Madhya Pradesh skipper Naman Ojha (right) struck his 22nd first-class century against Railways on Monday. (Express photo by Amit Mehra)
That the selectors picked Wriddhiman Saha as the first choice wicket-keeper ahead of the 2016 season when India were scheduled to play 13 Tests at home, hardly came as a surprise. What would have pleasantly pleased the chief selector MSK Prasad was the plethora of back-up options at his disposal. Leading the list was Naman Ojha and Dinesh Karthik, followed by Sanju Samson and Rishabh Pant.
Back then, Ojha had everything going for him. He was a tidy keeper alright, but it was his fluent, free-flowing batting that caught Prasad’s eye. He was an IPL regular and made it to several India ‘A’ tours. He even made his Test debut against Sri Lanka in August 2015. Little wonder then that Ojha was earmarked as India’s No.2 stumper.
Cut to January 2020, and equations have changed dramatically. Saha remains India’s No.1 wicket-keeper batsman, miles ahead of his competitors. Karthik has fallen out of favour after his unsuccessful stint at the 2019 World Cup in England.
Pant may have been earmarked by the team management as the player for the future, but question marks still persist over his keeping and temperament as a batsman.
In the interim, Ojha has not just fallen behind in the pecking order; infact he has completely gone off the radar. These days he is no longer picked for India A tours, neither does he feature in the IPL.
Having gone unsold at the auction in December 2019 meant that the 36-year-old would have to train his attention to the Ranji Trophy. Even here, he was dealt with a blow as a back injury kept him out of the first three matches of the season.
As the Madhya Pradesh captain, Ojha made a tentative return against Railways at the Karnail Singh Stadium, and scored just five runs in the first innings. The seasoned campaigner, however, made amends for that failure as he notched up his 22nd first-class century in the second innings. His commanding 118 was the cornerstone of Madhya Pradesh’s emphatic fightback on Day 3.
Forging a 167-run fifth-wicket alliance with Yash Dubey who remained unbeaten on 79, the duo gave their team a splendid chance of going for a win on the final day. At stumps on Day 3, the visitors had not only overhauled the 120-run deficit, they also stacked up 308/5, which pushed their lead to 188 runs.
The turn of events was hardly believable, especially after the manner in which the home team held the ascendancy on the first two days. On Monday morning, the conditions looked heavily in favour of the Railways bowlers. It was overcast and windy with a perceptible winter chill and a pitch that was increasingly offering uneven bounce making batting a treacherous profession.
Increasing the tempo
Which is why Ojha’s century assumes such significance. The beauty of the knock was that he never played with a defensive mindset. His belligerence rubbed off on Dubey and Venkatesh Iyer. Together, they galloped along at an impressive 3.8 runs per over. Their positive intent took the pitch and the weather out of equation. The Railways, without their incumbent captain Karn Sharma looked bereft of ideas and inspiration.
Ojha asserted that professional setbacks and a spate of injuries have not diminished his motivation to play cricket. The 122-match first-class veteran insisted he still had a stellar role to play as the leader of this young Madhya Pradesh squad.
“I am still motivated, which is why I continue to play cricket. I still love to bat and there’s a job to be done as the captain of this team that has so many youngsters,” Ojha told The Indian Express.
It’s the retirement of their former captain and veteran middle-order batsman Devendra Bundela that has put the limelight back on Ojha once again. Bundela has taken up the role of the team’s batting coach now, but there’s little doubt that Ojha is the fulcrum of this team.
“When Bundi bhai (Bundela) was around, I could afford to just focus on my batting and keeping. That’s not the case anymore. I guess there comes a time in every player’s career, when he has to step it up and take more responsibilities,” he opined.
On a knife’s edge
Going foward, Ojha believed that his team holds the edge and with a little luck with the weather, they could enforce a win on Tuesday. “I believe we have the edge. Batting last on this pitch is not going to be easy. Infact, batting last in a Ranji game is never easy. Look what happened in the Kerala vs Punjab game. So, irrespective of the score, there’s always pressure batting last. We have a good bowling attack and Avesh (Khan) is also fresh,” he concluded.
Not long ago, Ojha was India’s No.2 wicket-keeper batsman, he was flown to Test debut in the 2015 Sri Lanka tour, before he fell off the radar. There’s no denying that even after all these years, he continues to be Madhya Pradesh’s No.1 player.
Brief Scores: Madhya Pradesh 124 and 308/5 (Naman Ojha 118, Yash Dubey 79 not out) lead Railways 244 by 188 runs.
Unadkat blows Karnataka away
Jaydev Unadkat has been on a roll this season—he took 21 wickets in his first three games of the season. He added five more—his third five-for—against Karnataka, who have spoiled many a Saurashtra party in the past. He took out the top four to leave Karnataka with little wriggle room and they stumbled to 171 in the first innings, handing them a massive lead of 410 runs on a placid wicket. The mode of dismissals furnishes a fitting account of his discipline—three of them were caught behind, one was caught by the slip, and the other clean bowled. Without Karun Nair and Mayank Agarwal, the visitors wilted, to ignite hopes of a third outright win of the season.
Brief Scores (At Rajkot): Saurashtra 581/7 dec vs Karnataka 171 (Ravikumar Samarth 63, Praveen Dubey 46; Jaydev Unadkat 5/49, Kamlesh Makvana 27/3) & 30/0..
Ashwin rescues Tamil Nadu with the bat
Ravichandran Ashwin's batting has flatlined in the last two years, but he demonstrated his willingness to grit it out adversity against Mumbai. After Tamil Nadu collapsed from 178/2 to 195/7, Ashwin waged a lone battle to prevent the tourists from running away with the match. Tamil Nadu are still 239 runs away from preventing Mumbai getting three points, but Ashwin's fightback would give them a glimmer of hope. But Tamil Nadu would rue the terrific start. Abhinav Mukund and L Suryaprakash had laid the platform with a solid 76-run opening partnership before Kaushik Gandhi and Baba Aparajith consolidated. Thereafter, they lost wickets in a flurry—Gandhi, Aparajith and Pradosh Paul departed in the space of six balls. While adding 17 more runs, they lost Indrajith and Dinesh Karthik too.
Brief Scores (At Chennai): Mumbai 488 all out in 148.4 overs (Aditya Tare 154, Shams Mulani 87, Shashank Attarde 58, Jay Bista 41; R Sai Kishore 4/125, R Ashwin 3/121) vs Tamil Nadu 249 for 7 in 121 overs (Kaushik Gandhi 60, Abhinav Mukund 58).
Saxena wrecks Punjab; Kerala get off the mark
There was an inevitability about Jalaj Saxena's 7/51 fashioning Kerala's maiden victory of the season. Since joining Kerala three years ago, the all-rounder has done everything to mould Kerala into a competitive side, often single-handedly, and has played a crucial role in each of their victories in this span. No other Kerala cricketer has picked as many wickets or scored as many runs as Saxena. No other cricketer has multi-tasked as efficiently as him. Whether it's opening the batting or taking the new ball, playing the aggressor or anchor, shepherding the lower-order or running through top-order, Saxena has been Kerala's safety valve. Yet again, he kept Kerala in the hunt for knockouts with another masterly performance. Their hopes were all but over when Punjab rolled their second innings for a meagre 136, only for Saxena to change the script. Taking the new ball, he dismissed Rohan Marwaha off the second ball, before clearing out Punjab's best batsmen, Mandeep Singh and Gurkeerat Singh Mann. A late-order fightback reignited Punjab's hopes, but Saxena doused the resistance with an unchanged spell of 23.1-1-51-7 and gifted Kerala a 21-run win, their first of the season.
Brief Scores (Trivandrum): Kerala 227 & 136 (Akshay Chandran 31; Siddharth Kaul 5/39) beat Punjab 218 & 124 (Mayank Markande 23; Jalaj Saxena 7/51) by 21 runs. Points: Kerala 6, Punjab 0.
It's Saurabh again for Uttar Pradesh
Left-arm spinner has been Uttar Pradesh's most consistent bowler in their post glory days. His efforts have gone largely unnoticed, but this could be his breakthrough season. In his last seven innings, he has taken five or more wickets on as many as five instances, he has already plucked 30 wickets and is the highest wicket-taker among elite league bowlers. On Monday, his three-wicket burst disarrayed Baroda, who had gotten off to a solid start. From a healthy 124/1, they imploded to 179/8, chasing Uttar Pradesh steep first-innings total of 431. A first-innings lead looks assured, but if Kumar can weave his magic, Uttar Pradesh could force an outright win.
Brief Scores (At Kanpur): Uttar Pradesh 431 all out in 124.2 overs (Mohd Saif 123, Upendra Yadav 100, RK Singh 62, Almas Shaukat 48; Swapnil K Singh 3/47, Anureet Singh 2/77) vs Baroda 179 for 8 in 79 overs (Aditya Waghmode 49, Vishnu Solanki 91, Saurabh Kumar 3/36).