Abhishek Nayar century puts Mumbai in control
Mumbai 329 for 4 (Nayar 111*, Khanvilkar 70, Agarkar 57*) v Delhi
Abhishek Nayar returned to form with an unbeaten, stroke-filled century which put defending champions Mumbai in control against Delhi in first semi-final at the Brabourne Stadium. When Nayar walked in this morning, the hosts were vulnerable at 86 for 3 with the top order - Wasim Jaffer, Sahil Kukreja and Ajinkya Rahane - wasting promising starts. But Nayar started on a bold note, never retreated from his aggressive approach, and cobbled together valuable stands with Onkar Khanvilkar and Ajit Agarkar to help Mumbai go past 300.
Though the Brabourne pitch had a faint shade of green, Jaffer opted to bat. He had already decided to open to see off the danger Ishant Sharma posed with the new ball. A glide between slips and gully brought Mumbai the first boundary of the innings. At the other end, Kukreja lunged forward to punch Ishant through covers. Mumbai were off the block smoothly.
But Jaffer didn't last. He tried to defend a fuller one from Ishant that seemed to be going down leg, but it held its line and the umpire raised his finger. Kukreja and Rahane put their heads down and played the waiting game nicely, till the moment when Kukreja was surprised by a lifting delivery from Parvinder Awana. Trying to tap a length delivery, which had suddenly shot up after pitching, Kukreja edged to Puneet Bisht behind the wickets.
Rahane, Mumbai's best batsman in the last two seasons, was the architect of several rescue acts and without his contributions, including a double century in the league stage, Mumbai would not have got this far . He had already hit sumptuous strokes - a firm push against the left-arm spin of Vikas Mishra accurately through the narrow gap between short cover and mid-off. But with half an hour until lunch, Rahane played across to a fuller delivery from Ishant that hit the seam, beat him for pace, and knocked his off stump back.
Ishant, who had been dropped for the tri-series in Bangladesh, was bowling quicker, hitting the length consistently and making the batsman play. As the teams went to lunch, Delhi's strategy of playing three seamers instead of the second spinner seemed to have paid off.
However, after the break, Nayar and Khanvilkar regained control with a more aggressive approach. In the second over following lunch, Nayar charged part-time offspinner Mithun Mahnas to hit the first six of the match over the sight screen. In the next over, Awana offered width and Nayar dispatched the ball to the point boundary. A couple of overs later, he once again charged Manhas for two more sixes over the bowler's head. He soon brought up his fifty with a single and shook his clenched right fist in delight. It was a more than a celebratory gesture.
Coming into the match, Nayar admitted he had not paid attention to the wrist injury he sustained during the Challenger Trophy last October. He had continued to play and aggravated it, resulting in a weakened wrist which gave no power to his strokes. He managed just one half-century in the previous five games he played during the league phase. But today, he was in no mood to reflect on missed opportunities and instead was busy in strengthening Mumbai's position in the semi-final with Khanvilkar.
Khanvilkar is one youngster the Mumbai think-tank bets on, but it was proving to be a frustrating wait. Khanvilkar, though, played the perfect foil to Nayar today. He rotated the strike, scampered twos and left the big strokes to his partner. In about an hour into the second session, the pair had gained the upper hand as they progressed at a healthy run-rate of 5.00 an over.
Khanvilkar had started with a cover drive against Ishant off his second ball and he later lofted Manhas over long off for a one-bounce four to get to 47. His fifty arrived with a cut off the same bowler but he got lucky when his hard edge against Awana was dropped by a hapless Manhas at first slip.
Khanvilkar was on 57 and Mumbai were 178 for 3. But the 145-run partnership for fourth wicket came to an end abruptly when Khanvilkar tried to defend a floater from Rajat Bhatia, another part-time offspinner. As he tried to ground the ball, his back leg was raised slightly, providing enough time for an alert Bisht to stump him.
Nayar though, did not have to rue anything as he cut Manhas behind square to get to his first century in two years. The last one was against Tamil Nadu in the 2007-08 season, having started off with a cracking hundred in the Irani Trophy prior to that. Today, Nayar's emotional release was understandable: he shrieked in delight and punched the air with his bat and then jumped in excitement. After turning back he acknowledged the Mumbai dressing room for their support and then folded his right arm, specifically the bulging biceps, to indicate his strength. Nayar remained the key for Mumbai and so did Ajit Agarkar, who hit a breezy half-century against tired opponents late in the day.
Meanwhile, Delhi were left pondering whether the decision to play only one specialist spinner, when the part-timers Manhas and Bhatia were successful, was a wise one. Delhi were defensive when Nayar, Khanvilkar and Agarkar used the long handle. It wouldn't be a bad idea for them to play a more attacking game tomorrow in order to prevent the match from completely getting out their grasp.
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at Cricinfo