Zaheer's all-round show gives Mumbai the advantage
Uttar Pradesh paid for their own fielding errors, and a crucial umpiring one just before stumps as Mumbai gained the upper hand on the second day. After letting Mumbai get past 400 through buttered fingers and then losing two quick wickets, UP started the long journey towards recovery through a circumspect Shivakant Shukla and Mohammad Kaif.
But with 3.4 overs to go Zaheer Khan bowled a superb reverse-swinging delivery, which fooled the batsman and umpire too. It wasn't a real shocker, though: Zaheer bowled from round the stumps, got the ball to straighten, and the bat hit the pad as the ball passed Kaif. There was deviation, there was a sound, and it was a forgiveable error. But it became a crucial decision, in that UP had come back from 6 for 2 to 91 and Mumbai hadn't taken a wicket for 40 overs.
But for that final drama, the second day of the Ranji Trophy final was not one for attractive cricket: first Rohit Sharma edged and nudged his way to 28 more runs, then UP missed catches and run-outs to let the tenth wicket frustrate them, before Shukla and Kaif settled on mere survival after the early blows. Only 196 were scored through the day, and UP played out 24 maidens in their 47 overs.
After the many chances UP had accorded Rohit yesterday, they turned their generosity towards Zaheer and Dhawal Kulkarni today. In all they dropped four catches, and missed one stumping and two run-outs. UP may have had a tough time surviving the middle session, but they should have been batting much earlier.
In the morning, they finally got Rohit's wicket after several indiscretions from the batsman had gone unpunished. Kaif's moves in the field worked too, as Praveen Gupta, the left-arm spinner, struck twice in his second over of the day. But once again, when it seemed the balance in the match would be restored, wicketkeeper Amir Khan dropped No. 11 Kulkarni, and the familiar story continued.
Rohit's was an excruciating innings: he survived many close calls, but still managed the shots of a man in prime form. He edged thrice, and played and missed twice in the first six overs of the day, but finally fell to the spin of Gupta, who was brought on fairly early, when the second new ball was 23 overs old. Rohit leapt out of the crease, ended up too far from the pitch of the ball, and lobbed the heave to point. The next three wickets came quickly, and Mumbai should have been bowled out for 363 but for the reprieve by Amir. Zaheer punished them after that, and got out finally in the first over after lunch. Not before UP had missed another run-out and a catch, and the umpire an edge.
UP's unorthodox field placings had hurt them too, and when their turn to bat came they lost their first two wickets in an unusual manner. Tanmay Srivastava, their highest run-getter this season, looked to leave a wide bouncer from Zaheer Khan, but acted too late and got the toe of the bat almost after the ball had passed him. Suresh Raina, keen to get off the mark first ball, went for a quick single after playing the ball off the back foot towards cover. Raina was slow off the blocks and dived to save himself, but the bat was in the air when Sairaj Bahutule's throw hit the stumps.
Zaheer, assisted by Kulkarni, then gave Shukla and Kaif a stern examination. Scoring was not high on their priority as Zaheer kept them occupied with very existential doubts. The first seven overs yielded just seven runs, and six of them in the first over by Srivastava. In the next, Kaif edged Kulkarni twice, once to fine leg and then between third slip and gully. After those scares, Kaif recovered to strike two cover-driven boundaries off Kulkarni and Agarkar.
Till moments before tea, Mumbai had been all that UP weren't in the field: alert, safe, orthodox and managing direct hits. But four minutes from the break, Ajinkya Rahane missed a sharp chance from Shukla at gully. Shukla was 18 then, and ended the day unbeaten. Zaheer tested him with short ones, and though he looked uncomfortable, he hung on.
When Agarkar came on he finally got an easy scoring opportunity, on-driving for his first four. Once Zaheer and Kulkarni were done with their first spells, batting got easier, but the run-flow didn't increase. Kaif, in particular, went ultra-defensive, although he was solid at that. At one point after tea, he had scored only one run off 38 balls. Shukla, from the other end, continued in much the same flow as his unbeaten 821-minute 178 in the semi-final. Nothing was tempting enough for him, and he looked in no hurry.
The final test came with a four-over spell of high-quality revere-swing from Zaheer, which was also the most exciting part of the day. In this last spell, Zaheer bowled all maidens, came close to getting Shukla, and got Kaif. Just as in the final two years ago, Zaheer promised to be the difference between the winners and runners-up.
Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo