Raina steers India Blue to victory
Complementing Suresh Raina's composed 92 with an impressive performance in the field, India Blue sneaked home to a 12-run win in the opening match of the Challenger Trophy at Motera. Raina helped his side overcome a poor start, when they had stumbled to 41 for 4 in swinging conditions, and the fighting target proved enough eventually, with their bowlers overcoming the problems posed by the evening dew.
The Reds were guilty of losing wickets at crucial junctures, just when solid partnerships were beginning to take shape. Legspinner Amit Mishra slipped in the googlies and foxed Virat Kohli and S Badrinath, the well-set batsmen, to wrest the initiative. A late-charge from Praveen Kumar and Mahesh Rawat, adding 62 in just under 10 overs, provided Reds with hope but their dismissals in quick succession effectively put an end to the contest.
It was a revival of sorts from Blues after struggling early on. Not much went their way early on after Virender Sehwag won the toss and surprisingly, with all the talk of evening dew, chose to bat The top-order slide, which began with the first ball of the match, was orchestrated by seamer Kumar, whose alarming inswing caught the Blues off guard on a pitch which required the batsmen to gauge the bounce and movement before launching a boundary assault.
Ajinkya Rahane, riding on a crest after his dream debut season for Mumbai, was literally brought down to his knees as the ball darted in off the air, clipped the pads and flattened the off stump. Both Kumar and Ishant Sharma applied the pressure early on by bowling to their strengths. Sehwag's short stint was scratchy at best and Dinesh Karthik, under pressure to keep his place in the Indian one-day squad, was back in the hutch for a first-ball duck, playing across the line to a ball that shaped in.
At 41 for 4, Blues turned to Raina to lend some stability to the innings. Effortless cover drives combined with deft cuts square of the wicket, shots manufactured even without the luxury of width. Using supple wrists, Raina turned several deliveries from outside the off stump and picked the gaps on the leg side. Along with local boy Niraj Patel, Raina staged a quick recovery and Reds, who held the upper hand for a sizeable passage of play before the halfway stage, gradually felt the heat. Raina's knock was largely risk-free, and even his chip shots over the infield landed safely.
The fall of Niraj's wicket, caught at midwicket while trying to loft over the infield, didn't deter Raina, who carried on the charge by carting the spin duo of Pragyan Ojha and S Badrinath for huge sixes. Joginder Sharma played the supporting act in a stand of 49, a period when the ball stopped doing much in the air. With Raina still around, the Blues looked good to post a score of over 250. However, a pull off Trivedi, probably timed too well for his own good, signalled an end to his innings as Kohli pulled off a sharp catch just inches off the ground at the deep midwicket boundary.
Amit Mishra and Ramesh Powar- who scored a breezy 21 off 13 balls - pushed the scoring towards the end, and the sloppy fielding in the outfield by the Reds turned to be an added bonus. The Blues didn't let up with the ball. It didn't take too long for them to strike with Gautam Gambhir paying the price for attempting a cheeky single in the first over. Gambhir was quick on his feet as he pushed the ball to mid-on, but Sehwag was a notch quicker as he gathered the ball and threw down the middle stump at the non-striker's end.
The chase stalled in the early overs with Ranadeb Bose and Joginder maintaining a immaculate line outside off. Kaif broke the shackles in the fifth over when he dispatched two half-volleys off Bose through the off side. He then settled into Vijaykumar Yo Mahesh's lively pace with sweetly-timed strokes down leg and past mid-off. Kohli, the promising Delhi batsman, settled in quickly and the pair kept the chase on track.
However, their dismissals - Kaif caught brilliantly by Swapnil Asnodkar at midwicket - revived the Blues. Badrinath carried on the fight, showing plenty of urgency in rotating the strike with 21 singles in his 41 but his departure, unable to read a Mishra googly, disturbed the momentum of the innings.
As the asking-rate increased, Rawat and Praveen Kumar revived Red's hopes with a brisk half-century stand. But it was a case of too little too late. Kumar perished for 37, holing out to long-on, and Rawat, three short of his fifty, flicked the ball onto his stumps while attempting an adventurous scoop over fine leg. Joginder rounded off an impressive evening with three wickets, and the Blues vindicated Sehwag's decision to bat first.
Kanishkaa Balachandran is an editorial assistant at Cricinfo