Shukla fifty leaves match tantalisingly poised
Dubious umpiring and some unintelligent bowling by the hosts left both Uttar Pradesh and Bengal hanging desperately on the edge with two more days to go in the Ranji Trophy final. At the end of the third day, when bad light stopped play an hour before regulation time with 27 overs still remaining, the match was on a knife's edge with Bengal at 349 for 8. UP require two wickets while Bengal need 39 more runs to snatch the vital first-innings lead.
It was a day that was mostly dominated by the cavalier batting of Laxmi Ratan Shukla and the attacking bowling of Piyush Chawla, the young legspinner. Shukla, who last played for India in an ODI in 1999 as a bowler, and who has now grown into an allrounder, was carrying the Bengal flag with an unbeaten 50, along with Ranadeb Bose who put a dead bat to almost everything for his 38-ball 3.
Shukla walked in when Uttar Pradesh were smelling blood. The old war horse Ashish Winston Zaidi had just removed Deep Dasgupta, the Bengal captain and centurion in the previous game, when the batsman, attempted a wild cut off an innocuous straight one outside off, only succeeded in edging to Amir Khan, the wicketkeeper. Dasgupta's 20 was well short of what his team needed from him especially after Rohan Gavaskar was sent back by umpire AV Jayaprakash in controversial circumstances at the stroke of lunch.
Till his unfortunate dismissal, Gavaskar was the batsman of the first session. After the early fall of Arindam Das, the overnight batsman who was caught at the wicket off Chawla, Kaif brought on Shalabh Shrivastava, the well-built left-arm pace bowler, who peppered Gavaskar with constant short-pitched deliveries. But Gavaskar was unruffled and counterattacked with gusto, pulling and cutting. A couple of pulls either side of square leg and a spanking cut shot off Shrivastava were the highlights of his innings. When Kaif replaced the slow cutters of Zaidi with the pace of Praveen Kumar, Gavaskar pulled him over midwicket and caressed a late-cut past point to put the pressure back on the bowler.
But Kumar hit back soon, albeit with the help of the umpire. Bowling from round the wicket and wide of the crease, Kumar got one to bend in to Gavaskar, who was slightly late into his defence, and his head fell over in the process. The ball was clearly moving down the leg side, but Jayaprakash thought otherwise.
With most of the top and middle order back in the dressing-room, Manoj Tiwary and Shukla had plenty to do, but soon after lunch they were in their stride, confidently dealing with the constant fielding changes of an increasingly impatient and desperate Kaif and handling the bowlers with ease. After unsuccessfully trying to bounce out Gavaskar in the morning, Shrivastava continued his barrage of short ones against Shukla, but the batsman was defiant even after once being rapped hard on the fingers.
With the tea break fast approaching and Uttar Pradesh getting increasingly desperate for a breakthrough, Jayaprakash committed his second blunder of the day. Getting some reverse swing with a ball which was barely 25 overs old, Kumar got one to bend into Tiwary and rapped him on the pads. The ball was sliding down leg, but once again Jayaprakash didn't hesitate to raise the finger. It was a sad end to a 50-run partnership that had looked set to give Bengal the edge at the end of the day.
New bat Saurasish Lahiri played some fluent drives but was caught at short leg to become Chawla's fourth victim, with Bengal still 58 runs away from taking the lead. Amid these edgy moments Shrivastava faltered with his line and length and struggled to bowl to his field. He still continued with the questionable tactic of trying to bounce out Shukla. With an off-side cordon which included two slips, two gullies, a cover and a mid-off, the line of attack should have been around off, but Shrivastava continually bowled from round the wicket and slid the ball down the leg side. Shukla brought up his fifty with a push towards long-off. UP had one opportunity to nail him, on 25, when Suresh Raina failed to latch on to a difficult chance at point off Kumar.
Early in the morning Kaif had erred by taking the new ball when he should probably have persisted with Chawla, who had troubled the batsmen. With two more days to go, an outright victory for either team is still a possibility, but both sides will be desperate for the first-innings lead, which could be the deciding factor in this match.
Arindam Das c Amir Khan b Piyush Chawla 60 (143 for 3)
Tried to cut a simple leg break, caught at the wicket
Shivsagar Singh b Piyush Chawla 23 (186 for 4)
Caught in two minds against a fastish Chawla turner from round the wicket, bowled.
Rohan Gavaskar lbw b Kumar 49 (204 for 5)
Trapped plumb to one that came in from Kumar.
Deep Dasgupta c Amir Khan b Zaidi 20 (252 for 6)
Went for a wild cut off Zaidi, gifts a catch to keeper Amir Khan
Manoj Tiwary lbw Kumar 43 (302 for 7)
Caught in front of stumps trying to play a forward defensive against Kumar's reverse swing
Saurashish Lahiri c Shukla b Piyush Chawla
Tried to drive, takes an edge to the short leg
Nagraj Gollapudi is Assistant Editor of Cricinfo Magazine.