Bangar and Yadav give Railways the edge
Three obdurate half-centuries put Railways on top but a controlled spell of seam bowling helped Punjab claw their way back in an engrossing opening day of the Ranji Trophy final at Mohali. Pankaj Dharmani might have rued his decision to field first around tea time but Vineet Sharma's incisive spell in the third sesssion, on a day when he picked up his 100th Ranji Trophy wicket, kept Punjab afloat in the attritional contest.
Sanjay Bangar and Jai Prakash Yadav, both pivotal in Railways' remarkable turnaround from relegation contenders to finalists, consolidated a rapid start and defied the Punjab medium pacers for three hours. Bangar overcame the initial seam movement, two perilously close lbw appeals and a few edgy moments before settling down into a dogged mode.
Both made sure that the loose balls weren't spared and neither attempted anything fancy. Yadav had moments of uncertainty in the 40s and was even dropped by the wicketkeeper, Dharmani, when he edged VRV Singh, who was in the midst of a fiery spell. But the spinners, bowling at the other end, couldn't exert any sort of pressure and Yadav cashed in on some half-volleys and half-trackers.
At the other end Bangar was entering his grinding zone. It wasn't anywhere as monastic, and nowhere as demanding, as Headingly 2002, but the Punjab seam attack has consistently run through sides after sending them in and Bangar ensured against any such collapse.
The day had begun with a flurry of boundaries as Amit Pagnis, who had made a superb 98 not out in the semi-final, capitalised on the full length that the bowlers employed while trying to extract maximum swing, and the score had surged to 60 for no loss after just 12 overs. It was the sort of innings that could be used as a template for advertising domestic cricket - greentop, bowlers attacking and a batsman counterattacking - but precisely 10 spectators were present to enjoy the thrill. After surviving several confident lbw appeals, Pagnis was undone by Sharma's cutter, as he tentatively pushed at a good-length ball and was rapped on the pads in front of off stump. Sharma's 100 wickets had come in 25 Ranji trophy games. Tejinder Pal Singh swished, missed and finally nicked one outside off, but in Jai Prakash Yadav, Bangar found an ally with a similar mindset.
Either side of the tea break, Sharma triggered the Punjab fightback with both wickets - Yadav was rooted to the crease as an incutter crashed into his stumps, while Bangar was at the receiving end of a sensational catch at second slip. Raja Ali helped gather some impetus with a fluent 50, but Punjab hung in there with one more wicket at the other end. VRV Singh, who cranked up some disconcerting pace in a few spells, was finally rewarded as Yere Goud was late in coming down on one that came in.
While Punjab had frittered away the advantage at the toss, Railways hadn't managed to build on their dominance. The absorbing contest between bat and ball deserved more than 50 people in attendance.
Pagnis lbw b Sharma 40 (60 for 1) Not fully forward to a good-length ball. Rapped on the pads and adjudged lbw.
Tejinder Pal c Dharmani b Sodhi 11 (77 for 2) Flashed at a wide one and snicked to the wicketkeeper.
Yadav b Sharma 63 (200 for 3) Rooted to the crease and misread an incutter that crashed into his stumps.
Bangar c Sawal b Sharma 79 (213 for 4) Tried to cut a wide one but only managed to edge it to the right of second slip where Sandeep Sawal pulled off a fantastic one-handed catch.
Goud lbw VRV Singh 15 (269 for 5) Rapped on the pads as he missed one that came in.
Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is on the staff of Cricinfo.