Spinners dominate 22-wicket day
Himachal Pradesh 174 (Prasanth 7-54) and 110 for 7 (Dhawan 33*, Manoharan 4-35) need a further 86 runs to beat Kerala 214 and 155 (Baby 43, Bipul 4-32)
The vagaries of Group C Ranji cricket: you blink and many times things happen really fast. Like on Saturday. Thirty-seven wickets fell in six sessions of play in Kannur, with the spinners bagging 21 of those. If 15 wickets fell on the first day, that count climbed to a mind-boggling 22 on the second. Himachal Pradesh were set a target of 196, but were still 86 short with only three wickets in hand, thus giving the hosts Kerala a foot in the door.
The slow bowlers dominated a tailor-made pitch for the spinners, but the track is not a dust bowl and neither has the ball stooped to a depth where batsman have had to squat to tie their boot laces. The uneven bounce has become more prominent on a fast wearing surface, but the pitch is not a minefield. You could call it tough. Sadly, for a first-class match, both the Kerala and Himachal batsmen refused to invest in patience. And that made the cricket that much more predictable.
This was always going to be a low-scoring match, but not one batsman showed the mindset to hang in for more than an hour. The most number of balls faced by a batsman was 114 by the Kerala opener VA Jagadeesh in Kerala's first innings. The highest partnership was 85 between the Himachal pair of Bipul Sharma and Abhinav Bali in their first innings.
Despite being in a relatively comfortable position at stumps last evening, Himachal failed to build on their overnight score of 164 for 5 and added only ten more. Padmanabhan Prasanth, the left-arm spinner, bagged a career-best 7 for 54 to bundle out Himachal 35 minutes into the morning.
Kerala started steadily with Sachin Mohan, on debut, giving able company to the experienced Jagadeesh. Yet, 38 for 0 became 98 for 7 by lunch in less than an hour of batting. The slide started with Mohan spooning a simple return catch to the off spinner Gurvinder Singh. Sanju Samson, returning to his customary No.3 position (he had batted at No.4 in his last two innings), avoided the ignominy of getting his third duck in a row. But with just one run under his belt he misread the length of a Gurvinder delivery, was beaten by the bounce and the edge went off the bat handle to silly point. Samson appeared to be in two minds, erroneously choosing to play the ball on the backfoot, when he could have opted for a safer forward defensive shot.
The afternoon session was enlivened by a stunning catch by Paras Dogra who sent back the Kerala captain Sachin Baby. Baby rocked back in his crease to a long hop from Bipul Sharma and unleashed a powerful pull which had a boundary written all over it. But Dogra, positioned at short midwicket, dived to his right to pluck a one-handed catch to draw a handsome applause from all around the ground.
The Kerala tail did not wag as Himachal faced 196 for victory - a target that read small in normal circumstances but challenging on a turner.
Himachal did well to not lose a wicket before tea and their openers Prashant Chopra and Ankush Bains batted like they had a plan. But like their opponents, they flattered to deceive. A positive Chopra jumped out of his crease and hit consecutive sixes against the left-arm spinner CP Shahid which took Himachal two short of the 50-mark. But Bains played a suicidal stroke, sweeping the off spinner Vinoop Manoharan to Prashant Parameswaran, who charged from deep square-leg held onto a good catch diving forward.
That wicket only triggered another collapse, and within a matter of less than 30 minutes Himachal were 60 for 6 with the last four of those falling in a space of eleven minutes. But the pair of Rishi Dhawan and Sangram Singh stalled Kerala's celebrations as they rotated the strike frequently - the first time a pair of batsmen had shown maturity and patience.
For the first time, the pace had slowed down. Not that the bad balls were spared. Towards the final hour, Dhawan stepped out to loft Shahid over deep cover for his first six, a fluent drive which was beautifully timed. It only forced Baby to push the field back, while it opened up big gaps.
But Kerala struck again. Prompted and even coaxed by their coaching staff of Chandrakant Pandit and Sujith Somasunder, the spinners were asked to maintain an off stump line and make use of the uneven bounce in the pitch. Sangram padded up to Manoharan and was trapped plumb in front.
Himachal, who are on top of Group C, need a further 86 to notch their fourth victory. Only Dhawan stands in Kerala's way.
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo