Bhatia's five-for restricts Kerala
Himachal Pradesh 164 for 5 (Bipul 53) trail Kerala 214 (Manoharan 71, Jagadeesh 56, Bhatia 5-63) by 50 runs
Vishal Bhatia, the left-arm spinner, took a five-wicket haul to restrict Kerala to a small total before Bipul Sharma struck a spirited half-century to help Himachal Pradesh score some vital psychological points at the end of an eventful first day in Kannur. Although Himachal still trail by 50 with five wickets down, they would believe they now hold the edge on a tailor-made pitch for the spinners.
With just one win in four matches before this game, Kerala were desperate for an outright victory and prepared a pitch their spinners, their strongest suit in bowling. Keeping that in mind, they even picked three spinners and a solitary fast bowler in Prashant Parameswaran.
Sachin Baby, the Kerala captain, opted to bat but the decision appeared to backfire at 136 for 6. Only the opener VA Jagadeesh showed the patience to stay at the wicket even as he saw men arrive and leave with a mindset as if they were attending a wedding reception.
Nikhilesh Surendran was caught at short square leg, expertly placed by the captain Rishi Dhawan slightly in front, off his own bowling. Debutant Sachin Mohan's push against Bhatia was picked by Prashant Chopra, who dived brilliantly to pluck a low catch at square leg. Mohan stood there refusing to believe it was a clean catch and had to be forced out by the umpire.
But the best example of impatience was shown by Sanju Samson, the 19-year-old who is being heralded as the next big thing from Kerala. Samson had scored two centuries in his first two matches this season including a double ton against Assam. Embarrassingly for him, he recorded a second duck in two innings when he gave a return catch to Bhatia, who had picked up two wickets in the space of three deliveries. Bhatia repeated that later in the afternoon to pick his tenth five-wicket haul in his first first-class match in two years, and on his 32nd birthday.
Luckily for Kerala, half-centuries from Jagadeesh and Vinoop Manoharan avoided a complete freefall and took the hosts past the 200-mark.
Padmanabhan Prashant, the left-arm spinner who shared the new ball with Parameswaran, revealed the turning nature of the pitch as soon as he came on to bowl. In his second over, he lured Sangram Singh forward as the ball turned away after pitching and took the outside edge to slip.
Although Chopra, the other Himachal opener, counterattacked by charging Prashant for three boundaries including a six, he failed to show patience. Prashant understood that Chopra was taking advantage of his pace and fuller length. So he pushed his length back, and gave the ball some flight. Chopra jumped out of his crease again but could not reach the pitch of the ball and the weakly-timed drive went straight to Baby at silly mid-off.
Despite having seen some of the Kerala batsmen pay the price for playing loose strokes, Paras Dogra committed the same fatal error. A thick outside edge that beat Samson in the slips had raced to the third-man boundary. Parameswaran, the bowler, let out a sigh of disgust. However, off the final delivery in the same over, Dogra stepped out and swished wildly at a short and wide delivery and edged to the wicketkeeper Surendran.
Himachal had a lucky escape when Bipul, on 15, mistimed a lofted shot off Manoharan and was dropped by Prashant at point. Abhinav Bali hit consecutive sixes, a loft followed by a slog sweep over deep midwicket, off Manohoran to help Himachal recover lost ground. Two more straight sixes from Bali, one against CP Shahid and another against Manoharan, helped Himachal cross the 100-mark and put the pressure back on Kerala.
The pair's aggression even forced Kerala Cricket Association president TC Mathew to send instructions to the spinners to slow their pace and focus on flight. Mathew's frustration was understandable and he finally had a small laugh before stumps. Bipul had stepped out to hit a straight six against Shahid, Kerala's third spinner, off the second ball of the final over of the day. Three balls later, Shahid's flighted delivery on the off stump dipped into Bipul who attempted a defensive push, but the edge flew straight to Robert Fernandes at silly point.
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo