Uthappa special seals emphatic win
A sensational hundred from Robin Uthappa, filled with youthful exuberance and joyous audacity, steered India B to a thumping victory in the final league game at Mohali and took them to the final, where they will meet India Seniors tomorrow. A record third-wicket stand between VVS Laxman and Suresh Raina had set India A up, and taken them to 260, but lack of a boost in the final overs and the cracker of an innings from Uthappa left them gasping.
What do you do when you're at the top of an inexperienced batting order, chasing a daunting target under lights, in a must-win game against a varied bowling line-up? Play the innings of the tournament, of course. And how? Start steadily, build a partnership, up the rate after the fifth over, race along after the tenth, shift gear after the 15th, go berserk in the 16th, set the stadium ablaze in 17th, make it rain boundaries in the 18th, reduce the asking-rate drastically and walk off.
Whatever Uthappa had in the drinks break, after the 15th over, needs to be bottled. Until then he had made 51 off 56 balls, had shown glimpses of fearlessness and, along with Shikhar Dhawan, given India B a steady start. A flicked four off Lakshmipathy Balaji and a slapped cut of Shanbaz Nadeem, the rookie left-arm spinner, ignited the fire. Rudra Pratap Singh reappeared. Edge, drive, slash, carve. Raina appeared. Four, four, four six. Ninety seven off 76. Tewari appeared and with an air of nonchalance, Uthappa stood still, delivered a majestic straight lofted four, turned around to his dressing-room, held both hands aloft, beamed a cherubic smile, and took a bow. He was forced to leave the field owing to cramps, returned for a brief cameo and left with his side all but sure of victory. Many might have forgotten the superb 66 off 48 balls in a losing cause in the only Challenger Trophy game last season but this game will surely be remembered as Uthappa's match.
He managed with a little help from his friends. Shikhar Dhawan kick-started the chase with some classical cuts before he was unlucky to be backing up too far when a forceful drive from Uthappa ricocheted off the bowler's arm onto the stumps. And Sridharan Sriram and Dinesh Mongia added 77 in a controlled fashion, with hardly any pressure to deal with, as India B made the target look inadequate.
The total had been made possible owing to Laxman's fabulous century and Raina's power-laden 97. The openers had fallen cheaply - Dheeraj Jadhav missed an imcoming delivery in the second ball he faced while Gautam Gambhir glided one, from Sreesanth, straight into the hands of Parthiv Patel behind the stumps. Laxman, though, tended to the early wounds and carried on from where he had left off in the first game. It is tough to imagine how bowlers feel when good deliveries are tenderly brushed around with hardly any follow through, and absolutely no anger. When Laxman bats with such majestic poise, the quality of bowler, type of delivery and the situation of the match don't usually matter. Drives flowed, cuts thrilled, pushes took the breath away as Laxman seamlessly eased to his half-century, off 51 balls. The second half was less breezy as he and Raina solidified the team's position, but there was no let up on the suppleness with which he found the angles. He opened up once he reached his century, unleashing two pulls off Sreesanth but fell in the 42nd over while trying a slash over the covers.
His partner at the other end was all power. When Raina burst on to the scene two years back, a few experienced bowlers who faced his onslaught were reminded of a young Yuvraj Singh dismantling attacks. Today he capitalised on the bowlers' errant line, doling out a large share of wide deliveries, as he slashed with stinging venom. Field placements were rendered redundant with Raina finding gaps at will and packing his strokes with far too much power for anyone to have a chance. He was unlucky to miss out on his century, falling to a moment of impetuosity while trying to loft Piyush Chawla, the legspinner, over long-off, and left the rest to cash in on the momentum.
The last five overs, though, produced just 27 runs as India A partly frittered away a great chance to reach 300. But Uthappa's blitz might have made any total look paltry. Just one stat warning before the final: the last seven Challenger Trophy matches at Mohali have ended in victory for the chasing side and neither captain might want to bat first tomorrow.
Dheeraj Jadhav lbw b Bhandari 2 (2 for 1)
Missed one that swung in
Gautam Gambhir c Patel b Sreesanth 10 (30 for 2)
Edged while trying to glide one past the slip cordon
VVS Laxman c Shukla b Sreesanth 110 (217 for 3)
Slashed one straight to the cover fielder
Dinesh Karthik c Shukla b Bhandari 11 (233 for 4)
Holed out to long-off
Suresh Raina c Patel b Chawla 97 (233 for 5)
Danced down the track and skied it to the wicketkeeper
VRV Singh lbw b Chawla 0 (233 for 6)
Missed a straight one while trying to sweep
Manoj Tewari c Chawla b Bose 9 (255 for 7)
Holed out to long-on
Lakshmipathy Balaji c Uthappa b Bose 4 (260 for 8)
Attempts a pull but the top edge flies to long-on
Shikhar Dhawan run out (Tewari) 40 (148 for 1)
Backed up too far and was run-out after the ball ricochet off the bowler
Dinesh Mongia lbw b Nadeem 44 (235 for 2)
Missed a straight one while sweeping
Robin Uthappa c Jadhav b VRV Singh 116 (254 for 3)
Chipped on straight to mid-on while going for the big hit
Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is staff writer of Cricinfo