Gautam Gambhir led the way for India Red with a solid century
India Blue suffered an embarrassing defeat at the hands of India Red, failing by 21 runs to chase down the target of 281 in the opening match of the Challenger Series for the NKP Salve Trophy. A solid score - thanks mainly to 110 from Gautam Gambhir and a half-century from Y Venugopala Rao - followed up by a thoughtful and incisive bowling display from VRV Singh and Murali Kartik sealed the deal for India Red.
It was always going to be a tricky chase - 280 was a good score on a pitch characterised by decent bounce and good carry - but India Blue slipped into a familiar trend, starting well, faltering, and failing to apply themselves in the face of some sensible bowling. The manner in which Sachin Tendulkar began suggested to the 5000-plus crowd at the MA Chidambaram Stadium that 280- might just not be enough. Tendulkar, was in one of those moods, and seemed destined for a big one. He played straight, leaning nicely into drives, punching rather than hammering the ball, but he too was not averse to unfurling the big hit when the bowlers erred in length, as Sreesanth did twice. The first was deftly pulled for six over deep backward square-leg, the second slapped back over the bowler's head even as the little master gave charge.
There was some drama as Sehwag seemed to twist his ankle when turning for a second run, but after much medical assistance, continued, without a runner, but visibly in discomfort. Sehwag should have gone just after, on 27, when he launched into a huge hit towards long-on, and the ball hung in the air for an eternity before it landed in, and popped out, of VRV Singh's hands.
The whole momentum of the innings shifted, though, as Rao brought on the spinners as early as the 11th over. Murali Kartik bowled beautifully, teasing the batsmen, hanging the ball in the air and using the extra bounce in the pitch to defeat the stroke. The runs stopped coming as freely as they had when the fast men were on, but it was a run-out that brought the first breakthrough, as Sehwag was slow to get back for a second, and the direct hit from the deep by Sreesanth from short fine-leg. Sehwag had made 28.
Tendulkar pushed on, past the half-century mark, and it was a bit of clever captaincy, packing the off-side field and bowling a length just a touch short for the drive, that led to his downfall. Tendulkar punched Zaheer towards off, but was well caught by Rao at short cover, and was gone for 61.
Then came the familiar middle-order story. Rahul Dravid missed an incutter that stayed a touch low and was out lbw, and Mahendra Singh Dhoni, after one superb cut for four, flashed outside off and edged to the keeper. VRV Singh had two quick wickets, and India Blue were 110 for 4
Yuvraj Singh and Dinesh Mongia then put up a last-ditch effort that could have saved the day. They were still well within striking distance of the total, but it needed one or both to bat out till the end, and neither was able to do so. After a tight comeback spell from Zaheer, Rao once again tossed the ball to Kartik, and he snuffed out what life remained in the game.
Mongia was the first to fall, teased out by a floating delivery, and his attempted big hit over the on side only got as far as VRV Singh. Yuvraj continued as best as he could, but when the runs became hard to come by, and he started playing the sweep as a get-out-of-jail shot, you sensed that the end might be near. It came when Yuvraj tried to break the shackles by whacking one over the leg side, but could not clear the infield, and was caught by Uthappa at midwicket.
By the time the top was gone, the required rate had crept up sufficiently to take the task past even the ever optimistic whirling blade of Harbhajan Singh. He took his team desperately close, but 21 runs separated the teams when the last wicket fell, quite predictably Harbhajan holing out to midwicket attempting to hit the ball out of the ground.
There are some players who need the biggest stage to thrive, and there are some who are comfortable at a certain middle-run, and succeed at every opportunity. Gambhir and Rao may have struggled at the international level because bowlers have exploited their weaknesses relentlessly, and denied them their favourite scoring shots. In the absence of bowlers of this calibre, though, they thrive, and that was very much the case here.
India's best bowlers were simply not disciplined enough, and a reprieve - Dravid dropped a sitter at second slip when Gambhir was on 8 - was all the Reds needed to capitalise. Gambhir began as shakily as ever, squeezing and slashing runs through gully and third-man, but once he settled, in the company of Rao, who was aggressively looking to keep the scoreboard ticking over, Gambhir unfurled some pleasing shots. Of particular beauty were his two controlled lofts over midwicket off the left-arm spin of Mongia, where he came down the pitch and did not hit, so much as coax the ball to the fence.
Rao, for his part, was industrious and opportunistic, cashing in when the fast men offered width - cutting and square-driving - and when the spinners were too straight, sweeping hard. But Rao holed out to long-off on 67, when he could so easily have had more, and soon after Gambhir ran himself out for 110. But by then, with Rohit Sharma applying the finishing touches before the tail collapsed, India Red had managed to push the score on to a healthy 280. And in the end that proved more than enough.
Robin Uthappa c Patel b Pathan 10 (15 for 1)
Uppercut to third-man and was well caught by Munaf running around on the ropes
S Badrinath c Jadeja b Pathan 15 (44 for 2)
Cut a short one straight to point
Y Venugopala Rao c Mongia b Pathan 67 (189 for 3)
Holed out to long off
Gautam Gambhir run out 110 (227 for 4)
Was short attempting a third
Dinesh Karthik c Harbhajan b Agarkar 11 (244 for 5)
Hit a full-toss straight to long-on
Ramesh Powar b Patel 0 (249 for 6)
Nailed by a yorker
Rohit Sharma c Tendulkar b Patel 33 (266 for 7)
Failed to clear midwicket with an attempted slog
Zaheer Khan c Tendulkar b Agarkar 5 (274 for 8)
Tried to clear cover and was caught by the fielder running back
Murali Kartik c Sehwag b Patel 12 (275 for 9)
Drove to deep extra cover
VRV Singh run out 2 (280 for 10)
Run out trying to steal a second run off the last ball of the innings
Virender Sehwag run out (Sreesanth) 28 (96 for 1)
Found short attempting a second by a direct hit from short fine-leg
Sachin Tendulkar c Rao b Khan 61 (102 for 2)
Punched to short cover
Rahul Dravid lbw b VRV Singh 1 (102 for 3)
Trapped in front by an incutter that kept low
Mahendra Singh Dhoni c Karthik b VRV Singh 6 (110 for 4)
Flashed outside off and edged to the keeper
Dinesh Mongia c VRV Singh b Kartik 26 (189 for 5)
Heaved to on and was caught in the deep
Yuvraj Singh c Uthappa b Kartik 53 (209 for 6)
Tried to clear the infield but found midwicket
Irfan Pathan run out (Kartik) 19 (227 for 7)
Short of the crease attempting a sharp single
Ajit Agarkar c Uthappa b VRV Singh 6 (236 for 9)
Flashed to point but well caught by Uthappa diving to his left
Ravinder Jadeja run out 11 (247 for 9)
Pushed to midwicket and a direct hit was too good
Harbhajan Singh c VRV Singh b Zaheer 15 (259 for 10)
Tried to hit a six and holed out to midwicket
Anand Vasu is assistant editor of Cricinfo