Services face daunting task on sixth day
Services 164 for 3 (Swain 64*, Sharma 43*) trail Mumbai 454 for 8 dec (Agarkar 145, Tare 120) by 290 runs
The Services Ranji Trophy team may not be familiar with a World War I ditty called It's a Long Way to Tipperary. They would be well aware though that the road to the Ranji Trophy final is equally distant, with the semi-final having turned into a first-innings shootout against Mumbai. At stumps, in pursuit of Mumbai's total of 454 for 8, Services were 164 for 3 with captain Soumya Swain batting on 64 and Yashpal Singh on 43. Their unbeaten fourth-wicket stand of 92 has given Services the most alluring of sniffs at pulling off, for the second match in a row, one of the biggest upsets in Ranji Trophy history.
This rain-interrupted and wet-pitch dominated match will now go into its sixth day on Monday to allow both teams to complete their first innings. Services need 291 runs more to get past Mumbai's first innings score total, and Mumbai need seven wickets.
On Sunday, the entire morning session was again lost due to the effects of the hailstorm and unexpected showers of two nights ago. The covers over the match pitch had been blown away and the track had to face the brunt of a downpour in the early hours of Saturday morning. Then, even after being baked in golden winter sunshine all of Saturday, there was more waiting to be done on Sunday morning. Thanks to early morning cloud cover and poor light, the moisture on the track had not dried up enough to get play started on time.
Mumbai had made its intentions clear when play finally began at 12.10 pm. Facing the first ball of the day, Agarkar spanked a four off Shadab Nazar over midwicket and then, in Nishan Singh's next over, hit the bowler for a six down the ground. Seventy-two overs had been scheduled for the day and the Mumbai batsmen didn't want to use up too many of them. Thanks to a late dash from Dhawal Kulkarni, Mumbai crossed 450 scoring 74 runs in nine overs before the declaration came 41 minutes into the second session.
Services tried to mix up their bowlers and spread the field, but Mumbai were on the move. Kulkarni scored 20 off 12 balls, playing straight but hitting long. His innings included a six and a four off left-arm spinner Avishek Sinha, who was brought on in the fourth over after Nishan Singh went for 13 runs. The change made no difference to Mumbai and Sinha was hit for 23 off three overs in the morning.
Mumbai stamped their presence all over the match when they reduced Services to 22 for 2 in the 14th over. Mumbai's attack against Services was led by Dhawal Kulkarni, who used length and pace to cramp their openers and dry up the runs. At one stage, Services went 46 balls without scoring as Kulkarni gave Pratik Desai a working over, bowling a line that turned him square, produced two lbw appeals and then hit him on the leg. After ten overs of scratching around by the Services openers, Kulkarni had Nakul Verma trapped leg before, trying to work one onto the onside. The introduction of the left-arm spin of Ankeet Chavan at the other end ended Desai's laborious 73 minutes at the crease, the latter yorking himself and Services sliding to 22 for 2.
It took two 50-plus partnerships for the third and fourth wickets to give the Services batting its oxygen. Swain was involved in both, first with Anshul Gupta (for 50 runs) and then with Yashpal Singh.
After scoring an unbeaten 118 against Himachal Pradesh in the second match of the season, Swain had largely struggled. His highest score between that match and the semi-final was 33. In Palam today, however, he was like all left-hand batsmen - stylish in strife, batting with a fluid grace and timing. Barring a few anxious end overs, as the light began to drop and the slowness of the clock began to wear his concentration down, Swain endured. An edge off Ajit Agarkar's bowling fell short of Wasim Jaffer at second slip and Shardul Thakur beat him several times.
Yashpal was just the hardy companion Swain needed, as the two men were watched by their team-mates sitting in the plastic chairs around the boundary. A man stood near the scorer, shouting out totals and scores.
The odds, however, are still against a Services upset. After a first day in which they lost six first-innings wickets for 169, Mumbai have played like the much stronger team they are reputed to be. A seventh-wicket partnership of 246 runs between captain Agarkar and Aditya Tare took Mumbai to more than respectability. On day five, they were able to press the pedal half-way to maximum.
The weather tomorrow promises to be good, the track has dried up and the sixth day's play is suddenly full of possibilities.
Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo