Central Zone players upbeat after 'awesome' comeback
Central Zone came back from the brink of defeat to register the narrowest victory in terms of runs in the history of the Duleep Trophy, and clinch their sixth title. For most of the players who featured in the match, it was the most memorable game of their career.
"Definitely the most exciting match of my career," fast bowler Pankaj Singh told ESPNcricinfo after Central's nine-run win against South Zone at the Feroz Shah Kotla. "For most of the match, we were out of the game. But the manner in which we came back in the second innings was awesome."
After Central conceded a 103-run lead in the first innings, Robin Bist hit a fighting century and Ali Murtaza, the left-arm spinner who was making his Duleep Trophy debut, made a late charge to help them set South a challenging target of 301. But with the in-form KL Rahul having registered his second hundred of the match, South entered the last day needing 117 runs with nine wickets in hand.
Central had to strike early, and Pankaj did just that, getting rid of Rahul and Dinesh Karthik in the same over in an opening eight-over spell. "Pankaj bowled a terrific spell," Piyush Chawla, the Central Zone captain, said. "Good to see a fast bowler bowl like this. His two wickets in an over was an impetus."
Pankaj, in turn, gave credit to Chawla's captaincy and the spinners' tight bowling on the final day. "All the three spinners bowled excellent lines and continued to pile on the pressure," he said. "Piyush rotated the bowlers and set in-and-out fields as well, which helped a great deal."
While Pankaj's twin strikes brought Central back into the game, Chawla believed B Aparajith's wicket was the turning point. Five balls after a 49-run fourth-wicket partnership between the set Aparajith and R Prasanna was broken, he was deceived in the flight by Chawla for Namaj Ojha, the lone survivor from Central's last Duleep triumph, to effect a stumping.
"We had managed to slow them down and Aparajith's wicket meant the lower order was exposed, and we could really start putting them under the pressure," Chawla said.
The victory was timely for Chawla, as he was featuring in his 100th first-class game. "It is great to celebrate that century in such a memorable manner, that too while playing against the same team I made my debut against. No doubt it was the most exciting game of my career."
South Zone's captain, Vinay Kumar, also termed it as a "great game". He felt it was his wicket, though, that turned the match. "My wicket on the stroke of lunch turned the tide in their favour," Vinay, who batted at No. 7, told reporters in Delhi.
He said his batsmen should have shown better application. "We should have batted a lot better. Poor performance from our side. Everybody's feeling bad.
"It also teaches can't take things for granted. Having said that, credit to them. They bowled in the right areas. We all should have played a bit positively. It is also important for the lower order to contribute with the bat."
Amol Karhadkar is a correspondent at ESPNcricinfo