Sudip, Easwaran fifties propel Bengal
Bengal 274 for 8 (S Chatterjee 96, Easwaran 65, Saha 60*, Anureet 4-75) v Railways
A 163-run stand between Sudip Chatterjee and Abhimanyu Easwaran, hailed by Bengal coach Ashok Malhotra as the "next generation" of Bengal batting, rescued the side from 3 for 2 in the third over, before a lively 41-run eighth-wicket partnership between Wriddhiman Saha and Ashoke Dinda ensured that a middle-order slump didn't wipe out the team's hard-fought advantage on the first day against Railways at Eden Gardens.
On the eve of the quarter-final, one of Bengal's achievements that Malhotra was proud to point out was the development of youngsters, something which Chatterjee and Easwaran gave ample evidence of growth.
They were brought together in the third over by Railways pacer Anureet Singh, who dismissed opener Arindam Das and Subhomoy Das off successive deliveries, after Bengal were put in to bat. Before this game, Chatterjee and Abhimanyu Easwaran had a combined first-class experience of six matches, but they showed maturity with some watchful batting which guided Bengal through a tough period of play in the first session when the Railways pacers - Anureet, Krishnakant Upadhyay and Ranjitkumar Mali - bowled six successive maidens to build on their early advantage.
Whenever the bowlers erred, however, the pair were ready. Chatterjee took advantage of any ball drifting down leg side, while Easwaran gradually played some crisp drives through the off side. The only real opportunity the pair offered, which Railways failed to capitalise, was through their running between the wickets.
The post-lunch session did not bring much relief for Railways, as the pair promptly set about dictating the flow of the game by hitting 22 runs off the first five overs. Bengal's 100 and century for the third-wicket partnership were reached quickly, but the stand would have ended much earlier had Murali Karthik held on to a tough chance off Easwaran at first slip, off the bowling of Upadhyay.
The breakthrough for Railways came via legspinner Karn Sharma, who had Easwaran caught behind for 65. An even bigger break came five overs later when Chatterjee's first loose shot in nearly four-and-a-half hours resulted in his fall for 96, four runs short of what would have been a maiden first-class ton. The left-handed batsman had been playing a balanced game and was confident against both the seamers and spinners - he smacked Murali Kartik for two fours either side of the cover fielder in the bowler's first over - but a waft outside the off stump, off Anureet's bowling, brought an end to a good innings. In a wonderful gesture, a few Railways players patted the batsman on the back as he walked off.
"They (Chatterjee and Easwaran) batted very impressively, especially Sudip who played so responsibly," Laxmi Shukla later said. "It was a treat to watch. We hope Saha and Dinda can add another 50-60 runs on the second day."
The wicket nonetheless gave Railways an opening which they exploited well, picking up another four scalps. The Railways seamers sent down nearly 50 overs and worked hard to extract some movement and bounce off the pitch late in the day. Shukla played a brisk 21-ball 17 but fell to a freakish dismissal - his pull took down Nitin Bhille at forward short leg, and the rebound was snapped up wicketkeeper Mahesh Rawat, off Kartik's bowling. Writtick Chatterjee was caught behind and was followed soon after by Saurasish Lahiri and Sourav Sarkar. From a position of strength, Bengal were suddenly 233 for 8, before Saha and Dinda stemmed the fall of wickets.
Saha, in search of form before the New Zealand tour, struck two early fours and a hit a lofted six straight over Kartik's head before settling down to play a calm 60 off 116 balls. At the other end, Dinda played some attacking shots much to the delight of the crowd, with his strokeplay even prompting Malhotra to remark in jest: "Now that Sachin has retired, we have Dinda".
The elation of having helped the team recover from potential disaster eased some of Chatterjee's disappointment at having missed his maiden century. "I was disappointed, but it's more important to help the team win," he said. "Both Abhimanyu and I set small goals for each other after we had lost those early wickets and whatever we tried, luckily worked for us. It was important to spend time at the crease, and we struggled, but the wicket got better and allowed us to play shots."
Rachna Shetty is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo