Dravid and Laxman guide Rest of India to three-wicket win
That special feeling: Sourav Ganguly celebrates after hitting the winning runs © AFP
Rest of India almost botched up what seemed to be a comfortable run-chase, but held their nerve to eke out a three-wicket win in the Irani Trophy match at Chennai, with a day to spare. A fourth-innings target of 340 was expected to be a tall order - especially on a pitch where no team had topped 300 in three innings, but a Rahul Dravid masterclass of 121, and a delightful, stroke-filled 99 from VVS Laxman, ensured that Rest of India were comfortably placed through most of the day.
Through the first two sessions, Rest of India lost just one wicket, that of L Balaji, the nightwatchman, for a doughty 26. With Dravid and Laxman getting increasingly authoritative in the midst of their 168-run partnership, the Mumbai attack began to wilt, with leg-stump half-volleys being served with monotonous regularity after tea.
Then, Laxman prodded at Sairaj Bahutule and was snaffled by Vinayak Mane at silly point just one short of a hundred (291 for 4), and Rest of India suddenly - and quite inexplicably - lost their way. Bahutule, who had until then been the most innocuous of Mumbai's bowlers, struck again, forcing Dravid to inside-edge onto his pads. Vinayak Samant dived in front of the stumps to take a smart catch, and Mumbai sniffed a comeback. Yuvraj Singh slammed a cover-drive off Ramesh Powar, then rushed down the pitch for more heroics, but only managed a leading edge to Ajit Agarkar at point. And when Parthiv Patel gloved a lifter to Mane at short leg off Bahutule (312 for 7), Rest of India had lost four wickets for 21 runs, and were still 28 away from victory.
However, Ganguly and Kumble stemmed the rot, mixing dogged defence with a few bold strokes. Kumble drove Bahutule down the ground, while Ganguly rocked back and pulled Powar to the midwicket fence, before slamming a full-toss to the same region to get the winning runs.
Earlier, Dravid put forth yet another utterly compelling batting display, much like many of the innings he has played for India over the last couple of years. He was secure in defence, always getting in line and presenting the full face of the bat, and latched on anything off target. Sachin Tendulkar tried all the tricks in the bag - Nishit Shetty bowled a few overs of left-arm spin, while Tendulkar bowled both legspin and seamers - but nothing could budge Dravid. Powar, who had dismissed Dravid in the first innings, was dispatched for two sixes over wide long-on early in the piece to set the tone.
Dravid's resistance was entirely expected, but Balaji was a revelation. Though he did play and miss a few times against the seamers in the morning, he remained unruffled, studiously letting balls go outside off and defending resolutely at anything directed at the stumps. Frustrated by their lack of success, both Ajit Agarkar and Aavishkar Salvi banged in plenty of short balls, but Balaji simply dropped his wrists and swayed out of the way. Balaji was finally nailed on the sweep shot by Powar, but that only set the scene for Dravid and Laxman to take centrestage.
Laxman had had a horror match so far, scoring 5 off 53 balls in the first innings, and then dropping a clanger off Tendulkar on the third day. Today, he redeemed himself, stroking the ball fluently on both sides of the wicket. He started off slightly tentatively, slashing one over the slips for four off Agarkar, but soon settled into his groove. Bahutule's round-the-wicket, into-the-rough bowling was handled with excellent footwork, as Laxman either flicked it to leg or made room to drive through extra-cover. And when Powar was brought back shortly before tea, both Dravid and Laxman dealt almost exclusively in boundaries: Laxman stroked a couple of full-tosses for fours, then took a single and watched as Dravid struck two magnificent sixes, one over wide long-on and the other over the bowler's head. Twenty-one came off that over, and the contest seemed settled. Then came the rush of nerves, and the mini-drama.