Bengal put in a big-hearted performance in the field in the first session to secure a crucial first-innings lead in their quarter-final against Tamil Nadu at the Chinnaswamy Stadium. Tamil Nadu came back strongly with quick, early wickets, but Bengal - with their openers absent ill - batted long enough to make sure they didn't squander the advantage completely.
Manoj Tiwary provided the inspirational breakthrough with the ball and the Tamil Nadu batsmen also obliged the fielders by playing foolishly. They were left with half an hour less than five sessions to try and reverse the result, but Tiwary and Laxmi Shukla kept their bowlers at bay. Tiwary fell to a sweep off R Ashwin, but Shukla stayed unbeaten at stumps.
All the crucial action, though, was concentrated in the first session, which started with a foolish run-out of Ashwin. Tamil Nadu started the day 157 short, with five wickets in hand, and Ashwin hit a boundary to midwicket to kickstart their pursuit. In the same over though, he flicked one towards midwicket and chose to run the third on the throw. The return came in accurately, first-bounce and right over the stumps, Ashwin proving he was not the fastest runner going around.
A streaky partnership between Suresh Kumar, 40 overnight, and C Ganapathy followed. Unlike the previous batsmen, they didn't let the scoring stagnate for long periods. The partnership did feature a few edged boundaries: three went either wide of slip or past gully. Interspersed with well-timed shots, the stand started taking Tamil Nadu close. The pace bowlers had tired by then, and the new ball was seven overs away.
That was a crucial period of play when Tiwary and Ritam Kundu, the off-break bowler, bowled together. Tiwary produced the magic delivery to break the partnership, sneaking in a topspinner after having ripped a couple of legbreaks. Suresh got a faint inside edge onto the pad, which flew to slip. He scored 75, yet again missing the elusive maiden century and after a 64-run partnership, Tamil Nadu were still 87 short.
The next eight minutes featured extreme panic. Ganapathy stepped out to defend a delivery from Kundu and missed the straighter one, to be stumped by miles. In the next over, L Balaji hit one delivery towards mid-on and Tiwary - trying to field it - ran into non-striker C Suresh, appearing to push him. Tthe batsmen still went for the single, Ashok Dinda hit the middle stump at the striker's end, and Tamil Nadu had lost three wickets at the same score. It felt as if Tamil Nadu allowed Bengal's hustle in the field to push them around.
Balaji proceeded to deal a few hefty blows, which - incredibly - spread the field, and batted throughout with boundary riders. He got good support from P Amarnath, who blocked one end, getting his first run off the 32nd ball he faced. Balaji had scored 41 by then. But whatever Balaji did score came from high-risk shots, and he finally perished, holing out to Shukla, who took a good catch running backwards. Of Tamil Nadu's 306, 210 runs came in boundaries and sixes; in physically running 86 they sacrificed three batsmen. The running, or the lack of it, might yet hurt them badly.
Balaji's extended resistance had some hidden benefit as well: Rohan Bannerjee, Bengal's opener, fell ill during the extra time spent on the field and during lunch threw up and was unavailable to open. The other opener, Arindam Das, already had a bad stomach, and Bengal had to promote Wriddhiman Saha and Avik Chowdhury. Therein lay Tamil Nadu's only chance. Ganapathy got Chowdhury with a bouncer even before Bengal had scored a run, which brought in a determined Tiwary.
Balaji produced a good over to Saha, beating him twice, before finally getting an edge. Tiwary and Shukla batted aggressively, rather than play for time. Tiwary's pace was pushing the lead out of reach when he played one sweep too many, and top-edged Ashwin to short fine leg. Dibyendu Chakrabarty too fell to the sweep, although replays showed the ball had struck him just outside off.
Tamil Nadu got one more chance half an hour before stumps, when Kundu pulled Ashwin straight to Amarnath at fine leg, but the fielder failed to sight the ball because of the sun. Kundu had scored four then, and Bengal were only 153 ahead. Shukla took the responsibility, not getting bogged down either, ending the day at 43 and buying some time for the openers to recover.
When they got Balaji's wicket half an hour after lunch, Bengal fielders celebrated mildly. But by stumps they had by no means put it across Tamil Nadu. Either which way the match goes tomorrow big celebrations are expected.