Bhuvneshwar and Rohit star on opening day
Bhuvneshwar Kumar worked against his luck, his captain, and the fielders to help Uttar Pradesh end a see-saw first day of the Ranji Trophy final on even terms. In the morning session he stole the thunder from much more illustrious names and in-form players. And after Rohit Sharma and Abhishek Nayar had added an extremely streaky 207, he took two wickets in two balls with the second new ball. He also consigned Sachin Tendulkar to his first first-class duck in Indian domestic cricket.
After Mumbai had been reduced to 55 for 4, Rohit Sharma lived a charmed life: he looked like getting out almost every over to begin with, but also hit charming boundaries in between to rub it in for Mohammad Kaif, who dropped him twice. Kaif's field placings confounded too: he saw, from a wide slip position, two edges go to where the regulation first slip would be.
Rohit and Nayar rode their luck - and they had more than a fair share of it - to stall UP's charge. By no means will Rohit consider his fourth first-class century as the most aesthetically pleasing one, but at the end of the day the scoreboard showed he was unbeaten on 113 in a big match. Nayar was his usual combative self, and reined in his natural aggressive instinct to hang around for long enough.
The final began with the question of how UP would counter Tendulkar. But in the first session, Mumbai were asking themselves how to tackle the seam movement UP bowlers were getting with the new ball. After winning the toss on a greenish pitch, Kaif went straight to his strength - the pace bowlers. Early breakthroughs were seen as the only way UP could threaten a solid Mumbai team, who have looked unbeatable all season. The Kumars, Praveen and Bhuvneshwar, gave UP just that kind of start. They got the ball to move both ways and did not give the batsmen any free deliveries to leave. It was a bold move to give Bhuvneshwar the new ball ahead of RP Singh, but it worked wonderfully.
Bhuvneshwar provided UP the first breakthrough, bowling a series of outswingers before getting one to nip in to trap Wasim Jaffer and Vinayak Samant fell to a similar delivery. It was a major boost for UP to bring Tendulkar out in the first session of the game, but before Tendulkar, Mumbai lost Ajinkya Rahane, who got a shocker from the umpire - the delivery from RP pitched outside leg.
Losing Jaffer and Rahane was a massive blow, but the big shock was yet to come. Tendulkar had been solid in leaving balls outside off, but in the 10th over of Bhuvneshwar's first spell, one cut back in, took the inside-edge onto the pad, and Shivakant Shukla ran in and dived from short midwicket to stun Mumbai.
And then the cat-like partnership between Rohit and Nayar started - in that they had nine lives many times over. Rohit played streaky shots regularly, struggling against short-pitch bowling at around 125ks, and the two ran scratchily as well. There were two clear chances at slip and one direct-hit run-out opportunity in the first half of his innings. Rohit was 16 when he slashed hard at Praveen, and Kaif couldn't hold on to a tough chance at first slip. The second catch, in the afternoon session, off RP was a sitter. Rohit was 39 then. Apart from these opportunities, there were many instances of edges falling short of slip, and going between the wicketkeeper and slip, including one regulation edge off Bhuvneshwar ten minutes before tea. An action replay occurred about ten minutes after the break.
Nayar was troubled by Piyush Chawla. In his first over, Chawla should have had Nayar lbw, but was denied by the umpire. The ball had pitched within the stumps, straightened, and hit Nayar calf-high in front of middle stump. When Nayar tried to hit himself out of the shackles, he managed to clear mid-on by inches.
Upon reaching their fifties, the two batsmen loosened their arms a bit. Rohit especially stood on the accelerator. He had reached his half-century in 120 deliveries, but his next 38 runs came off 39 deliveries. Despite all the ungainly shots, Rohit also played gorgeous drives, leaving watchers wondering why a batsman as talented as him had to go for ugly slog-sweeps, heaves and aerial cut shots. None was better than when he just met an RP delivery and the ball flew straight down and along the ground.
A nervous period followed, during which Rohit scored six runs in 25 deliveries. Another onslaught upon reaching the century looked imminent, but Bhuvneshwar had a last trick left in his bag. The first ball he bowled with the new ball was a perfect outswinger: pitching around middle and leg, moving in to Nayar, and beating him. Sairaj Bahutule who spent close to two sessions with his pads on lasted only one ball, as he edged an away-going delivery. Ajit Agarkar survived the hat-trick, and added 35 with Rohit to ensure there was no further damage.
On paper 297 for 6 reads like a good effort, but UP will know they could have been in a much better position. They ended the day with another missed run-out opportunity when both Rohit and Agarkar were headed towards the same end, Parvinder Singh dived in front of RP, and both missed the ball.
Kaif will be wondering if he has dropped the Ranji Trophy - twice - and the memories of last year's final would have come back. Then they had Delhi down at 36 for 4, before a big fifth-wicket partnership had undone them.
Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo