It was a statement of sorts from Dinesh Karthik. Left out of the Indian squad to play the series against Pakistan on Saturday after a string of indifferent one-day scores, he produced the innings of the tournament to steer India Blues to the Challenger Trophy title. It was the first century of the series and allowed the Blues to be the only team to hunt down a target successfully. A rather lukewarm tournament ended in electric fashion, with Karthik shining brightly under the lights.
The dew finally had an effect on the chase, after three successive games where winning the toss and batting made the difference. India Red shrugged off two mini-collapses to post a healthy 269 but sizzling fifties from Suresh Raina and Niraj Patel provided ideal foils for Karthik's controlled aggression. Conventional drives were interspersed with punchy slog-sweeps in an effort that overshadowed everything that went before. The national spot was gone but it wasn't going to douse Karthik's fire.
Though he began with a crunched four through the covers it was Raina making all the noises at the other end: uncorking champagne strokes with flourish. Raina set the tempo for the chase, ripping cover drives of the highest class and juddering pulls off the back foot. His 45-ball fifty came after the Blues were three down and rattled the Reds in a matter of a few overs.
Karthik soon got into the act. Spin offered him a chance to take full toll and his crackling sweeps set the innings in motion. S Badrinath, trying his part-time offbreaks, was slog-sweeped confidently over midwicket and Pragyan Ojha, the left-arm spinner, was clueless against him.
Raina's dismissal demanded some caution but Niraj proved to be an able ally, milking the bowling with wristy manoeuvres. The India Red bowlers gradually lost rhythm, the heavy dew didn't help, and their attempts at pitching it short were met with meaty pulls. Karthik received a let-off on 42, with the mid-on fielder grassing a tough, high chance, but his 83-ball century, his maiden hundred in domestic one-dayers, was one of his more memorable efforts.
His 168-run stand with Niraj was a Challenger Trophy record for the fifth wicket and the game was headed in only one direction once he brought up his century. Niraj, the left-hand batsman from Gujarat, showed the value of an innings builder in the middle order. His three fours and a six were vital but what really frustrated the Reds was his ability to find the gaps and run hard. It might have been second-fiddle but the target could have proved elusive without his cool.
Another good partnership had set up India Red's innings earlier in the day. Gautam Gambhir and Badrinath rescued India Red from a shaky start before a cool and calculated knock from Mahesh Rawat down the order boosted them.
The Reds needed a sound partnership to bail them out of an early hole. Joginder Sharma nailed two early blows (he could have had three if Ajinkya Rahane had held on to a sharp chance from Mohammad Kaif) and Ranadeb Bose tempted Kaif into a airy drive. Gambhir led the rescue mission, asserting himself from early on. He latched on to anything wide and milked the bowling with minimum fuss.
Giving him company was Badrinath. He couldn't match Gambhir for assuredness but displayed the gumption needed to grind it out on this surface. The outcome was the first century stand of the tournament; ironically between two men competing for the same spot in the national side.
But Amit Mishra, in good form with the ball recently, foxed Gambhir with a quicker one and got Virat Kohli, who chipped a leading edge back to the bowler, off the very next ball. Rawat's street-smart effort pushed the Reds past 250 but Mishra's spell in the middle made the difference eventually. Had Gambhir stayed on the Reds could have well to 300, sealing the contest at the halfway stage itself. Once given the opportunity, Karthik didn't need a second invitation to latch on.