gujarat wonder when, if ever, they would break through.

During the course of his knock, Jaggi went to 889 runs for the tournament – the most by a Jharkhand player in a Ranji Trophy season. This was his fourth hundred of the season, again the most for Jharkhand. He was unlucky in that his first false shot did him in, drawn into a poke away from the body by RP’s round-the-wicket angle to be the eighth man out. He had scored at a strike rate of 70.88 without once looking in a hurry.

Shahbaz Nadeem, Jharkhand

Nadeem now has 54 wickets in the season. © Sunny Shende

Faced with a deficit, Gujarat were forced to make the play for an outright win. Had they got the first-innings lead, they could have adopted a safety-first approach and concentrated on batting long, something they have done with great effectiveness through the season. But now they had to get the runs but also leave themselves enough time to bowl Jharkhand out.

The bowlers didn’t let Panchal and Gohel get on top, and Panchal was, in fact, kept scoreless for his first 18 balls. He cut Shukla beautifully in the eighth over to set off for what seemed to be a straightforward two. But an inexplicable hesitation while taking the second and a rocket throw from Vikash Singh at the point fence meant Panchal was run out. His season tally is now 1270 runs, the fourth-best ever. If he has to overtake Vijay Bharadwaj (1280), Shreyas Iyer (1321) and Laxman (1415), Gujarat have to pull off a win.

Gohel and Bhargav Merai shared in Gujarat’s best phase of the day with a 69-run stand that was well paced. The first four overs brought just five runs till tea, and after that 64 came off 98 balls. However, Nadeem got Merai for a well-made 44 and that set the wheels in motion. Perhaps the most crucial strike came four overs later, when Nadeem got Parthiv to flick tamely to Virat Singh at midwicket. The Gujarat captain had the skill and nous to guide his team to a challenging fourth-innings target. With him gone, the task is doubly difficult, and Nadeem ensured it further by trapping Gohel in front ten minutes before stumps.

The left-arm spinner now has 54 wickets in the season, with every possibility of adding more on the fourth day.