South ease into semi-finals after draw
South Zone 329 (Karthik 153, M Suresh 58, U Yadav 5-76) and 377 (Dravid 118, Karthik 103, Pankaj 5-90) drew with Central Zone 326 (Ojha 85, Kaif 73) and 255 for 9 (Kaif 87, M Suresh 6-84)
Legspinner M Suresh took six Central Zone wickets during an extended spell to seal South Zone's berth in the semi-finals of the Duleep Trophy. Central were faced with the ardous task of scoring 381 in 77 overs and the aggressive approach of their batsmen allowed Suresh to make regular breakthroughs. Central captain Mohammad Kaif made his second half-century of the match and was the last man out as the game ended in a draw with his team on 255 for 9.
The match ended on a slightly sour note after the two captains agreed to call it off after the fall of the ninth wicket, that of Kaif, even though there were nine overs to go. There are no points to be carried forward in this knock-out tournament, and South progressed on the basis of their first-innings lead, but it was disappointing to see them not press for an outright win.
Earlier in the day, Central's openers had laid a solid launch pad to challenge the target. Tanmay Srivastava started the chase with a boundary off the first ball, and Central were hardly troubled as they progressed to 71 for 0 after 21 overs. Srivastava was the aggressor and he repeatedly cut the offspinner R Ashwin to set the tempo.
Suresh was brought into the attack to try and break the partnership and he succeeded with his first ball, Srivastava chipping it back to the bowler. Yere Goud, usually a dour batsman, started aggressively with a straight drive to the boundary, but was caught at mid-on when he tried to repeat the shot, giving Suresh his second wicket. Shivakant Shukla was Suresh's next victim; the ball pitched wide outside off and hurried straight through, and Shukla's attempted glide went to Rahul Dravid at first slip.
Central slid to 98 for 3, and with Parvinder Singh taking 14 balls to get off the mark, South's hold on the game tightened. At the other end, Kaif was engaged in a duel with Sreesanth that had the hundred-odd faithful fans, who turned up, at their most vocal.
Kaif counterattacked with a clutch of delightful drives, dashing to 23 off 20, but there were also several close shaves. One outside edge proved too hard for Uthappa to hang on to second slip, and Kaif was also beaten several times by the outswing. Sreesanth was at his pantomime-villain best, glowering at Kaif after several of the boundaries.
Parvinder soon shrugged off his slow start with some slogs to the midwicket boundary off Suresh. He and Kaif were at ease against the spinners, alternating between easy singles down the ground and heaves over the infield. Central moved from 100 to 150 in 69 balls, the quickest fifty of their innings, and the chase looked back on track when Parvinder pounded a four to mid-on off Suresh and then stepped out to blast the ball over the sightscreen.
Suresh was unfazed by the battering, and dismissed Parvinder next ball. The batsman stayed on the backfoot to a length ball and the cut resulted in a catch for the wicketkeeper. Naman Ojha, perhaps Central's most belligerent batsman, was lucky to survive when L Balaji completely misjudged a swirler at mid-on. Suresh was dismayed but Ojha was gone later in the over when a huge turner caught the edge through to the keeper.
Kaif kept fighting, slamming three consecutive boundaries off Suresh, but at the other end Bhuvaneshwar Kumar was scratching around for a 36-ball 7. Bhuvaneshwar finally bottom-edged to first slip and Suresh finished his 20-over spell with figures of 6 for 84, his best first-class performance. At 184 for 6, Central's chase was effectively over.
Central would have been shut out of the game much earlier in the day had it not been for Pankaj Singh's blistering spell in the morning. Bowling with the same verve that was on display early on the third day, he had the in-form Karthik dismissed off the second ball. Pankaj also picked up the last two wickets and ensured that South used up only 11 overs. Despite Pankaj's efforts at limiting the target, it still proved too hard for Central's batsmen.
Siddarth Ravindran is a sub-editor at Cricinfo