Kaif leads Uttar Pradesh to final
Uttar Pradesh 250 and 216 (Kaif 64) beat Mumbai 199 and 264 by 5 wikckets
Mohammad Kaif guided the run chase, Suresh Raina charged it with a cameo performance, and Rizwan Shamshad and Jyoti Prasad Yadav chipped in with vital contributions that saw Uttar Pradesh, having resumed the day needing 175 runs to win, achieve the target with five wickets in hand to beat Mumbai on the way to their third Ranji Trophy final.
In bitter-sweet irony the match winning shot - a square cut by the veteran Gyanendra Pandey - crashed against the Sunil Gavaskar pavilion at the Wankhede stadium. That said it all; Mumbai had been vanquished and in a manner that signalled as much Mumbai's capitulation as it exhibited UP's domination.
In a setting which screamed that it was a domestic game - a handful of spectators, the unused main scoreboard, the desperate appeals echoing around an empty stadium, the blue cylindrical plastic drum which carried the drinking water - Kaif was a man on a mission. "A great chance to probably win a Ranji trophy," he had said on the eve of the game and the onus was on him today to lead his side into the final.
He held fort at one end, spending over three hours at the crease and facing 162 balls, while steering his partners on an assured march to the target. Kaif used his feet to the spinners, driving Ramesh Powar to distraction and cutting, sweeping and tapping Nilesh Kulkarni to vacant areas on the field. "Partnerships are the key when you chase a fourth-innings target," he said at the end of the match, and in the middle he had done exactly that. A 76-run partnership for the fourth wicket with Raina, 43 with Shamshad for the fifth and 25 - that settled the nerves and killed any potential Mumbai fightback - with Yadav before falling 16 runs short of the target.
Mumbai would be left ruing the reprieve for Kaif, when he was on 17, a simple chance grassed by Vinit Indulkar. "The guys who said, `Catches win matches' are not stupid," a disgruntled Kulkarni, the Mumbai captain, said at the end of the game. While UP had hustled the Mumbai team with brilliant fielding, the hosts proved a hospitable lot. "We lost because we didn't have the overall package, we lacked the ability to deliver when it matters. Players should not be content just playing for Mumbai, they should aim higher and then the results will come," a angry Kulkarni reflected later.
"Suresh Raina is a very good player and has led us with the bat this season" - Kaif
While Kaif held firm, it was Suresh Raina who accelerated the run chase with calculated aggression in a fine breezy cameo of 44. Raina, who averages 72.40 this season with one hundred and a couple of fifties, continued with his rich vein of form, and caressed five hits to the fence and rotated the strike intelligently. The fifty of the partnership came in 45 minutes off 65 balls before Raina fell to Kulkarni at the score on 130.
"Shamshad played a vital hand at a crucial juncture" - Kaif
Shamshad entered the game at a critical phase - the 36-times champions had smelt a faint scent of blood at the fall of Raina's wicket and also due to a mini-drama that a ball-change had brought about. The `new' ball appeared to turn, spin and bounce more and an infuriated Kaif had a lengthy talk with the umpires, demanding a change which led to a brief halt in the play. Shamshad tackled the spinning cherry well - a wicket at that stage could have opened the doors to Mumbai - and he stroked his way to a valuable knock, a 33-ball 29, which tilted the chase in favour of the visitors before he fell to Powar.
With no option but to attack, Mumbai crowded the next man in Yadav, the left-hand bat, with two slips, a silly point and a forward short leg. Powar kicked one up from a good length and saw the ball beat an attempted cut from Yadav but the edge flew over slip. Yadav decided to counter-attack; he slog swept Powar to the midwicket fence and square cut Kulkarni past point. Kaif caught the Yadav spirit but not its impact as he jumped down the track to Powar but was beaten by the flight and the direction - it was a floater, drifting away from the right-hand bat, and the nick was smartly caught by Vinayak Samant who also decided to whip off the bails, just to be safe.
But by then the damage had been done by Kaif. Only 16 runs were required and Yadav and Gyanendra Pandey, a veteran of 114 first-class games, hastened the end with a dash of bravado. Pandey went down on his knees to hoick Kulkarni over midwicket while Yadav leant back and cut him to the square point fence before Pandey cut him to the cover fence to propel UP into the finals. The entire UP squad rushed to congratulate the batsmen and soak in the moment.
Kaif was to gush on the bowling effort later - "taking 20 wickets on this track was special" - and said the bowling was the biggest plus that they would take into the final. It had been a great turnaround for UP ever since Kaif took over the reins. A rough start - two straight losses, two drawn games - had left UP wallowing before Kaif joined the squad to charge them to a place in the semi-final. He was part of the 1997-98 team that beat Mumbai in the semi-final before running into Karnataka led by Rahul Dravid, who bled them with a double-century. Twenty years before that too, they had been vanquished by Karnataka in a final. Will they be third time lucky this time? On form, you have to say yes but then ...