Ranji Trophy final: MP solid after Sarfaraz Khan anchors Mumbai

Sarfaraz Khan had just swatted Gaurav Yadav for four behind square when he ran straight into the seamer, his gaze focused on the distant ball beating the fielder into the rope. The impact shook him so much that he lay motionless on the ground for a few moments, his face contorted in pain.

He’d hurt his leg and his helmet grille had taken the bulk of the impact, so he was stunned for a while before he could get back on his feet after some treatment. And right away next ball, he was beaten by a peach that straightened past the outside edge. The intense focus he’d applied all morning seemed to have evaporated momentarily after the blow.

What happened on the next delivery sums up the maidan-hewn genius of Sarfaraz that sniffs out run-scoring opportunities from the slightest of openings. There wasn’t much wrong with the short-of-a-length delivery; it was not too far outside off, it just about held its line. There was enough protection in place. Deep point was some yards in from the boundary, and third man was right on the edge of the rope. Sarfaraz played one of those innocuous-looking punchy dabs; the placement was right between those two men, and the timing was so good it teased both fielders before bursting through to the rope.

Mumbai were seven down by then and had still not reached 300. As he has been so often over the previous Ranji season and this one, Sarfaraz was Mumbai’s only hope. When he became the last wicket to fall, holing out off Yadav for 134 off 243 balls, he had dragged Mumbai from 228 for 5 to 374 on the second day of the Ranji Trophy final against Madhya Pradesh.

Sarfaraz had gone to stumps on the first day on 40 off 125. Despite the watchful start on the second morning against the second new ball and wickets falling at the other end, he still took 94 off 118. The last four batsmen with whom he formed partnerships tallied a combined 29.

He had avoided playing the sweep on day one with MP packing the leg-side field, and largely stayed away from it on Thursday too. But when he did play the shot, against left-arm spinner Kumar Kartickeya, he left deep backward square leg, square leg and deepish midwicket watching the ball.

Meanwhile, the MP seamers were still making the ball curl around beautifully on another overcast morning. Yadav bowled Tanush Kotian with what was a seamer’s leg-break, it deviated so much against the incoming angle. MP had played only four frontline bowlers and Yadav and Anubhav Agarwal, the two specialist pacers, ran in with no dip in effort for nearly 65 overs between them, and picked up seven wickets between them. They swung and seamed the ball both ways throughout, presenting a masterclass in stepping up on the big occasion. Anubhav earned Sarfaraz’s outside edge with a lovely, curving outswinger but it flew between ‘keeper and first slip.

Playing the situation

Sarfaraz had packed away the characteristic cheekiness all along, but seeing that he was running out of partners, he started taking some risks. He got down on his knee, offered his helmet to the advancing delivery and scooped Agarwal right over the ‘keeper to enter the 90s. He’d try the shot at least three times more, but without success.

MP had sensed the shift in Sarfaraz’s mood and had started increasing the number of boundary riders. With five of them waiting, Sarfaraz charged Kartickeya and bashed him over his head for four to bring up his fourth hundred of the season.

By now, MP had given up trying to get Sarfaraz out. The boundary riders went on increasing, from five to six to seven. Sarfaraz calmly slog-swept Kartickeya for six over them. He could have manipulated the field and the strike longer had No. 10 Tushar Deshpande not thrown away his wicket, causing Sarfaraz to furiously signal that he should have batted sensibly instead of having a go. Still, Mumbai kept MP on the field for 127.4 overs and were riding on Sarfaraz’s momentum when they came out to field.

That was to dissipate in the face of some solid defending and leaving from MP openers Yash Dubey and Himanshu Mantri. Despite the skies continuing to remain cloudy, Dhawal Kulkarni wasn’t able to generate as much movement and bite off the surface as the MP seamers had. Deshpande’s natural length is anyway just short of good, which makes him easier to defend against if the surface is slowish, like this one is.

Mumbai had an extra pacer, Mohit Avasthi, and he looked the sharpest, getting the ball to cut back in from outside off and also straightening it in the channel to keep the batsmen on their toes. Avasthi gave away just 11 runs from his seven overs, but was unable to break through.

Mumbai tried their vocal best to distract the MP batsmen but they didn’t make a mistake and Mumbai did not have the threat to force one. Shams Mulani was thumped for successive sixes by Mantri and was otherwise knocked around easily.

While Dubey was battling it out, Shubham Sharma walked in at No. 3 and took the attack to Mumbai, slashing and driving hard for boundaries. Off-spinner Kotian was given just two overs but he did manage to get some bounce at the end of the day.

MP still need another 252 runs to take the first-innings lead and this match could yet have a result over five days, but this start will have left Mumbai worried. Thanks to Sarfaraz, though, they still have plenty of cushion to try and make things happen on the third day. For that, as Sarfaraz said, they will have to be more disciplined than they were on the second afternoon.

Brief scores: Mumbai 374 (Sarfaraz Khan 134, Jaiswal 78; Gaurav Yadav 4/106, Anubhav Agarwal 3/81) lead Madhya Pradesh 123/1 by 251 runs

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