Dhoni and Zaheer give ROI the edge
Mahendra Singh Dhoni's quickfire assault and a probing new-ball spell from Zaheer Khan put Rest of India in the driver's seat against Delhi in the Irani Cup. Chasing 378 for victory, Gautam Gambhir, unbeaten with a belligerent half-century, remained Delhi's strongest hope with two days left.
When Dhoni walked in at the fall of the fourth wicket, Rest of India were 227 ahead and Rahul Dravid, on 50, was in need of some support. Dhoni immediately went after the weakest link in Delhi's bowling attack: Virender Sehwag. He slog-swept and pulled him for fours before reverse-sweeping to the point boundary and stepping out to hit another in to the sightscreen. While legspinner Chetanya Nanda maintained a tight line, Sehwag's off spin lacked guile and dip.
But after lunch Dhoni attacked the other bowlers as well; clubbing Nanda for a six over the long-off boundary, reverse-sweeping Sehwag thrice to reach his fifty, hooking Ashish Nehra for four and slapping Ishant Sharma through cover. By the time he left, caught off Ishant at gully, the lead had nearly doubled.
Before his onslaught, it was Dravid who had steadily built on Rest of India's 75-run first-innings lead. Delhi had earned the first points of the day after Ishant took two wickets in three balls without conceding a run in his first five overs. He removed S Badrinath with a quick lifter that dragged on to the stumps and two balls later produced a jaffa that Mohammad Kaif edged to the keeper.
Nehra lured Dravid in to false strokes on a couple of occasions but Dravid mostly waited till the last moment before reacting. He maintained his focus throughout a near five-hour stay and only fell trying to cut a Nanda delivery that bounced more. Not a big turner, Nanda focused on the basics of flight, mixed with regular, quick legbreaks to keep the batsmen in check. Having dismissed Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh in the same over, his first spell eventually read 16-6-29-4. Later when the quicks failed to break the last-wicket pair of RP Singh and Munaf Patel, Sehwag tossed the ball to Nanda, who trapped RP with a faster legbreak.
With Aakash Chopra having sprained his ankle while fielding and uncertain to bat tomorrow, Sehwag opened with Gambhir. But his was not a long stay; Zaheer exploited his reluctance to move his feet and bowled one that cut in to catch Sehwag plumb in front. Zaheer maintained the same line for an edgy Virat Kohli, who played across the line, and was trapped in front.
Gambhir lead the fightback and was in no mood to allow the opposition to dictate terms. Munaf Patel, the second day hero, was ineffective and erratic. When he pitched one short Gambhir opened the face and dabbed to the third-man boundary. When Munaf attacked his off stump Gambhir waited and opened up at the last moment to steer it for another boundary. He negated any movement by walking down the pitch and brought his fifty up by charging and lofting Harbhajan for four over long-off.
That was Delhi's last hurrah, for Rajat Bhatia, who had till then proved a fine foil for Gambhir, tried to pull the day's last ball before but only managed to edge to Dhoni.
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at Cricinfo