India A sneak a dramatic win
Blistering cameos from the lower-order batsmen scripted a dramatic comeback as India A sneaked a thrilling one-wicket win, with two balls to spare, in a high-scoring Challenger Trophy opener at Mohali. India A were down for the count when they lost Hemang Badani's wicket in the 39th over, still needing 90 more with only one specialist batsman left, but audacious hitting from Dinesh Karthik, Ramesh Powar and VRV Singh helped India A clinch it amid nerve-wracking tension.
With a target of 290, managed owing to a superb 98 from Venugopal Rao and plucky half-centuries from Yuvraj Singh and Ajit Agarkar, India A were never in control of the chase with none of the batsmen playing the anchor role. VVS Laxman's sublime touch, when he delightfully toyed with the bowling, gave them a chance but a calamitous run-out in the 30th over, just when they needed to accelerate, pegged them back.
But their depth in batting proved crucial with fearlessness from Karthik and Powar getting them close. With 75 needed off the last 10, Karthik smacked three fours and a six in the next two overs to keep India A within striking range while Powar followed him with a run-a-ball 16 that was reminiscent of his fantastic cameo against Pakistan at Rawalpindi in 2003. The revelation of the match, though, were the two Singhs, VRV and Rudra Pratap, who came together when 15 more was needed off the last 10 balls. VRV Singh, the local boy, kept the fight on with a slashed four in the penultimate over and Rudra Pratap, who had impressed with an economical spell earlier in the day, followed it up with two superb fours in the last over, including a straight-drive to seal the game and set off scenes of jubilation.
India A might not have huffed and puffed as much if one of their batsmen had played an anchor role. All got off to starts but none managed a half-century and took the lead in steering the innings under lights with the asking rate mounting constantly. Dheeraj Jadhav set the tone with an explosive start, including carting Zaheer Khan as if at a net, and Gautam Gambhir joined in the fun with some rasping cuts. But their dismissals, followed by Suresh Raina's promising innings being cut short by a close lbw decision, brought in Laxman and Hemang Badani, whose 52-run partnership kept India A afloat. Laxman showed touches of his imperious best, especially in one over from Agarkar where he caressed two consecutive fours that elicited oohs and aahs, but a mix-up threatened to ruin all the good work. Badani and Niraj Patel played their part but perished at critical moments and left India A with an uphill task. Karthik began the climb with youthful exuberance and the rest took the cue to seal a cracker.
The contest was made possible because of India Seniors posting an imposing total thanks to Rao, who was well supported in two crucial partnerships, first by Yuvraj and then by Agarkar, who applied the final flourish with a rollicking fifty. Rao entered when the Seniors were 70 for 3, with both Sachin Tendulkar and Mohammad Kaif out cheaply and the India A bowlers's disciplined attack making life difficult on a pitch which had an up-and-down nature early on. Rudra Pratap maintained a tight length, which was rewarded with Kaif's wicket, while Lakshmipathy Balaji had put an end to the most awaited return in recent times when he induced an edge from Tendulkar after he had made just 12.
Rao countered VRV Singh, who impressed with pace in his first spell, with crisp timing, while the spinners were tackled with deft placements as he and Yuvraj went about rebuilding the innings. With Yuvraj thrilling the sparse crowd with some power-laden fours, Rao unobtrusively accumulated at the other end and the duo, with a 79-run stand, put the innings back on course. Yuvraj holed out after reaching a fine half-century and that triggered another minor collapse with three wickets falling for just 23 runs. Agarkar, though, ensured a majestic finish with a sparkling array of lofted drives, one of which was a massive six over long-on. He applied the final touches along with Rao, in a thrilling 105-run partnership as the two carted the bowling to all parts.
Rao fed off Agarkar's aggressive methods and raced along with shots hit with love rather than anger. There was rarely any slogging involved as orthodox drives and chips beat the fielders in the midwicket region. He fell two short of a well-deserved century, attempting a lofted heave off Rudra Pratap, and in his 99-ball 98 showed that he could drop anchor as well as attack when the slog overs approached.
At that stage little would he, or anyone have imagined that Rudra Pratap would return to swing his bat in the climactic moments and dance under the glittering lights.
Sachin Tendulkar c Karthik b Balaji 12 (26 for 1)
Tries to push through the covers but beaten by slight seam movement
Mohammad Kaif c Gambhir b Rudra Pratap 7 (54 for 2)
Flicks a leg-side ball straight to square leg
Irfan Pathan b VRV Singh 28 (69 for 3)
Beaten for pace as the ball jagged back in
Yuvraj Singh c Niraj b Powar 50 (149 for 4)
Holed out while sweeping
Mahendra Singh Dhoni c Badani b Powar 9 (170 for 5)
Swept in the air to short fine leg
Jai Prakash Yadav run out (Powar) 1 (172 for 6)
Beaten by the bowler's sharp reflexes as he back-flicked it onto the stumps
Venugopal Rao b Rudra Pratap 98 (277 for 7)
Misses a straight one while going for a big shot
Harbhajan Singh c Raina b Balaji 4 (282 for 8)
Out to a brilliant catch at deep square leg
Dheeraj Jadhav b Zaheer 23 (43 for 1)
Missed one that angled in
Gautam Gambhir c Yadav b Pathan 21 (45 for 2)
Slashed in the air to third man
Suresh Raina lbw b Agarkar 19 (82 for 3)
Missed one that angled in
VVS Laxman run out (Dhoni/Harbhajan) 48 (148 for 4)
Hesitated over a quick single after pushing to cover
Hemang Badani b Harbhajan 46 (200 for 5)
Missed an offbreak while trying to sweep
Dinesh Karthik c Dhoni b Pathan 26 (234 for 6)
Tickles to the wicketkeeper while trying to carve over the slip region
Niraj Patal run out (Yuvraj) 37 (234 for 7)
Beaten by a sharp throw after being sent back by Powar
Lakshmipathy Balaji lbw b Kartik 3 (242 for 8)
Trapped in front while trying to sweep
Ramesh Powar c Vidyut b Pathan 16 (275 for 9)
Paddled one straight to square leg
Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is staff writer of Cricinfo