Kaif leads Uttar Pradesh to dominant position

Uttar Pradesh 299 for 3 (Kaif 92, Shukla 71, Raina 61*) v Bengal

Led by Mohammad Kaif, Uttar Pradesh finished the first day of the Ranji Trophy final against Bengal at Lucknow strongly placed on 299 for 3. Kaif's fine innings - plus fifties by Shiva Shukla and Suresh Raina - put UP in a position from which they can now aim to pile on a score that could eventually prove to be decisive.

Though Kaif missed a well-deserved century, his 92 provided the much-needed backbone to UP's innings. Following the dismissal of Praveen Kumar, the makeshift opener, for a dodgy 48 that included many a rash stroke, Kaif arrived at the crease and began in typical businesslike self. Not wanting to lose the solid platform laid down by Kumar and Shukla, Kaif didn't spare the bad deliveries and stole cheeky singles to increase the pressure on the fielders.

At the other end Shukla, highly attentive in the first hour, took off once joined by Kaif. Into the second over after lunch, Shukla freed his arms, stepping out twice against Shibsagar Singh's slow left-arm spin and hitting over the inner circle on both sides of the pitch. Highlights of his innings were the straight drives that sizzled across the turf. Deft placements, proper technique and a calm mind saw him matching Kaif shot-for-shot.

Kaif, meanwhile, grew in confidence once he was dropped on 22 by Manoj Tiwary at first slip off Shib Paul in the second over after lunch. Over the course of the next couple of hours Bengal paid dearly for that reprive as Kaif and Shukla forged a big partnership. Shukla brought up his fifty with an immaculate cover drive off Ranadeb Bose and looked like he was set for a big one. Prior to the final he had played, strangely, in only three of seven games with a solitary hundred against Hyderabad at this same venue. This season UP have used three opening combinations, but this was the first time Kumar and Shukla were paired together. Shukla stayed patient in the critical morning session, while Kumar looked like he was in a real hurry to get somewhere.

Both Kaif and Shukla delt easily with the spin duo of Saurashish Lahiri and Singh and had no trouble stepping out and hitting over the inner circle or pushing into the gaps. A handsome loft over the long-on ropes brought Kaif his half century, which was followed by four more off the backfoot past a diving cover fielder. Unfortunately, Shukla's aspirations of a second century in the season ended when his attempt to loft Singh over mid-off landed safely in Rohan Gavaskar's hands. At this stage UP were 195 for 2, Shukla's contribution being a fine 71.

As for Bengal, their bowlers - barring Paul - bowled well only in spurts while failing to maintain an attacking line. Deep Dasgupta's captaincy burdens increased further with some shoddy close-in fielding from Bengal. Four of the five batsmen who played today enjoyed reprieves. Bose, who had impressed everyone last season with his pace, failed to create any impact with his skiddish deliveries early in the morning and late into the day. As for the spinners, neither Lahiri nor Singh probed the batsmen with flight or variation and most of the time tried to pin them down rather unsuccessfully.

Only Paul, a proven match-winner in the past, really bent his back and harried the batsmen. He engaged in mindgames with them as well - though not fully successful in this endeavour - by chirping at them after his follow-through and after an over was bowled. Even if his 27 overs, spit into four spells, fetched him no earnings, he did manage to build up tension for some time.

With things not exactly going Bengal's way, Paras Mhambrey, the coach, Dasgupta and Paul were seen discussing a way out of the mess. Into just the second over after the tea interval, Raina slashed at a short-pitched one outside off from Paul, but Arindam Das failed to latch on to the offering. At the other end, Singh was bowling outside off to Kaif; trying to negate the line, Kaif, standing outside his usual leg guard, appeared intent to pad up. But Singh had the last laugh when one spun more than Kaif expected and struck his off stump (258 for 3). With Kaif gone and the new ball due, Dasgupta strangely chose not to take the opportunity. Raina, unbeaten on 61, and Rizwan Shamshad, on 18, managed to survive any further setbacks.

At the end of play, Dasgupta said there were no excuses for the dropped catches and that Bengal "really have to work on it, there are no two ways about it". He termed the pitch at the KD Singh Babu Stadium very "difficult" to bowl on, but acknowledged Paul's efforts, saying "Paul has done a wonderful job." Dasgupta appeared unperturbed by UP's score at the end of the first day, maintaining that "on a pitch like this it is a manageable score". However, if his fielders continue to spill chances the way they did, UP could well take the game away from them.