Gallant Shukla bats Uttar Pradesh into final
Tamil Nadu 445 (Mukund 100, Karthik 72, Vijay 69, Ganapathy 67*, Badrinath 65) drew with Uttar Pradesh 447 for 8 dec (Shukla 178*, Parvinder 138, Balaji 5-114)
Uttar Pradesh progress to the final by virtue of first-innings lead
A monumental effort from Shivakant Shukla, the fourth-longest innings in first-class cricket, took Uttar Pradesh through to their third final in four years on a tense fourth day in Nagpur. Both teams fought hard till the end for the vital first-innings lead. UP were the favourites to knock off the required 193 runs at the start of the final day, but a spirited L Balaji and some careless batting turned the match into an edge-of-the-seat affair. However, Shukla continued unflustered, playing with intense determination to steer his team into the lead with only two wickets in hand.
When Praveen Gupta, the No. 10 batsman, cover-drove Balaji for a boundary in the ninth over of the mandatory last 15, it sparked off manic celebrations in the UP camp. The pent-up tension of the final three hours - when not many moved from their seats - was released. The whole team ran on to the field, and the captains agreed to call off the game.
Shukla had come to bat 87 minutes before stumps on the second day, and struggled his way to dusk. Two days later, he was still there, having batted with focus and guts, cashing in on the chances and half-chances that came his way during his 821-minute stay at the crease. His 178 came off 569 deliveries, but he didn't let the slow scoring bog himself down mentally. He deservedly came back to the dressing room on the shoulders of his team-mates.
Shukla and his partner for five-and-half-hours on Tuesday, Parvinder Singh, started confidently. The pitch was flat, and the attack - but for Balaji - not testing. TN came out with a plan - that of not giving away easy runs, and testing the temperament of the two inexperienced batsmen. In the sixth over of the day Parvinder nudged one to the leg side and brought up his first first-class century, vindication of the talent that had been tried only for 13 games since his debut first-class game in 1999-2000. The fresh bowlers and the little assistance the conditions offered them early in the day had no impact on the two batsmen as their partnership blossomed.
When Balaji was brought back for a second spell, just before lunch, the stand had swollen beyond 250, and UP needed 120 more. The runs had started coming freely too: Parvinder had overtaken Shukla in scoring courtesy a four and a six in the same over off C Suresh. But Balaji finally produced the turnaround, getting a top edge: 462 minutes had elapsed since the last one. Bhuvneshwar Kumar showed the aptitude to hag around with Shukla, and UP went to the break as the favourites.
Post lunch, Balaji got a change of ends, and got one ball to swing from around Bhuvneshwar's pads. The batsman went to flick it, but it straightened enough to take the leading edge and lob to S Vidyut at midwicket. With 110 runs still required, the flashier Piyush Chawla and Praveen Kumar couldn't afford to just throw their bats around. They had no clarity of purpose, and two ordinary shots later, TN were right back in the game. Chawla failed to clear mid-off, placed slightly deeper, off R Ashwin. Praveen, after having hit two streaky boundaries, went for a big hit to the leg side, and it was a formality for one of the three boundary-riders to gobble it up.
Seventy-two runs were still required. Shukla was unbeaten on 141, in desperate need of company. Amir Khan, the wicketkeeper, was just the man to support a rescue act for UP, having done so in previous matches this season against Baroda and Karnataka. Shukla had enough confidence in Amir to not try anything desperate. As the eighth-wicket partnership continued to take UP towards safety, Tamil Nadu went for the third new ball, and with that back to their only weapon: Balaji. With a pulled boundary of C Ganapathy, Shukla reached his 150 minutes before tea. UP needed 41 in the last session, with three wickets in hand.
Forty-one minutes into the final session, Shukla had batted 796 minutes - equalling the incredible effort by Shitanshu Kotak against Mumbai last season. Four minutes later he overtook Len Hutton and Sanath Jayasuriya too. Balaji, who had bowled 50 overs in the innings by then, came off a shorter run after tea, but was still the toughest to negotiate. Just when UP brought the target down to 25, he struck with a peach - a ball that started outside off stump and straightened to take Amir's edge. Out came Praveen Gupta and he survived two close lbw shouts off the first two balls Balaji bowled to him.
Shukla now started to dominate the strike, twice taking a single off the last ball of the over, and once hitting a boundary after the field was brought up. With the target at 17, Gupta got a half-volley from Balaji and he crashed it through the off side for four. He was an equal partner after that. There was more drama still. Shukla edged one off Ashwin with soft hands, but it fell short of gully - the third such instance on the day.
While UP were ecstatic in the end, TN were graceful in defeat. The winning runs came in Balaji's 54th over, but he was a winner - as coach WV Raman put it, he bowled himself into the ground. It was fitting that it took an effort as big as Shukla's to outdo him.
Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo