Punjab captain Harbhajan Singh made a superb return to competitive cricket, smashing 92 off only 80 balls, to rescue his team from a precarious position against an impressive Jammu and Kashmir bowling attack on the first day of the Ranji Trophy quarter-finals.
Punjab scored a decent 304 in their first innings as Harbhajan and No 9 batsman Sandeep Sharma (51) added an invaluable 105 runs for the eighth wicket after the J&K seam trio of Samiullah Beigh (2/56), Ram Dayal (3/59) and Umar Nazir (4/66) reduced them to 146 for 7.
At stumps, J&K were 11 for 1 after opener Obaid Haroon (4) edged one from Sandeep to wicketkeeper Gitansh Khera.
Under helpful conditions, the J&K bowlers -- especially seamer Dayal -- caused a lot of discomfort for Punjab's top-order batsmen, including Yuvraj Singh (10), before the more experienced team finally wriggled out of trouble.
Coming back after a shoulder niggle that kept him out for more than six weeks, Harbhajan clobbered eight fours and six sixes in his 80-ball knock before he was out trying to slog sweep opposite number Parveez Rasool over short fine leg.
It was a duel between two offies in which Harbhajan clearly emerged as winner over his talented younger opponent.
Harbhajan punished Rasool, hitting him for five sixes in seven balls, a couple landing outside the Moti Baug ground, over the deep mid-wicket fence. Two more were hit over the sight screen while another went towards the deep end.
Rasool had a poor outing with the ball, returning figures of 64 runs in 13 overs.
The 33-year-old also hit some crisp drives on the up off medium pacer Mohammed Mudhasir (0/55) and Nazir.
When Rasool pitched it wide, he was promptly on the backfoot to cut him past the point fielder.
Harbhajan got good support from Sandeep, who played the role of second fiddle to perfection by rotating the strike.
Harbhajan scored 68 off his 92 runs in boundaries and with only 14 scoring strokes. The veteran of 101 Test matches was finally out eight short of what would have been a deserving third first-class century.
However, Punjab were in a relatively safe position at 251 for eight at that stage. Sandeep in the company of Manpreet Gony (5) and VRV Singh (9) then added 53 runs more to take them past the 300-run mark.
Sandeep faced 123 balls, hitting eight fours, and was the last batsman out, Umar Nazir cleaning him up.
Batting for nearly two-and-a-half hours helped Sandeep, as he was nicely warmed up when he came into bowl during the last four overs of the day.
Wicketkeeper-batsman Haroon got a streaky boundary but clearly looked uncomfortable as he nicked an out-swinger to Gitansh behind the stumps.
One down batsman Bandeep Singh was caught by third slip off a Manpreet Gony delivery but the umpire called 'no-ball'.
Punjab (1st innings):
Manan Vohra c Haroon b Nazir 13
Jiwanjot Singh c Haroon b Dayal 22
Ravi Inder Singh c Singh b Beigh 36
Yuvraj Singh c Bandeep b Dayal 10
Mandeep Singh c Adil Rishi b Dayal 6
Gurkeerat Singh b Nazir 41
Gitansh Khera c Mudhasir b Beigh 6
Harbhajan Singh c Adil Rishi b Rasool 92
Sandeep Sharma b Nazir 51
Manpreet Gony lbw b Nazir 5
VRV Singh not out 9
Extras: (lb-4 w-1 nb-8) 13
Total: (All out in 81.2 overs) 304
Fall of wickets: 1-26, 2-36, 3-55, 4-71, 5-121, 6-141, 7-146, 8-251, 9-273
Bowling: Samiullah Beigh 15-3-56-2, Umar Nazir 18.2-2-66-4, Ram Dayal 21-4-59-3, Mohammed Mudhasir 14-4-55-0, Parveez Rasool 13-2-64-1.
Jammu & Kashmir (1st innings):
Adil Rishi batting 3
Obaid Haroon c Khera b Sandeep Sharma 4
Bandeep Singh batting 0
Extras: (lb-1 nb-3) 4
Total: (For 1 wkt in 4 overs) 11
Fall of wickets: 1-5
Bowling: Sandeep Sharma 2-0-5-1, Manpreet Gony 2-0-5-0.
Image: Harbhajan Singh
Photograph: Krishnendu Halder/Reuters