Teams poised for exciting finish at Eden
Railways 314 and 117 for 3 (Kartik 56) need 154 runs to beat Bengal 317 and 267 (Saha 81, Shukla 76, Anureet 5-72)
When this match is done and dusted, the players and spectators will look back on a game that had more twists than a bestselling crime novel. With Railways 117 for 3 at close on the fourth day, chasing 271, Sunday is expected to produce more drama and it will only be fitting, perhaps, if the quarterfinal between two teams, equal in every aspect, ends in a close finish.
Whatever impetus Railways have now is in large measure due to the 100-run opening stand between Murali Kartik, who promoted himself up the order, and Amit Paunikar. The only time the match has seen periods of calm has been during big partnerships and it was the same on Saturday afternoon, as Kartik and Paunikar looked assured and determined against Bengal's opening bowlers.
Given the ball-change controversy on the third day and the constant jeering from the crowd, Kartik's promotion up the order may have been a surprise, but Railways coach Abhay Sharma insisted it was a purely strategic move.
"I have played with Kartik for a long time and I understand his batting," Sharma said after the day's play. "I know what conditions and what type of bowling suits him, as well as the situations. He likes to take the opposition head on, so it worked for us."
While Paunikar made a measured start, Kartik was keen on taking on the Bengal bowlers, evident in the intent with which he pulled a short ball from Ashok Dinda for four in the fifth over. The pair were not overtly aggressive but capitalised on the chances that came their way. A few overs later, Kartik hit the first of three sixes, a hook off Shib Paul, to bring up the 50-run stand as Railways went to tea at a comfortable 54 for 0.
At the other end, Paunikar executed a few beautiful drives to hold his end up. After tea, Paunikar used his feet well to Saurasish Lahiri and even survived a few close lbw appeals against Paul.
Kartik brought up his fifty with an imperious cover drive and it looked like the Railways were settling down to chase the target comfortably. Then, like so many sessions over the last three days, the match turned in a clutch of overs.
Laxmi Shukla got Kartik lbw for 56 in the 33rd over; Railways were 100 for 1. In Shukla's next over, a brilliant throw from Sourav Sarkar at deep fine leg got rid of Paunikar; Railways 103 for 2 in 35 overs. Shivakant Shukla, pushed down the order to make way for Kartik, then chopped a ball from Ashok Dinda onto his stumps in the 36th over; Railways 103 for 3. The three wickets had the 2000-strong crowd roaring in delight, while just a few overs before many had started trooping out of the stadium - perhaps as much in frustration as with eagerness to watch a Mohun Bagan v East Bengal match at Salt Lake stadium.
Nitin Bhille and Arindam Ghosh safely saw the remaining overs through, before fading light brought play to an end nearly 15 minutes early.
Bengal set Railways their 271-run challenge after Wriddhiman Saha and the side's bowlers ensured the batting did not fizzle out once overnight half-centurion Laxmi Shukla was dismissed.
Shukla was out in the third over of the morning, pulling a ball straight down midwicket's throat after he had unleashed two powerful drives either side of the wicket in moving to 76.
Writtick Chatterjee's stubborn 57-ball 10 helped Saha negotiate the early hour and score an important fifty for the side, his shots through the off side particularly pleasing to watch. Saha was out for 81, and Saurasish Lahiri for 9 before the Dinda cameo began.
Bengal's leading wicket-taker got off the mark with a delicate late cut and tonked Murali Kartik for a six off the next ball. Playing almost in Twenty20 mode, he struck two more big hits off Karn Sharma and Anureet Singh to help push Bengal's total further. Sarkar, Dinda's new-ball partner, also stuck around, making a handy 14 off 27 balls with three fours. Sarkar and Shib Paul, however, were eventually dismissed by Anureet, who picked up his fifth five-for of the tournament. Bengal were out for 267 and Dinda finished unbeaten on 27.
Anureet's performance prompted coach Abhay Sharma to back the bowler's prospects for national selection. "Anureet is the bowler to watch," Sharma said. "I have been working with him for three years and he is shaping up really well."
Rachna Shetty is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo