Panchal stands tall to keep West Zone on track in Duleep Trophy final

India

West Zone 146 and 182 for 5 (Panchal 92*, Sarfaraz 48, Koushik 3-28) need another 116 runs to beat South Zone 213 and 230 (Vihari 42, Washington 37, Bhui 37, Jadeja 5-40)

Priyank Panchal is a cricket nerd, to the extent that when he was on a family holiday in Australia in the summer, he took a detour to Bowral to be able to visit the Bradman museum. Then in England last month, while on tour to the Gray-Nicolls factory – his bat sponsor – he stopped by to watch the World Test Championship [WTC] final at the Oval to soak in the experience of possibly playing in one.

Until last year, Panchal was on the fringes of the national team. He was picked as a reserve opener for the away tour of South Africa in late 2021, and then made the cut for the home series against Sri Lanka in February 2022. He could’ve been reserve opener for the fifth Test in Birmingham against England last July but missed out due to a hernia.

Panchal hasn’t been in the mix since, and it may be, at 33, that time is running out. For now, it appears as if Yashasvi Jaiswal, who has leapfrogged Panchal and Abhimanyu Easwaran among others, will get a long rope, as he should, having begun his Test career with a sparkling 171 in Dominica. Where does that leave the likes of Panchal?

Well, on the fringes but with the feeling of having hit a brick wall because when you kept churning big runs for India A, the top order was packed. And when opportunities opened up, someone else was preferred. Panchal might well feel aggrieved at the turn of events but there’s really nothing he can do, except keep churning out the runs.

On Sunday, he will have an opportunity to deliver the Duleep Trophy title for West Zone. They’ve got their backs to the wall, but Panchal has made them believe. He’s unbeaten on 92 but, on a fifth-day track showing signs of wear and tear at the M Chinnaswamy Stadium, there’s a bigger goal. South Zone need five wickets, West Zone 116 runs. And that they have those many to defend is thanks to some useful contributions from Washington Sundar and Vyshak Vijaykumar who made 37 and 23 respectively to push the total up to 230.

Panchal’s three previous innings in the season read 11, 13 and 15. With the Ranji Trophy not starting until January 2024, Panchal had one opportunity, possibly two more if he’s picked in the Rest of India squad for the Irani Cup in October, to further reinforce his credentials for an India cap. Adding to his challenge was the fact that West Zone collapsed again.

V Koushik, the Karnataka seamer, had dealt three massive blows. Prithvi Shaw was bowled, Cheteshwar Pujara played with hard hands and was caught at bat-pad and Suryakumar Yadav was superbly undone by late inswing that had him lbw. At 79 for 4, West Zone’s target of 298 seemed distant.

But Panchal held firm and was unwavering in his focus. It was old school in many ways, focusing on crease occupation and grinding the bowlers down, and then trying to cash in when they erred. The only problem was the bowlers hardly erred, and Panchal realised if he didn’t change things up he might end up bowled by a grubber. So he began to look more actively for those singles and twos and once he flicked that switch he started hitting even the good balls to the boundary.

Panchal dazzled with a series of straight drives. He went past a half-century off 128 balls, got past 8000 first-class runs but neither landmark elicited a big response. He knew there was a job to do, and irrespective of who was watching or how many there were, Panchal put his head down and carried on as if nothing was going to shake him.

At the other end, Panchal had Sarfaraz Khan for company. A batter whose exclusion from the Test side has elicited widespread debate on the value of runs in domestic cricket. Sarfaraz has done the hard yards, scored runs in different conditions and kept his form up for three full domestic seasons, but his India A record has been modest. Beyond the runs, there’s an apparent weakness against the short ball. And he received plenty of that in the final session.

Sarfaraz was even hit on the helmet once, which brought the physio out to check for concussion. Sarfaraz’s issues stem from his initial trigger movement towards leg as he tries to weave out of the way, irrespective of the bounce.

Reprieved on 2 when Sachin Baby missed a run out from cover – his underarm throw going over the wicketkeeper with the batter nowhere near the crease – Sarfaraz chanced himself against spin, sweeping Washington Sundar from the rough and slogging with the spin into the leg side.

The plan was working. The target was being whittled down, until Sarfaraz got too close to the pitch of a Sai Kishore delivery and saw his leg stump knocked back as he tried to flick against the turn. It was a massive moment in the game. Three balls later, the light meters were out and Panchal, who got into the 90s with a uppish drive over gully, breathed a sigh of relief along with Atit Sheth.

Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo

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