A couple of controlled half-centuries propelled India Red to an imposing total before their bowlers sealed them a spot in the final by wrapping up a bonus point. Gautam Gambhir and S Badrinath, vying for a slot in the national side, allowed the Reds to make amends for a lukewarm batting display last evening and a target of 304 proved more than adequate, with Praveen Kumar ending with 5 for 45.
Not only will India Greens need to beat the Blues tomorrow but also win by a handsome margin. The dew-factor that dominated pre-tournament talk hasn't had much of an effect in the first two games. Bowlers have thrived under lights and made life difficult with change of pace. The spinners too haven't had trouble with the grip; slow bowlers were used for 21 of the 50 overs in the second innings.
The win was set up earlier in the day. While Gambhir held the top order together, wading through a tricky opening spell by Pankaj Singh, Badrinath guided the rest. He manufactured strokes with the field spread out, going on to improvise scoops towards the end, and ran hard throughout his knock. His 85-run stand with Virat Kohli solidified their position but it was the rollicking last five overs, yielding 64, which added gloss to the innings.
Gambhir and Badrinath were the chief architects of the innings but there were a few entertaining cameos as well. Kumar launched the innings by carting 15 off the first over, Karan Goel nudged it around in the middle overs, Kohli lofted the spinners during his 40, and Paresh Patel, the spin-bowling allrounder from Orissa, flayed a 12-ball 22 to boost the total. Mohammad Kaif, the Reds captain, was the only one who struggled to get going but his team-mates will be thankful for his good fortune at the toss.
Munaf Patel was the unfortunate recipient of Kumar's first-over antics and he turned in a largely insipid performance, clocking an average of 125 km/hr and leaking 81 off his ten overs. Pankaj Singh, a tall and strapping 22-year-old who leads Rajasthan's attack in the Ranji Trophy, kept a tight line outside off and moved the ball both ways. Pankaj, didn't allow Kumar the leeway to free his arms and lured him into edging a teasing away-swinger back to Parthiv Patel behind the stumps.
Gambhir chugged along, slashing eagerly and occasionally using his feet against the faster men, and steered the innings with a measured approach. Choosing the right balls to hit and looking for singles against the good ones, his assertive approach allowed the Reds to set up a platform. He was undone by a flighted ball from Piyush Chawla, in a spell that began well but ended poorly. However, Badrinath picked up the baton eagerly.
For the second successive match Kumar made an instant impact with the ball. Like yesterday, he snapped up a wicket off his first over - Yusuf Pathan swinging across the line, only to see his off stump uprooted. His second wicket, though, had nothing to do with a rash shot by the batsman. Cheteshwar Pujara was completely foxed by a good-length ball that angled in but seamed away to rattle the top of off.
Parthiv Patel, the Greens captain, was bogged down in his brief stay, unable to get the ball past the infield, especially with Kohli diving around athletically at point. Rohit Sharma failed to keep down a pull shot, smashing it to Gambhir at square leg, but Tiwary soldiered on with a brand of attacking strokeplay.
Tiwary spanked Trivedi for two consecutive fours in the 23rd over, bludgeoning a pull before whistling a cracking cover drive, but the fall of wickets at the other end forced him to curb his natural style. When he was adjudged caught behind down the leg side, off a rank ball from Kumar, there was no way out for India Greens. Even 241, the target needed to avoid conceding the bonus point, was a bridge too far.