On an enthralling day, Bengal seized the advantage as Tamil Nadu slipped to 188 for 5, still trailing by 157 runs with the last recognised pair of Suresh Kumar and R Ashwin at the crease. One early wicket tomorrow can open up the semi-final spot for Bengal, and Tamil Nadu will hope against hope that Suresh and Ashwin can stretch their stand of 41 to something really substantial. The pitch still holds no demons but the pressure-cooker situation can prove too much to handle for the batsmen.
There were two pivotal moments today that opened up the game for Bengal. The first came on the last ball before tea. Dinesh Karthik pushed the ball close on the offside and set off before pulling out of the run. By the time his partner Abhinav Mukund, Tamil Nadu's leading run-scorer this season, could get back to safety, Rohan Banerjee relayed the throw to the bowler Laxmi Ratan Shukla who broke the stumps. And as the verdict came from the third umpire, Karthik, who had nearly caused Mukund's run-out off the first ball he faced, let out a cry of agony that echoed around the empty stadium. He smashed his bat furiously against his pads as he walked off. Karthik knew that he had nearly derailed Tamil Nadu's Ranji campaign. It was up to him now. And he tried gamely before the second dramatic incident.
On 46 Karthik went for a sweep against the offspinner Ritam Kundu and the ball ballooned to the short fine-leg region where Manoj Tiwary ran to his right before diving full stretch to take a stunning catch. The umpire Hariharan put up his finger even as Karthik seemed to suggest that it hit his arm guard. The replays too seemed to validate his plea though one couldn't be certain that it had not rolled off the gloves. Tamil Nadu slipped to 147 for 5.
Karthik had adopted an attacking approach in trying to turn things around after the Mukund run-out. He started off with a series of late cuts, threw in some classy on-the-up punches through off, hit a flamboyant pull, and flicked a couple through midwicket. But all through his innings you could sense a nervous energy that threatened to explode.
His judgment of singles was imperfect and his shot selection must have raised the blood pressure of his team-mates. His late cuts squirted dangerously between slip and gully. He attempted a reverse-sweep off the first ball he faced from Kundu which luckily for him bobbed only off the pad to short leg and the appeal for a catch was rightly turned down. He again tried another reverse sweep which he connected but then he fell next ball, leaving Suresh, perhaps, with too much to do. Suresh looked pretty solid, picking singles and disposing the loose ones. There was a neat straight drive that caught the eye and he bludgeoned Kundu for a straight six.
The day started off pretty brightly for Tamil Nadu. L Balaji unfurled a lovely slower ball - a back-of-the hand googly - that completely fooled the centurion Tiwary to crash into the stumps. And C Ganapathy ran through the tail to pick up his maiden first-class five-for. Five wickets fell in 25 overs for the addition of 53 runs as the bowlers mixed up the pace very well, bowling quite a few slower ones.
Tamil Nadu would have been confident of overhauling Bengal's 345 but they didn't get off to a good start. M Vijay and S Badrinath, who have been sitting in the Indian squad without much match practice, fell cheaply to raise Bengal's hopes. Vijay chased a short and wide delivery straight to Tiwary at point and Badrinath was trapped in front by the same bowler, Ranadeb Bose. Mukund batted with purpose, playing a few square drives and flicks and looked good for a long innings before being undone by the misunderstanding with Karthik. That in the end, could be the turning point of the game.