Railways steal the advantage
An inspirational hundred by Pankaj Dharmani, at a time when Punjab appeared out for the count, put the game back on an even keel but Railways regained their advantage at the end of the day through a blistering counterattack. In a magnificent display of risk management, Dharmani shepherded the tail to near-perfection, eked out runs through deft angles and whittled away the deficit to only 46. But Jai Prakash Yadav, who shone with the ball earlier in the day, pounded a thrill-a-minute 64, with seven fours and two sixes, and helped Railways regain their grasp.
With Yadav, nobody knows what to expect and though nowhere in the same class, he is Railways' own version of Keith Miller in physical form at least: shoulder-length hair, french breard, dazzling tattoo on his right arm, running in from five steps and digging in a bouncer, steaming in from 15 steps and floating a slower ball and batting with carefree abandon. If his dogged effort in the first-innings neutralised Punjab's advantage at the toss, his attacking burst today partly nullified their lower-order resistance. Walking in at 31 for 2 with Punjab's bowlers tightening the noose he punched, sliced and blasted through the tension within a span of half an hour. Speed was met with power, spin with dynamite and the rest with cheeky pushes, fine glides and rustic swats. Sanjay Bangar was almost invisible at the other end and Punjab walked off the field yet again wondering how fightback after fightback was continuously thwarted.
Dharmani, though, had engineered a great turnaround and just like he had done in the semi-finals at Mumbai defied determined bowlers and massive odds as Punjab wriggled out of a perilous position. Yadav's two quick wickets at the start of the day - Muneesh Sharma beaten by an indipper and Sandeep Sawal nicking to the wicketkeeper - had put Railways within touching distance of the title, 181 runs ahead and one end opened up. But the two Singhs - Gagandeep and VRV - showed tremendous gumption while interspersing dead-bat defence with dead-straight pushes and helped Dharmani prosper at the other end.
It was the Dharmani-Gagandeep firm that had inched Punjab past Mumbai's daunting target two weeks back and both made sure they didn't withdraw into a shell. Though the scoring-rate dipped, they were always on the look-out for run-scoring opportunities and Dharmani placed tremendous faith in Gagandeep's, as well as the rest's, batting ability. Railways' bowling gradually lost its venom and barring Yadav's unpredictable all-sorts the batsmen were rarely hassled. Gagandeep's wicket soon after lunch, bowled by Yadav's deceptive faster pace, triggered a mini-collapse but VRV Singh surprised everyone with his stubborn ways.
At the other end Dharmani picked the right deliveries to get after the spinners and inched towards his 18th Ranji hundred with some canny rotation of strike. He brought up the landmark with a gorgeous straight drive and maintained his follow-through position for close to ten seconds. He probably thought of the Ranji final in 1993, his debut game, when Punjab triumphed for the first and only time in the tournament. He probably felt that Punjab had done enough to aim for one more. If he did, he probably didn't take into consideration a maverick called Jai Prakash Yadav.
Muneesh lbw b JP Yadav 18 (174 for 5) Beaten by an indipper as he was rooted to the crease.
Sawal c Wankhede b JP Yadav 0 (174 for 6) Driving at one outside off stump and nicked a simple catch
Gagandeep b JP Yadav 17 (242 for 7) Missed one that came in after pitching.
Vineet c Madan b JP Yadav 10 (258 for 8) Attempted to loft one over mid-on managed only elevation and no distance.
Rajesh b Harvinder 0 (258 for 9) Beaten for pace and failed to come down on a straight one.
Dharmani b JP Yadav (309 all out) Under-edged on to his stumps while trying to pull a short ball.
Amit Pagnis lbw b Gagandeep 0 (0 for 1) Beaten by the late inswing and was declared out for a golden duck.
Khanolkar run out (Ricky) 3 (31 for 2) Involved in a misunderstanding with Bangar and was beaten by Ricky's direct hit at the non-striker's end.
Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is on the staff of Cricinfo.